Few moments in our digital, efficient lives are transcendent. The ocean in high wind, for example, or being brought to tears by a fictional character. There are fewer still that parents can share with a younger child. I giggle with my three kids often, but the nature of our roles — my job is to set boundaries, theirs is to test them — means that belly laughs are largely reserved for my husband and friends.
And yet, there is music. When my first baby came out of the womb alternating between whimper and howl, we had surgeries, tubes and medications to help us through our todays and into tomorrows. We also had Britney Spears. To this day, the opening bum-bum-bum of the “Blackout” album fills me with relief, somehow untainted by the hundreds of times I played it in desperation, bouncing in the gentle-yet-brisk figure-eight that enabled my little one’s exhaustion to overcome her pain. Lifetimes later, we danced.
As she and her siblings grow, however, I find myself relegated to sanitized covers, as fear of questions like, “Mommy, what are skinny bitches?” renders Meghan Trainor’s voice inaccessible to us. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Kidz Bop, but “My House” loses a little something when Flo Rida’s baritone is replaced by an achingly pubescent timbre.
Music made for children from the get-go can be even worse. Sure, there’s the New York Philharmonic’s phenomenal 1960 recording of “Peter and the Wolf,” narrated by Leonard Bernstein. But generally speaking, for every “You Gotta Sing” you get 6,000 “Apples and Bananas.” And don’t get me started on those chipmunks. I yearn for the day I can take my college-aged kids to a dark bar with sticky floors, beat them at pool and play “Beast of Burden” on whatever we call jukeboxes by then.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself transported by sweeping notes and dramatic plucks of a violin as I sat cross-legged on the floor of a local church with my 5-year-old in my lap. His older sister remained frozen mid-coloring stroke, and the baby swayed off to the side as the familiar strains of “Bad Romance” traveled outward, up the walls, and over us once again. The professional string quartet didn’t just honor Lady Gaga’s masterpiece; it elevated it. Pieces by Brahms, Ravel and Michael Jackson followed.
There’s nothing unique about Noe Valley Chamber Music working hard to make an event kid-friendly, providing everything from snacks, to crayons, to pillows on the floor. Usually, however, in children’s programming (as in kids’ menus), a decrease in formality and cost involves a concomitant reduction in quality. Not this time. The same performers who regale adult audiences set themselves within children’s reach, both in terms of proximity and programming. They stopped between songs to give leveled-down explanations of their instruments, even allowing grubby little fingers a try. The show was just the first in a trial run of the San Francisco Bay area group’s “Classical Kids” performances, which aim to offer chicken cordon bleu for the price of nuggets.
It wasn’t the first time my tinies experienced top-notch art. Before we moved south, the Seattle Art Museum welcomed us at least weekly, our membership having bought the right to cruise through the galleries on our way to two kid-proof rooms packed with artsy toys and books. Contrast that experience with our recent trip to SFMOMA. “There’s plenty to do and see with kids!” the website declares, and yet, I spent the visit tense with worry for the exposed treasures in every space except one. We made our way to the sculpture garden after my kids scoffed at the website’s recommendation to “count all 21 native plant species on the … living wall.” I finally exhaled as they laughingly chased each other along modernist benches — until a security guard approached, that is.
Still, when the right balance is struck, miniaturized “high culture” experiences can be as enjoyable as they are adorable. Take my local Jewish Community Center’s family book talks, for example. Adults and kids file into the large auditorium that hosts folks such as Nina Totenberg for lectures. At one, my 3-year-old took his seat and waited for someone to emerge from behind the august curtain. B.J. Novak of “The Office” appeared without fanfare, read from “The Book With No Pictures” and opened the floor to questions. A brave child stepped up to the microphone: “How did you make the book?” When Novak finished his surprisingly interesting answer, a second asked, “So you made the book, how did you do that?” Afterward they all lined up with their copies in hand, eager for Novak to defile the title page with his signature.
Most of the aforementioned events cost something, but there are plenty of options that are free. Elite dance, in particular, is difficult to find for free, but the children sat mesmerized by the Nā Lei Hulu dance company at Yerba Buena Gardens this summer. At San Francisco Opera’s “gift to the city,” a free performance in Golden Gate Park, the kids’ mouths hung open and their eyes ceased blinking as stunning arias rang out al fresco. That was nice, but not as pleasant as discovering — when a meltdown necessitated our abrupt departure all of 12 minutes later — that even the sopranos’ voices carried to the nearby playground. We watched one singer exit a trailer provided to keep his vocal cords warm, and we talked about how hard he must have worked to perfect a skill that would bring thousands to stake out a patch of grass hours in advance.
We can’t wait to try New York City’s Bargemusic — a coffee barge turned wood-paneled concert hall moored just under the Brooklyn Bridge — that also caters to all income levels. Each of the free Saturday afternoon “music in motion” performances is followed by a Q&A session.
“Mommy, what is bad romance?” my 5-year-old asked, days after the “Classical Kids” performance. Oh, no, here we go again, I thought. “You and Daddy said the music was ‘bad romance.’ That must be a kind of medicine. You know, because it tastes bad but it makes you feel better. I felt it all the way in my tummy, and I liked it.”
Sounds like it’ll have to be “Bad Medicine” that plays on that future day in the pub.
Even if the Bon Jovi lyrics have to wait a decade, experiencing the emotions behind music, art, dance, and literature — that awe, the sense of being transported — is thankfully ours to seek out and enjoy together today.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.
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