Ever since my son was born in 2011, it seemed inevitable that I would produce an article on introducing children to music. It’s just what critic parents do. Some of my colleagues have set the bar high. Jeremy Eichler, the classical music critic of the Boston Globe, wrote a funny, thoughtful and deeply researched article about his experimentation with the effects of music on his then-infant’s mind. Steve Smith, another music critic-turned-assistant arts editor at the Globe, keeps up a running account on Facebook of the sophisticated music he plays for his toddler during bath time.
I, however, have a problem. I write about music; I have a lot of music in my life. But when it comes to introducing my child to music, I have done a terrible job.
It’s not that my husband and I haven’t exposed him to music. He’s heard a scattershot assortment of favorites and things we thought might appeal to him, from Robert Johnson to the Trio Mediaeval. But he’s not getting the kind of exposure I remember from my own childhood, when the stereo system in my father’s painting studio provided the background music to our daily lives, or that my husband had listening to his mother give piano lessons. In our two-career, music-focused household, most of our listening is done on headphones, with concentration; we don’t often put music on as background. On a day-to-day basis, therefore, our son is barely aware of what we’re listening to. When he was younger, we may have been guilty of pretending that we were developing his cultural literacy by allowing him to play with the stacks of CDs around our house. The baby was getting exposed to music: Let’s not split hairs about whether it went into his ears or into his mouth.
I thought I had a good technique through using YouTube clips. For a while, the final movement of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, played by Itzhak Perlman, was in regular rotation, although it was never quite as popular as “Singin’ in the Rain.” But I have yet to make much headway with opera. (“Mama,” he said last spring, aged 3, when I was pushing him in the stroller and humming a strain from Rossini’s “Cinderella,” which I had just heard at the Washington National Opera, “Don’t sing that song. Nobody likes that song. It’s too loud.”) Furthermore, he now operates YouTube on his own, and his tastes run to animated shows about heroic puppy dogs. His niche musical taste is for Halloween versions of nursery rhyme songs (the Three Little Kittens as zombies, for instance).
When it comes to taking kids to live performances, I have a few precepts I hold dear. Let them see you going until they want to go along; don’t build up the experience too much or try to give them too much information beforehand; don’t pander to them when you get there with questions about whether they’re enjoying it or are bored or want to leave (things I have heard parents do quite a bit in my years of sitting in various audiences). This worked for me, who began going to the opera at 6, and so I assumed it would work on anyone — only to realize that, like many “solutions” to age-old child-rearing issues, this works a lot better on other people’s kids than on my own. In fairness, I have not done a great job selecting concerts he might want to hear. Baby’s first concert should probably not involve challenging contemporary chamber music. After a few minutes of repeated notes in the upper strings, my son turned to me and said, “Mama, when is it starting?”
After four years of attempts to write my definitive take on music and my son, I have accepted that I don’t have any answers. I do have a collection of experiences, thoughts on the subject, and anecdotes, both my own and other peoples’, about things that have sparked children’s interest — or turned them off.
But since I get a host of books and CDs aimed at children, I will offer a couple of recommendations. I’ve seen a number of picture books with accompanying CDs designed to weave music in with the narrative; some seem tedious, but “A House Filled with Music” by Margret and Rolf Rettich, translated from the German, is a notable exception, partly because it has that rarest of commodities in this market, a CD with original music that’s strikingly good (the composer is Michael Rüggeberg). It’s the story of a man who leaves the noisy city and moves into a house in the country, gradually filling it with instrumentalists, who have to learn to live, literally, in harmony. But the music is so good that I am happy when I hear it go on, rather than reacting with the reflexive shudder some oft-repeated recordings can engender. (I’m looking at you, Thomas the Tank Engine’s greatest hits.)
Along similar lines, the new book “Welcome to the Symphony” seems to live up to its publisher’s promise that children will enjoy it. Its distinction is the sound clips that are actually built into the back cover, so you learn about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the instruments that play it while touching buttons to activate the appropriate sounds — a cello line, a flute solo, the symphony’s main theme, and so on. The narrative looked cutesy to me at first, with three mice guiding the reader through the action, but it passed the 4-year-old test with flying colors; the mice proved to be just what he needed to hook his interest.
In reading this and other musical books to him, I realize I have to temper my own hopes and keep from communicating too intensely my wish for him to love the material. I have seen many children even in very musical families who were turned off through overexposure, or pressure, and I would far rather err on the side of laxness.
Helping him develop his own independent taste is, after all, the real point of the exercise — which is easy to forget when the world is so full of things I’m eager to show him. The other night, in a rental car, finding the bounty of Sirius at my disposal, I began scanning through the stations to find something appropriate — Mozart, perhaps, or a kids’ channel. But wails promptly arose from the back seat: “No! Don’t change the channel! I want this grown-up music!” And that is how I found myself driving down the New Jersey Turnpike tuned to Alt Nation, listening to the White Stripes. Teaching your kid about music, like most things about parenting, turns out to be more about what your kid can teach you.
This is the first part of an occasional series. Send me your thoughts, anecdotes, and recommendations about children and music; I will try to work them into future columns.