Good Life

'She just has a gift:' Kathy DiMuccio has special way of incorporating music with play for local children

Outside the Houserville United Methodist Church, a bitter wind whips across the parking lot, chilling everything in its path.

Inside, it's a different story. Miss Kathy's warm greetings could melt a snowman.

"Hello everybody, so glad to see you," Kathy DiMuccio, strumming her seasoned Guild acoustic guitar, sings to the toddlers and mothers sitting in a circle for their Music Together class.

She chimes an individual salutation to each of the seven children and their younger siblings, some in carriers, and then to "all the mommies." It echoes an earlier exchange with an arriving mother.

"I missed you last week," Miss Kathy says, grinning.

"We had a snow day with Daddy."

"Well, I'm glad you're back."

With Music Together, a nationwide early childhood music and movement development program, DiMuccio has been in her element since she became the director of the local franchise nine years ago.

She's a lifelong musician, having grown up in State College singing in the Phyrst Phamly band in her family business, the downtown Phyrst pub, before performing as a solo folk singer in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

She's a passionate teacher with an individual and family studies degree and years of experience teaching preschool music.

And with two daughters at Penn State, she's a mother who adores children.

"It's a perfect job for me," DiMuccio said. "There couldn't be anything more matched to my personality than this."

Her class persona, Miss Kathy, exudes her blend of musicianship and cheer, following her maxim that good teaching is one-third preparation with theater comprising the rest.

For one song, a chant about a slow garden snail and a nimble mouse, she mimes the actions of each. For another about noses and toes, she comically pretends to sneeze. She waves scarves, joins instrument time with some tambourine shaking, skips along, imitates animals, makes faces - anything to engage little ears and eyes and instill a love of music.

Frequently, she sings in a dulcet voice that has crooned both Irish ballads and swing tunes professionally.

"I got the rhythm. Show me. I got the rhythm," she says to children twirling to a samba-tinged "Everybody Loves Saturday Night."

She jumps into the chorus.

"Everybody, everybody, everybody loves Saturday night. Arriba."

It's not an act.

"I think it's really me," she said. "Do I turn on Miss Kathy when I come here? I do.

"But it's not like I lose her when I walk out the door. It's part of my soul."

Phyrst Phamly member

Family concerts cured her of stage fright early on.

Her father, Ernie Oelbermann, owned the Phyrst for 32 years, leading the Phyrst Phamly band and its popular sing-alongs. DiMuccio and her two older sisters, Sue and Peggy, naturally joined the performances.

They turned DiMuccio into a singer.

"I was always pretty shy," she said. "I was very scared when I started with the Phyrst Phamly."

Those days were far behind her when she graduated from Penn State in 1979 and left town for Washington.

Finding work as a computer technician, she started doing solo gigs at area watering holes such as Murphy's Irish Pub and The Old Brogue. She and her guitar belted out some Celtic tunes but mostly 1960s folk: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the like.

In 1983, she and a housemate picked up and moved to San Francisco.

"I just wanted a new chapter in my life, and I thought that would be a good experience," she said.

Her stay turned out as she hoped. For three years, she commuted to a computer job in the suburbs and played regular shows at a seaside restaurant south of the city. She explored neighborhoods and took up photography.

"I see that time in my life as a chance to grow inside," she said.

But after a while, she grew homesick. An entire country was too much separation from her family, and she returned to Washington and her old gigs.

Then a new one came along — marriage.

Her mother called to inform her that the Phyrst Phamly had a new bass player, a Penn State employee named Fred DiMuccio. And he was single. While in town for a wedding rehearsal, she met him at the bar.

"There was an immediate connection," she said.

In 1990, after about 18 months of courtship, they wed and she moved again.

"I was coming back to my hometown, which I never thought I would," she said.

On to motherhood

Motherhood replaced music.

DiMuccio set aside performing to raise her daughters, though she occasionally sat in with the Phamly on banjo, pulling off the trick while expecting her first.

She left her Penn State computing job to manage local business payrolls from home at night, but the rest of her time was devoted to her girls.

"I was able to be with them all day," she said. "I wouldn't trade those years for anything."

But after they went to school, DiMuccio found herself with more free time.

She started a YMCA toddler music program, which eventually drew the attention of one woman.

Brenda Iacocca, the local Music Together instructor, was moving. She suggested DiMuccio take over her program about 10 years ago.

DiMuccio checked it out.

She liked the traditional song selections and the class activities. The emphasis on actively involving parents and caregivers in the teaching intrigued her. So she went to Princeton, N.J., for Music Together training, where she discovered she had the goods the company wanted.

"They just make sure you can sing well," she said.

"They're looking for passionate people. They're looking for theatrical people."

Parents appreciate her flair for making music fun and appealing to small children.

"She just knows what can kind of hook them to keep them interested," said Alyson Miller, of State College, who has been taking her 2-year-old son, Dylan, since he was about 8 months. "She can get on their level and connect with them."

Miller particularly admires how DiMuccio makes a point to mention every child's name in class "so they feel she's there for them."

"It's a really positive place to go," she said. "It's something you can look forward to."

Kate Woodruff, of Lemont, has gone with her 2-year-old daughter since last fall. Ellen, she said, loves Miss Kathy and her class.

"It's been a great place for her to be social with other kids," Woodruff said. "She just loves music, and Miss Kathy is so good at incorporating the rhythms and music with play, so going to class is one of the highlights of the week."

Woodruff said DiMuccio, a "kind, warm, loving woman," excels at interacting with preschoolers and bringing out the best in them.

"She really loves the children," Woodruff said. "And children know when they're loved. ... She just has a gift."

Creating community

Woodruff likes another side to DiMuccio's approach: the camaraderie among parents.

Among the several friends from the class, she counts DiMuccio, who sent her a card after her twins were born.

"She has really made a nice community," Woodruff said.

That was DiMuccio's goal from the start.

"Music Together for me is about a lot more than music," she said. "It is about facilitating a class where music, love and activity come together to form your child's first exposure to music so they may begin to build a lifetime love of it."

She considers herself lucky - to have a talented singer, René Oakman, teach weekend classes; to have churches provide instructional space; to have had life deliver the chance to sing silly songs for appreciative audiences.

"The babies on the bus go wah, wah, wah," she warbles, getting big laughs.

"Old McDonald Had a Farm" follows, and then it's time to wind things down.

Out come polka-dotted teddy bears for some snuggling to a soothing lullaby.

Then Miss Kathy pulls out her guitar again.

"I'll see you soon my friends," she says, seconds from singing each child's name. "Goodbye, so long, farewell."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.