What concert drove tykes to dancing in the aisles of the Kennedy Center a few years back?
New Kids on the Block?
Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro," performed by the National Symphony Orchestra?
If you said "Fig-aro! Fig-aro! Fi-ga-ro!" you're right (and pretentious). But, probably, you didn't know that leading the orchestra that evening was the only conductor ever to hold a baton in one hand and a cloying lamb-like puppet in the other. Or that the conductor and her woolly sidekick have performed the masterpieces of Beethoven, Bizet and Stravinsky, among others, with more than 100 orchestras worldwide, for audiences largely of children.
Baby boomers know entertainer Shari Lewis as the cute ventriloquist and puppeteer who appeared on "The Arthur Godfrey Talent Show" 35 years ago, before landing her own Sunday morning TV program with ragamutton Lamb Chop. While the ever-ebullient Lewis and the ever-present Lamb Chop haven't changed much in three decades of entertaining children, their act has gone decidely upscale.
Sure Lamb Chop lip-syncs and someone else sings, a` la Milli Vanilli. And like the New Kids, a big part of Lewis's success is merchandising -- including 11 videocassettes for youngsters, 46 children's books and a new Baby Lamb Chop puppet due out next spring. But, since 1977 -- when they first approached the podium to conduct the Dallas Symphony Orchestra -- Lewis and Lamb Chop also have promoted classical music to their young and often uninitiated audiences.
An unlikely crusade for a duo that once targeted Mr. Greenjeans as its straight man on "Captain Kangaroo"? Perhaps. But not for someone whose mother was a musical coordinator for the New York City Board of Education and conducted the Bronx's best school musicians, somebody who started formal piano instruction at 2 1/2 and "found God," as Lewis describes it, in the vibration of a violin's strings in high school.
"I'm fascinated with classical music and kids," says Lewis, here last week to talk about turning on the classics without turning off children.
With Lamb Chop muffled inside a black vinyl bag on a downtown restaurant floor, Lewis momentarily breaks into a do-wah solo, hitting each note of a familiar classical melody: "Doo-dah-doo de choo cha cha doo da ... See, that's kicky. That's a kicky melody," she says, making the point that kids crave rhythm and melody, which happens to be the stock in trade of most traditional symphonic sounds.
"I like toe-tapping, finger-snapping, hummable melodies. All of the great composers built much of their material on folk songs," she says. "Folk songs were written for the folks to dance to. So when you are talking about Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Dvorak ... it's folk music. It has energy. It has interest and humor."
Tell that to your 9-year-old as you snatch the Gun's 'n' Roses LP from the turntable and put on "Stabat Mater." Lewis doesn't discount such difficulties, but she does believe that parents who want to introduce their children to classical music need to seize opportunities.
Besides young people's concerts, there are recordings designed to ease the introduction. Lewis's latest audiotape, for instance: "Lamb Chop and the Nutcracker," released to stores last week, mixes some breezy bantering and guffaws with Tchaikovsky's classic Christmas ballet to make it accessible to even 3-year-olds.
Another technique, advises Lewis, is to start with the known and familiar and work toward the unfamiliar. "Go to the video store and pick up some old Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, or movies like 'Apocalypse Now,' or 'Platoon,' or '2001.' Lots of movies and cartoons have classical scores," she says. "After the child has heard it in the totally contemporary context, you then turn on the classical LP or cassette. That enables them to associate it with something fun or of interest."
Listening to classical pieces that have intrigued children for ages is another good place to start -- particularly if parents help children recognize a musical motif. In "Peter and the Wolf," for instance, "if you can hum a melody and say 'Every time you hear that, think of the wolf,' you will sharpen the child's listening skills," says Lewis. "Then you can extend that practice to 'Peer Gynt' and any of the the operas."
Lewis also likes to take the starch out of classical music, encouraging some rowdiness with it that children enjoy. On her "Nutcracker" tape and in her family concerts, she and Lamb Chop make up silly lyrics to go along with classical melodies.
"Hooray team go, we're off to meet the foe, our team's so glor-ious we'll be victor-ious ... ," Lewis breaks into a musically correct though lyrically creative version of the farandole, lively dance music from the south of France. She sings an Edvard Grieg rendition: "Morn-ing is dawn-ing and Peer Gynt is yawn-ing, a coc-o-nut fell on Grieg's head ... " She updates a Mozart tune and explains the mnemonic method she's used since she was a child: "If you put dopey words to a melody, you remember the melody. And if you remember the melody, you like it better."
If a child's musical tastes are stuck between rock and a hard place, Lewis suggests letting rock 'n' roll introduce its classical traditions. "A lot of classical pieces have been adapted brilliantly by contemporary rock musicians," she says, mentioning Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," and the rock version by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. "Start with that. Then, go back to Ravel's orchestral version, which still wasn't the original. And then go back to the original piano version. So you can create an interesting auditory history for your child."
Most important, says Lewis, is not to allow classical music to be isolated from your children's lives. "You are not introducing them to a museum piece," she says. "If you treat it like a museum piece, your kids are going to be resentful.
"Kids brought up on just rock or just rap are culturally ignorant. Kids should be brought up on a smorgasbord of music, so that they taste everything. They may end up liking rock or rap better, and that's okay -- as long as they have been exposed."
But building a music foundation in a child's life isn't solely for the sake of music or for musical diversity. In trying to capture the imagination of three generations of kids, Lewis has witnessed how their mentality has changed. "The good news is that they watch a lot of television, so their vocabularly is much better and their frame of reference is wider," she says. "The bad news is that they watch a lot of television, so their span of attention is much shorter and their concentration is limited."
And therein lie the larger implications for introducing music and musical instruction to children, says Lewis: Memory retention, enhanced language development, better ability to focus, improved mathematical ability and heightened self-esteem are a few of the "skills" that research has determined can result from it.
Carol Rose Duane has seen it happen in her toddler students. For the past five years, Duane has taught music, rhymes, folk heritage and basic musical instruments to an age-group of children she feels is ideally suited but too often misses the beat of a musical experience -- newborns to 3-year-olds. "The nursery experiences, 'Ring Around the Rosie,' and kids' songs ... How many wonderful things has everybody forgotten?" says the Potomac musician and music teacher who graduated with two degrees from Johns Hopkins' Peabody Conservatory. "We don't gather as families and sing on Saturday nights anymore, because we're gathered in front of the TV. I was worried that very little was being provided musically for kids younger than 3."
While teaching the Yamaha Educational System, a Japanese method of preparation for piano instruction, to children in the early '80s, Duane came across research indicating how a child's formative years, newborn through age 3, were the most important developmental years for music. They are the groundwork years for musical ability and appreciation, Duane says. They are the years when a child "learns the language of music" simply by listening to it and by interacting with it.
From banging sticks together and beating on bongos in her classes, toddlers eventually graduate to a confident relationship with more sophisticated instruments as they grow older. "Everybody says 'I'm going to send my 7-year-old to piano lessons,' " says Duane, whose videotape "Music From the Start" is scheduled to air on Virginia Public Television twice next month. "But they need to speak the language of music before they try playing it. There are so many preparations you can do before putting your child in front of the instrument."
Shari Lewis believes the progression from musical attunement to musical instrument works best. But she also believes U.S. schools are missing a great opportunity by not making instruction in a musical instrument a requirement. "Plato said the key to all learning lies in the pattern of the arts," says Lewis. "When you study music hands-on, you learn how to learn. It gives you confidence to learn. It creates a logical mind that is willing to tackle a hard job with confidence. Those will be the survival skills for the next century."