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Teaching Tiny Tots the Joys of Good Music, Part One

June, 2002

Many a year ago, I was a counselor for the youngest group of boys at a day camp somewhere north of New York City. And it came to pass that one day it rained mercilessly and all activities had to be indoor ones. Finding myself in a room that had a phonograph and a single LP, I desperately examined the label and found "1812 Overture" on one side and "Peer Gynt Suite No. 1" on the other.

Taking advantage of the character mentioned on the second side, I quickly concocted a story of how Peer first woke up in the morning, heard a sad story from his mother, met Anitra and then the Troll King, and finally joined Napoleon's army and went to Russia. Thank goodness I have always been good at that sort of impromptu fictionalizing and the young 'uns sat spellbound for the exact time it took for both sides of the LP to play out. I was pretty played out myself then but was rescued by my co-counselor so I could have my break.

This incident has stuck in my mind all these years, not because it was such a triumph of baby-sitting ingenuity (which, I confess in all modesty, it certainly was) but because I had six-year olds listening to 35 minutes of uninterrupted classical music, marred only by the story I built around it. Perhaps it took some of them several high school and college courses in western history to realize that Peer Gynt had nothing to do with Napoleon's Russian campaign; but what I hope is that the music lingered in their memories for many years afterward and perhaps even inspired them to hear more.

My first year of teaching, I was playing some soft music in the classroom during a writing exercise and it happened to be the Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde." I still recall some 5th grader looking up and saying, "That's so beautiful. What is it?" I told her, neither title nor composer had any meaning for the youngster, but some seed was planted, I am sure.

Many of us lament what our present youth consider to be good music, or just consider to be music: a loud steady beat with non-existent melodies to words that either cannot be understood or should not be. No matter how rotten, it is always "Awesome," a word that has all the semantic meaning of "Nice" or "Gee golly."

As an ex-teacher, I would like to offer a Modest Proposal to teachers in the lower grades–and I mean Kindergarten and Grades 1-3–who are working with minds still open to suggestion and who probably are subjected to all sorts of music other than "classical" at home, in shopping malls, in elevators, even in rest rooms–and who deserve something (okay, I will not say "better" but I certainly mean "better") different for a change.

Whether at home or in class, play soft music–be it by Kern or Korngold, Rodgers or Rameau–whenever possible. Lead the children in imaginative games. Play (say) the opening passages of Rimski-Korsakov's "Snow Maiden Suite" or Sibelius' "Finlandia" and ask what they think is going on if this were music to a film. (In the former case, I always thought it was hearing sleigh bells until I learned the title of the passage was "The Dance of the Birds.") Ask them what colors they would use if they had to "draw" what the music was saying.

By the way, in his series of Children's Concerts, Leonard Bernstein played a section of "Don Quixote" and gave a Superman scenario to the music. Then he gave what Strauss had in mind, just to show how subjective the whole thing is.

Combine music with art. Get a collection of paintings, some pictorial, some abstract. Play all sorts of orchestral music and ask which pictures seem to "go with" the music. Hint: if you play the overture to "Flying Dutchman," be sure to have a picture of a storm-tossed ship somewhere in the collection. Should the child pick a serene pastoral picture, don't blame me.

Don't forget theatre and dance! When I was dramatics counselor up at a summer camp, I once worked out a pantomime for the first 5 minutes of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," using the Disney version as my guide. It took time, but several of the youngsters got the idea of showing how heavy two non-existent pails of water were when lifted. Dukas' score helped considerably.

Now, all of these suggestions are based on orchestral music, both "absolute" and programmatic. When it comes to opera and operetta, half our work is done for us. Which is why our job becomes far more difficult! The reason for this paradox will be the subject of my next essay.

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