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by David A. Tyler
As a parent, you’ve heard it before: classical music is good for kids. You may like it as well, but you’ve never played an instrument in your life and have no idea where to start when it comes to exposing your children to the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
Thanks to modern technology, classical music can easily be researched online and downloaded right onto your home computer or MP3. Nearly all local orchestras or opera companies have concerts and resources specifically for kids. Classical music may intimidate parents, but conductors, performers and educators welcome families with open arms.
“You do not have to feel you need to be an expert before you share it with your child,” says Jessica Schmidt, director of education and community engagement at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
Consider these five steps to take to get your kids interested:
“Let the music be real in your house and in your life,” says Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s youth and family conductor, “so it is real in your conversation, as opposed to ‘I’ve got to check this off my list of how to turn my kids into classical music lovers.’ It has to be as natural and genuine as possible.”
“As with anything, the parent or guardian should show excitement. That will rub off on the kids,” says Schmidt.
In fact, parental involvement is critical. “Children who are given the right environment, nurturing and instruction will grow up to be musical,” writes Robert A. Cutietta, dean of the University of California’s Thornton School of Music and a nationally known music educator, in his 2001 book Raising Musical Kids. “What is most important to realize is that you, the parent, may be the single most influential person in your child’s development as a musician.”
Your enthusiasm and involvement can take many forms. When playing classical music at home, a parent can clap to the rhythm of the music, march around the room or dance, according to Cutietta.
When you listen to music with your kids, Schmidt suggests asking them questions like, “Did you like the music?”, “How did it make you feel?” and “Did it suggest any stories to you?”
Experts recommend that parents start playing recordings of classical music just after their babies are born. “Even 6-month-old babies, when you sing to them – they start dancing to the beat,” notes pediatrician Lisa Wong, M.D., past president of and a violinist in Boston’s Longwood Symphony Orchestra.
One of the best introductions, she says, is a series of CDs, called Classical Kids, about famous composers becoming involved in a child’s life. The recorded stories are fictional, interspersed with actual works by each composer.
Stories are an important way for kids to connect with classical music, especially opera. “I would emphasize how opera has so many ways to get into it,” says Ruth Knott, director of education for the San Francisco Opera. “It can be the stories, it can be music, it can be the visual arts,” she says. “For me, opera is always based on a story. There are characters you can learn about and think about, and really delve into a story.”
Opera combines “classical music, acting, dancing,” says Nathan Troup, stage director with the opera and vocal studies faculty at The Boston Conservatory. “It is really this amazing amalgamation of many things. I think, developmentally, it is so multilayered, and it cuts across so many disciplines,” that children really benefit from listening to it.
Download or purchase different classical music recordings and talk about them together.
Attend a local concert together as a family. Watching a live performance is one of the most exciting ways to introduce kids to classical music. A live concert is also a way for kids to see how a community comes together around a shared goal.
“The orchestra is a great demonstration of 80 or 90 people working together as a community,” Wilkins says. “None of the instruments sound the same. They have to figure out a way to work together for this incredible product to come to fruition.”
The idea that listening to or playing classical music has a concrete impact on child development has been controversial since 1993, when a study demonstrated that college students who listened to a Mozart piano sonata temporarily improved their spatial reasoning IQ scores. The study spawned a trend known as the Mozart Effect, which suggested that listening to classical music makes you smarter.
Wong acknowledges that the Mozart Effect oversimplified the benefits of classical music, but, she says, it has helped bring attention to legitimate research. “While listening to music is beneficial, there are multiple studies now showing that actually playing an instrument actually changes the structure of the brain,” she says.
Music training in childhood does improve cognitive function, according to research by Ellen Winner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Winner and Schlaug followed 59 children ages 9-11, 41 of whom began regular music training at the beginning of the study, according to the Dana Foundation, which co-sponsored the research and reported on the findings in 2009. The researchers tested all of the children to see if musical training impacted skills such as fine motor control and sound discrimination. Brain scans of the kids revealed stronger connections in auditory and motor areas of the brain in students who took 15 months of training, compared with kids who received no musical training.
At the time, Schlaug called the research, “the first study to show brain plasticity in young children as a function of instrumental music instruction.”
Beyond brain development, however, classical music has broader benefits. “Music is a universal language – it stands the test of time,” says Wong.
Robert Cutietta believes simply that studying classical music makes children more well-rounded. “We want children to study music to develop their musicality and develop all the mental capacities we were born with,” he writes in Raising Musical Kids. “When one area of intelligence is developed, all areas are enhanced.”
David A. Tyler is a freelance writer and father in Maine.
The Bay Area is home to numerous symphonies and classical music venues, many of which offer concerts geared specifically for families and children. Check out our print calendar section each month beginning on page 51 or our online calendar at BayAreaParent.com to find many upcoming performances. Here are just some concerts that your little music lover is bound to enjoy.
Introduce your children to classical music by watching and hearing other young people perform. The California Youth Symphony (www.cys.org) has two holiday concerts coming up. Catch the string and wind ensemble holiday concert on Dec. 2 at Santa Clara University or the orchestra and associate orchestra in performance on Dec. 9 at Foothill College.
The San Francisco Symphony (www.sfsymphony.org) sponsors a number of concerts specifically for families and kids. The family concerts are recommended for children ages 7 and older. The Día de Los Muertos Community Concert happens Sat., Nov. 3. More family concerts are scheduled for Dec. 15 and Jan. 26, 2013. Check the website for specifics. The symphony also has a great website (www.sfskids.org) with an interactive guide to classical music. It’s a fun way to introduce children to the various instruments of an orchestra and to also explore the basics of tempo, harmony and pitch.
In the East Bay, check out Oakland East Bay Symphony’s (www.oebs.org) free Young People’s concerts. This November, the group presents “Once Upon a Time…” with music by Vivaldi, Gershwin and Saint Saens. Reserve seats online for Nov. 13-15.
Marin Symphony (www.marinsymphony.org) also has family-friendly concerts and events. Participate in a holiday season tradition by attending a Concert by Candlelight where you can sing along with the Marin Symphony Chamber Chorus. There are two concerts, Dec. 1 and 2, held in the Church of Saint Raphael in San Rafael. Marin Symphony also puts on an annual Family Concert specially designed to introduce symphonic music to children. The 2013 concert takes place Sun., Feb. 10. Check website for details.
– Gwen Hubner
New York Philharmonic Kids Zone – www.nyphilkids.org/main.phtml – An animated site that teaches kids about composers and instruments. Kids can also create their instruments and compose pieces.
Perfect Pitch – artsedge.kennedy-center.org/interactives/perfectpitch – An entertaining website that uses baseball as a means of teaching kids the instruments of the orchestra and how it developed.
WGBH’s Kids Classical Channel – www.wgbh.org/kids/kids_classical.cfm – Streams classical music online for kids 24 hours a day.
WGUC’s Classics for Kids – www.classicsforkids.com – This Cincinnati radio station streams shows online that focus on individual composers.
Classical Kids CDs, produced by Children’s Group, 1995 – www.childrensgroup.com – This series of CDs features kids who become friends with composers. The series includes Beethoven Lived Upstairs, Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Mozart’s Magic Fantasy and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.
The World’s Very Best Opera for Kids … in English!, produced by Children’s Group, 2003 – www.childrensgroup.com – Fourteen arias performed in English with some of the world’s best opera stars.
Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents, by Robert A. Cutietta, Oxford University Press, 2001. An engaging book to help parents teach their kids how to listen to classical music and play an instrument.
Classical Music for Dummies, by David Pogue, Scott Speck and Glen Dicterow, Hungry Minds, 1997. An introduction to classical music, with an accompanying 60-minute CD.