Wednesday, January 7, 2009

classical music for kids?

Lately I have had a bit of a break from professional (i.e. musical) life, and have been gratefully able to spend time with my family. I have two daughters, age 3 and 5, and they recently went crazy (in a good way) because I rented a movie for them called "Barbie and Diamond Castle." I don't know what it was about, but I did notice that the main theme of the Brahms 1st Symphony 4th movement was used at least once. (The girls also have been going around singing a Pop song that seemed written for the film, sung by Katharine McPhee, a one-time student at Boston Conservatory, where I teach). My kids get excited when I cue (queue?) up the Ipod to that spot in the Brahms, since they know it from the movie.

It is much the same with other music they have heard in movies: for example, the Beethoven 6th Symphony and, believe it or not, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", both of which they discovered through the Disney film, "Fantasia." Yes, my three-year-old daughter listens to and sings along with the Rite of Spring.

In general I think this is great - hearing the Overture to "the Barber of Seville" as the accompaniment to a Bugs Bunny cartoon (see is funny and also makes the piece seem more "approachable" in later years by an adult who might listen to classical music without the cartoon attached. I know that many of my peers learned about pieces of music by watching "The Smurfs," which featured excerpts of Beethoven (the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata), Schubert (the Unfinished Symphony), Mussorgsky (a few different movements from Pictures at an Exhibition) and, most memorably, Liszt (the opening theme of the E-flat major Piano Concerto). The music was used purposefully, as it really did convey the appropriate mood for the story told in the cartoon.

My impression is that it is much the same for some other "Barbie" movies - there is a Barbie version of Swan Lake, and the Nutcracker, which seem (from my not very careful observation) to really tell the story and really use Tchaikovsky's music - and STILL be utterly engaging for my kids - and some other movie about 12 princesses that uses Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, if I remember correctly. (You can see that my kids are REALLY into these movies!).

What does irk me, however, are the heavy-handed attempts to cram classical music down the throats of kids when it doesn't really make sense. For example, my kids like the show "Little Einsteins" (on the Disney Channel - it's related to but not the same as the "Baby Einstein" brand of videos), but I find it artificial to sing a song about the Taj Mahal or Claude Monet set to the tune of the Mozart 40th Symphony. Is this really educating kids about great music (and other works of mankind) or just making parents think their kids are learning something and hence making them feel less guilty about planting them in front of the TV? (To its credit, the Little Einsteins show is about friends who have very good manners and there is no violence or anything else like that).

I find Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" a bit like that. My kids have zero interest in hearing that. But they LOVE "Peter and the Wolf", which doesn't seem quite so ambitious and yet ends up teaching kids a lot about music without their knowing it. (My kids have been able to identify oboes, bassoons, and flutes accurately since age 1 or 2).

As a side topic, I have noticed that most everyone has higher standards for their children than they do for themselves. Thousands of parents who never listen to Chopin or Debussy, except by accident, will take their kids to piano lessons in hopes that they will be "cultured." I hope that in some small way at least it rubs off on the parents too! My girls are taking ballet at the Boston Ballet school and as a result I have definitely become much more interested in and knowledgeable about ballet. Perhaps this is one of many reasons it is good for us (adults) to have children, if we have the chance to. It forces us to be better people (or at least to try!).

To reward you for reading through all that, here is a video I think is amazing, of a ballerina named Svetlana Zhakarova, in Swan Lake -