No one who knew Susan Darrow growing up could have predicted her later career in music. Her mother died young and she was raised listening to the off-key singing of her father, a pharmacist.

“My father was an absolutely terrible singer. He literally could not match a pitch. He was the worst singer,” she says. “But he loved music, and he loved to sing. I grew up with songs that were melodically horrible, but he did it with such passion, and he really loved it.”

Today Darrow is not only a trained music instructor, but has become CEO of Music Together, an early childhood music education program that encourages parents to make music with toddlers. The company, based on Pennington-Hopewell Road, was founded in 1987 by Kenneth Guilmartin, who last month announced Darrow as his successor.

That Darrow’s first experience with music was her father singing badly may not seem ideal, but it’s actually the perfect embodiment of the Music Together philosophy. “I didn’t learn my skills from my father. I learned loving music,” Darrow explains. “I got the message very early in life that music is something everybody does. It’s not just reserved for the professionals, or for people who do it well. I feel like I was born to do this.”

In Music Together classes, parents with children in tow, aged from infants up to five, get together in classes of about a dozen children. A teacher plays music, and the kids and parents sing, dance, and move their hands. “It’s like a musical picnic,” Guilmartin says. “It’s definitely not a lesson. It’s a kind of informal music-making experience.”

Music Together classes are taught by instructors who are independent operators licensed to use the sheet music, recordings, and other materials developed by Guilmartin and his research partner, Lili M. Levinowitz. The classes are based on research by Levinowitz, a Temple professor of early childhood education, that showed children learned basic musicality such as singing in tune and moving to a rhythm, not by formal training, but by making music together with their caregivers (usually the parents, even if they can’t carry a tune).

Guilmartin says the program is now taught at 2,500 locations in 40 countries and is rapidly expanding in foreign countries. Darrow recently returned from Beijing, where she was training a group of teachers. It is a growing business empire, and Guilmartin built it all without the aid of any formal education in business.

In a strange way, the company can trace its origins back to the song “Happy Birthday.”

The commonly accepted story goes that some time in the mid-1800s, Kentucky sisters Patty and Mildred Hill created the melody that is now “Happy Birthday.” Patty, a kindergarten principal, and Mildred, a composer and pianist, created the simple tune “Good morning to all” to sing to the children at various points in the day. One version would go “Good morning to all, good morning to all, good morning, dear children, good morning to all.” The teacher was supposed to use different variants of the song throughout the day for different occasions, such as “Good afternoon.” At some point, which is now obscured to history, the variant “Happy birthday” was sung. The sisters published the tune in an 1893 songbook without the “Happy birthday” lyrics.

Around the turn of the century, the popularity of “Happy Birthday” exploded and people began singing it at birthday parties and using it in movies and on the radio. In 1934 the Summy Company, working with a third sister, Jessica Hill, sued for copyright on the song and published it via the Clayton F. Summy Company in Chicago. In the late 1930s, a New York accountant named John F. Sengstack, looking for a retirement project, bought the Summy Company, moved it to New Jersey, and renamed it Summy-Birchtree. “Happy Birthday” royalties proved to be a reliable cash cow for the company.

Sengstack was Guilmartin’s grandfather.

Guilmartin was born in 1946 in Manhattan and moved to New Jersey at around two, and by eight was living in the Princeton area with his mother, a psychiatric social worker, and his father, an attorney. Joan Guilmartin and James Guilmartin soon divorced, and his father moved to Miami, where he became a well known district attorney in the 1950s and 1960s. Joan made a name for herself working with New Jersey schools, especially in Newark, and had a private practice in Princeton.

Neither parent was musically gifted. “My mother loved jazz and liked to dance, but hated singing,” he recalls. “‘I hate singing,’ she used to go around saying.” His grandmother could sing, “like an opera star” and could play the piano very well, Guilmartin recalls, but neither he nor his mother liked her impromptu performances.

“My mother had no interest in the family business, being a rabble rousing social worker,” Guilmartin recalls. “Growing up with those sorts of values, it took me a long time to get into actually having music lessons.” The adults around Guilmartin considered him tone-deaf. His kindergarten teacher, whom he remembers as a kind woman, asked him to mouth the words to the songs in the school’s musical production while the other children sang.

Looking back on it, Guilmartin wonders if he could have been a better musician if his early music education had been better. “My kindergarten teacher was a wonderful teacher,” he says. “But the system and the culture were asking for her to stop being an educator during the school production and become a producer. When teachers start applying performance standards to music development, especially at these young ages, it’s not developmentally appropriate.”

This lesson stuck with Guilmartin, and he later incorporated it into the philosophy of Music Together.

Despite Guilmartin’s apparent lack of talent, the family business was in music, and Guilmartin was eventually drawn into it. His uncle, David Sengstack, took over Birchtree when he returned from the Korean War. By that time, the company published a great deal of music education books, including the widely used Frances Clark piano method series. (Clark was also based in the Princeton area.)

Discouraged from trying anything with a melody by people who told him he was “tone-deaf,” Guilmartin pursued drums instead. When he finally did decide to take piano lessons as a teenager, he had the best available resources to do so, and was taught by Frances Clark herself. Fascinated by mechanics and science, Guilmartin entered Swarthmore intending to study chemistry. But in 1960s Swarthmore, Guilmartin got immersed in the music scene and off the science track.

He helped organize one of the East Coast’s first rock and roll festivals and in 1966, he started played the organ in a Montreal blues band called the Sidetrack. “We were a bunch of white boys playing the blues,” he recalls. The band opened for Jefferson Airplane and was the house band at the legendary Greenwich club, Cafe au GoGo. Guilmartin recalls once sharing the stage with BB King.

However, the band proved a sidetrack in Guilmartin’s career. His other love at the time was theater, and Guilmartin directed and acted in plays while at Swarthmore. After Sidetrack broke up, Guilmartin completed his degree in English literature and then got a job arranging music for Joe Papp’s Public Theater, another counter-cultural institution of the era.

Despite his ties to the hippie movement, Guilmartin was too focused on his work to truly turn on, tune in, and drop out. “I had long hair and a beard and a ponytail, but in fact, I was not that much into the drug scene,” he says.

“I was definitely politically current, let’s say, but somehow, even though I was at a very activist school, I never really was a part of any demonstrations. I wasn’t that much of a hippie, I guess, except in my heart.”

Guilmartin’s gig at the Public Theater led to other off-Broadway and regional theater arranging jobs. Around that time, when he was in his early 30s, Guilmartin says he decided to improve his formal skills as a composer, and went to the Manhattan School of Music, where he learned the Dalcroze eurythmics method of music and movement education.

He also began to talk with his uncle, the owner of Birchtree, about different methods of music instruction. David Sengstack had just brought the Suzuki method of violin teaching over from Japan, which was a method of violin instruction that began at three years of age. Sengstack was interested in what happened to the children from age zero to three, before they started the Suzuki course. Guilmartin, who had married his college sweetheart, had just become a father, so he was also interested in the subject. While living in Montclair, he taught at the parent-owned and operated Montclair Cooperative School, where he came to appreciate the role of parents in early childhood education.

In the early 1980s, Sengstack, using the Happy Birthday royalties, sponsored Guilmartin to travel around the country attending education conferences to study how music could be taught to young children. It was at one of those conferences that Guilmartin met researcher Edwin Gordon and his doctoral student, Lily Levinowitz, who were studying music and very young children.

“We hit it off,” Guilmartin recalls. In 1985 Guilmartin founded the Center for Music and Young Children with the goal of creating a class for children where parents would be present in the classroom. He brought Levinowitz on as an editor in 1986. By the next year they began pilot classes, and decided to go public as the Music and Movement Center of Princeton. The first classes were held in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, near Levinowitz’s home.

A year later, Music Together moved to the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton, and in 1989 the organization had moved into the Music and Movement Center on Nassau Street opposite a ballet studio. That same year Sengstack sold his company to Warner Brothers, and the Happy Birthday money ceased to support Music Together.

“I was on my own,” Guilmartin recalls. “It was like being in a startup company. I went through all the classic startup experiences. There was not enough money to do everything I wanted to do. I was making decisions like, could I afford another copier, or not?” Sometimes the answer was “not,” and Guilmartin ended up printing materials for his company at Kinko’s.

The classes in Princeton caught on, however, and soon Guilmartin was trying to figure out how to expand the business to other towns. By the early 1990s the company had licensed six or seven other Music Together teachers, one of whom was Darrow, who was teaching classes in Montclair. With no other companies doing the same thing, there was plenty of room to grow.

“The numbers were small, and the world was big,” Guilmartin says. “I was not thinking about it like a venture capitalist. It was organic growth.” Guilmartin says he did not view his company as just a money-making venture. “I was a composer and educator in that order,” he says. “We were a research-based program, and we were interested in early childhood education.” Guilmartin has written many of the 200 songs used in Music Together programs.

Nonetheless, Guilmartin was a lifelong entrepreneur, going back to when he mowed lawns as a teenager. While living in the East Village, Guilmartin had owned and renovated some co-op apartments, which he rented out for extra income. His entrepreneurial instincts served him well in leading Music Together, and he says the company has never had any major financial problems. It stopped expanding during economic downturns, but has continued to expand organically when the economy was better.

The company’s current headquarters on Hopewell-Pennington Road, renovated in 2006, is a reflection of Guilmartin’s other interests. The 15,000-square-foot building boasts innovative renewable architecture, including geothermal and solar energy to minimize its environmental footprint.

One of the key staff members along the way was Darrow, an early adopter of the program. Darrow’s Music Together outfit became a large center with 12 teachers and about 500 families. Guilmartin brought her into the company to become a trainer of other teachers, and eventually put her in charge of all teacher training.

Darrow “really got what we were doing,” she says. “She is a natural leader and a wonderful person with lots of energy and enthusiasm for what we do. Many people in the organization look up to her already.”

Darrow was a theater major at Penn State. She had children after attempting to become an actress after college. She returned to school to study child development, and then taught parenting classes. When she discovered Music Together, she says it was a perfect blend of her interest in education and in music. She sold her center in 2007 to work at the company’s headquarters full time.

Darrow also lacks formal business training. “The mission of the company is education, so it makes sense the leader of the company is somebody grounded in education as opposed to a traditional MBA,” she says.

Darrow said Guilmartin’s knack for business should not be underestimated, and credited him with inventing the business model of the company, though his concerns were always different from what a traditional businessman would be thinking about. “For him it was always about the education as opposed to making money,” she says. “It was never about, how do we make more money?’ It was about, How do we reach more families?”

Darrow recalls an incident where a Music Together teacher was getting bad feedback from parents. “We were at the headquarters and parents were sending us notes about how the classes were not good. I was concerned that Music Together was going to get a bad reputation because this one teacher was not doing a good job, and I had a conversation with Ken about it.” Darrow wanted to take away the teacher’s license, but Ken disagreed. Instead, he had her come to the Music Together headquarters for a few days of extra training.

“I was just dumbfounded,” Darrow recalls. “I could not believe what a different perspective that was. I was ready to kick her out because she was not cutting it, but Ken was thinking, ‘how can we help her?’ instead of ‘how can we punish her?’ When she actually did get more training, she ended up being a much better teacher as a result. Ken had the foresight and the humility to ask the question, how can we help her? That’s just one example of his integrity.”

“Frankly, I have learned more about being a person from Ken than about being a music teacher.”

Guilmartin is remaining editor-in-chief of the company’s materials while letting Darrow take charge of the business as CEO. Darrow plans to continue the company’s overseas expansion in the coming years and focus on markets that have been untapped by Music Together classes. In places like Tokyo and Beijing, Music Together is proving popular with parents who want their children to learn music as well as expose them to English early on. It doesn’t seem to matter that most of the parents don’t speak a word of the language their kids are singing in. (The classes include a fair amount of Spanish and phonetic songs as well.)

The other area ripe for expansion is schools. Darrow is leading a push to market the program for preschools, to have the teachers integrate singing into lessons about math and colors. “Music supports all learning,” Darrow says.

Darrow and Guilmartin believe parents and children making music together is even more important in the era of smartphone technology, when music is more and more a passive listening experience rather than an active one. “More and more, children are faced with screens and headphones; with technology that allows parents and children to disconnect from each other and from relationships. We provide the antidote.”

Both Darrow and Guilmartin have practiced what they preached when it came to encouraging musicality in their own children.

Guilmartin, married to Lyn Ransom, the founder of Voices Chorale, says his daughter Lauren began to “play with playing the piano” at age three because she noticed her father doing it and naturally imitated him.

Guilmartin says that although he was tutoring piano students at the time, he held back from giving Lauren any formal instruction until she specifically asked him for it. Lauren has continued her interest in music throughout her life, although she never became a performer, and she currently serves as director of early learning for Music Together.

Darrow says her two sons grew up immersed in music as if it were another language. “When they were very young, singing and dancing were completely integrated into our daily lives — both my husband and I played guitar and sang, so a typical evening at my house was sitting around singing and harmonizing while the boys danced in the living room.” The family didn’t have a television until the older son was 9. Today, both have pursued musical careers. David, the eldest, is a professional singer and actor and Adam is a musician in Nashville.

Darrow believes the company will help other parents and children sing together well into the future.

“It’s an exciting time to be part of Music Together,” she says. “I’m very optimistic about the future.”

Music Together, 225 Hopewell-Pennington Road, Hopewell 08525; 609-430-0341; Susan Darrow, CEO. www.musictogether.com.

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