CLEVELAND - Young voices fill the unusually quiet Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on a sunny morning.
The 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds flock into the hall's cavernous main floor, where cars from U2's Zoo TV tour and Phish's giant hot dog dangle high overhead. These children don't know Little Richard from Bo Diddley - not yet.
The house that rock built devotes a lot of attention to honoring the Beatles, the Doors, and other legendary artists. Its Toddler Rock program helps fulfill an educational mission that, like a steady bass line, is felt but often goes unnoticed. The award-winning program, which started in 1999, gives inner city children lessons in music and literacy in an environment that they otherwise wouldn't experience.
Ruthie Brown, the program's creator, knew it was working when she heard about a child who said, "That's my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" one day while passing the building.
"They felt a part of it," Brown says. "That's one of the first requirements for self-esteem."
The 160 preschoolers spill out of their buses and have the building all to themselves before it opens to the public. They split into groups, and one gaggle makes its way to the rock architects room, where guitars played by John Fogerty and Slash hang on the wall. The children sit cross-legged in a circle, some fidgeting with ID badges around their necks.
They're oblivious to the nearby urn containing the ashes of disc jockey Alan Freed, who first used the term rock 'n' roll. The children happily sing a song with music therapist Deforia Lane, learning to say hello in different languages.
Then Lane pulls out a photo of Billy Joel and the kids shout out his name like he's Barney or SpongeBob. Joel was part of the week's lesson when they were learning about the letter "J."
"He plays the . . . PIANO! and he likes to . . . SING!" the children shout, finishing Lane's sentences.
Lane, who developed the program, has a simple explanation for why tots and rock mix.
"Music is like popcorn. You can't eat just one," says Lane, who is director of music therapy at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. "It's one of those inherent, rhythmic, melodic touchstones in our lives that we can't avoid."
Her group has moved on to the letter "K" this day, and the kids are introduced to the music of B.B. King. Lane sings, "I love the letter K. It sounds like Ka, Ka, Ka."
"A child will sing A-B-C-D-E-F-G long before they learn to recite the alphabet," she says. "If we can use that concept of rhythm and melody in learning other skills, that's what we try to do as music therapists to instill some of the pre-literacy skills that we're working on."
Two floors up, children are gathered around music therapist Ed Gallagher in a room currently dedicated to an exhibit of the Beatles' "Help!"
Gallagher plays a recording of Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City" and the kids click blue and red sticks in time to the beat as Harrison sings, "I'm going to Kansas City/ Kansas City here I come."
Then Gallagher starts strumming his acoustic guitar and the children jump up and down in a blur of frenzied motion to Chubby Checker's "Twist."
Four-year-old Le'Ana Christian says Gallagher's guitar playing was cool and describes what she likes best about Toddler Rock. "I like to do letters," she says quietly.
Letter recognition, rhyming, and alliteration - all crucial to developing reading skills - are important parts of the three 10-week programs, which wrap up for the season tomorrow. So are the development of social skills and self-esteem. "Once they feel they belong it makes learning much easier. They have no idea they're getting literacy or music theory," says Brown, the Hall of Fame's director of community programs.