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Teaching Tiny Tots the Joys of Good Music, Part Two

June, 2002

In my last essay, I tossed around a good many general ideas concerning the exposure of youngsters to Good Music – defined, of course, as music I like and music most intelligent people would consider many notches above Rap, Rock, and Retro. This time, I would like to concentrate on school drama. And bear in mind, when I say "teacher," I also mean the most important teacher of them all, the Parent.

Many years ago, a teacher friend of my wife asked me if I could write a series of plays appropriate for a 3rd grade class out on Long Island, NY. One year, I gave her what turned out to be a very successful boiled-down version of Gilbert and Sullivan's last and worst collaboration, "The Grand Duke," but without any of the music. Instead I told her to insert songs and dances during the wedding sequence, and treat the whole thing as a lot of fun. Perhaps, years later, some of the cast might run into the recording of that operetta, recognize the title, and listen to the score.

But that encouraged me to follow up with somewhat fuller abridged versions of "The Pirates of Penzance" and "The Mikado," retaining as many of the songs as she thought possible. The hard part of my job was to get the dialogue down to a 3rd grade level with many cuts to leave time for the songs. Although I suggested eliminating the Major-General's patter song, a young student insisted on learning it and did just fine. The production was easy to costume, and a wonderful element was the inclusion of several seriously handicapped students to be on stage as mutes.

"The Mikado" was blessed with an "angel" who had recently been part of a semi-professional production and lent our friend all the scenery. I drove out again to see this – a 3rd grade elementary school production, mind you–and actually forgot I was watching 8 and 9 year olds, so well did things go. I had to laugh when I heard Ko-Ko sing about "Tweet Willow." It seems that "Tit Willow" was simply too mammary for the youngsters, who broke into uncontrollable giggles every time they had to say that "dirty" word. But Tit or Tweet, the evening was a smash and the children will no doubt have enough fond memories of "The Mikado" to last them all their lives and I pray to turn them to the full score in later years.

Now that "Lord of the Rings" is out, you might try this; although this is much rougher going. The old silent version of "Siegfried" is available on video, and you might show your tiny tots the scene in which the hero slays the great Dragon. You can also explain that way before computer-generated special effects, the director of this film had to build a dragon and put several men inside it to make it move. (The diagram can be seen in the libretto for the LP London recording of the opera. So if you can get your hands on that relic, you can reproduce the picture. If worse comes to worst, contact me and I will send you a copy).

From there, you could go on to tell the story of how the young man came to kill the beast, using either the original Edda tale or the Wagner version or (better still) both. Then casually mention it was once made into a musical (do not say "opera" quite yet) and ask with great cunning if they would like to see the same scene done to music. Naturally they are going to say Yes, and you will have on hand the Metropolitan Opera version with Levine conducting, in which the entire floor of the forest becomes the Dragon's head. If you are very clever, you might have already played some of the music from non-vocal records of highlights from "Siegfried" during some quiet-work activities, so they will already be familiar with it. (You can be ever so clever in these things, if you put your mind to it.)

One important caveat. Do not impose your interpretations on absolute music; and, as my perceptive sister-in-law commented when she saw my last month's essay, beware "stifling the creative juices [and] causing a timid child to fear his idea was 'wrong.'"

More of this in the future.

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