How to help your kids form an emotional attachment to classical music

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I’ve been thinking about this article about why we shouldn’t force kids to learn a musical instrument. For the most part I think Oppenheimer’s arguments are weak (violin lessons are as pointless as foosball lessons), but he does have one interesting point: most of his friends that had taken music lessons as children put down their instruments long ago and haven’t picked them up since. “Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach.”

As a music teacher, it pains me to hear this, but I think for the most part, it’s true. Most of the time during a private lesson I’m caught up in the minutiae of music—the teaching of score decoding (pitch, rhythm, expression and articulation reading)—and rarely venture into the area of music history, mostly because of the logistics of it (“Okay, here’s a minuet by Mozart. A minuet is a dance in 3/4 time. Mozart was a child prodigy who”….blah blah blah. Eyes glaze over, glance at their iPhone clocks or out the window). I mean, how do you make it sound exciting? How do you show them in 5 minutes (or 30 or 60), that Mozart or Beethoven or Schumann or Beach or Chaminade was a fascinating person with a musical life worthy of knowing and studying? Why should they care?

The problem is, I can’t make them love, or even care mildly about classical music. And according to Jane Healy in her book Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence, a child won’t be motivated to learn what they don’t have an emotional connection to.

So how do you help children and teens build an emotional connection to music–especially classical music?

One thing I can do as a teacher is expose them to classical music: play it for them on the piano or through the speakers, show a you tube performance, share quirky stories about the composers. I can assign classical music pieces and encourage them to research the history of their piece, or to see a live performance of it. But none of these things will make kids form an emotional connection to music.

So what’s missing?

According to a counterpoint article Parents Absolutely Should Force their Kids to Take Music Lessons by Paul Berman, what’s missing is initiating kids in the mystical and spiritual rites of music. Classical music is a good entry into this mysticism, states Berman:

“But I do think that classical music is, in some respect, bigger than other kinds of music. The music has been going on for five hundred years as a self-conscious tradition, dedicated to an extended meditation on a series of musical structures so limited as nearly to be arithmetical. And the meditations have reflected on one another, and, over the centuries, sometimes they have advanced.

“You are free to see in this 500-year meditation something very close to a mystical or Pythagorean inquiry into beauty, if you would like. Or you could look at the tradition in an intellectual light. But classical music does not ask you to demonstrate a mystical streak or a brainy disposition. The music asks you to engage. The music is an activity more than an entertainment, and you engage in it physically, you and your instrument and your fellow musicians. Or you can do without the fellow musicians. To play by yourself, alone in a room with a music stand, or without the music stand, is good enough. If you study Bach with sufficient ardor, instrument in hand, you ought to be able to discover that, at moments, you and Bach have merged. You ought to discover that Bach’s inquiries into mathematical figures are your own inquiries, and Bach’s ecstasies are yours, as well. Bach was a genius, and you, too, are a genius, when you perform his work—even if some person listening to you trample clumsily over the score may conclude that you are an oaf. Your purpose in playing is not to impress anyone else, though, nor to entertain. If you have explored the music sufficiently on your own, you may be able to engage with it passively in the concert hall, as well, or in front of your sound system. And if the music is any good, it should not just amuse you. It should throw you into something of a trance.”

Wow. I think basically he’s saying that playing music is physically pleasurable, and it puts you into a state of flow where you’re “one” with the composer, and that–in an of itself–is enough. It’s not about impressing or entertaining–it’s something you do for yourself. The problem is, most kids quit lessons before they get to a technical level high enough to play the really fun challenging stuff from the classical canon. How can I get kids to this level if we’re starting over at middle C and treble G every week? It’s almost a Catch-22: In order to be motivated to practice more you have to be able to play at a technical level that’s physically satisfying; but you have to practice in order to get to this level. It all goes back to helping kids form an emotional attachment to music, especially classical music.

This is where the home life of the child comes in. I’ve said it before, but if your house is filled with music—if you blast a piano concerto or an opera from the speakers while the family cleans up after supper, or if mom or dad plays a little something on the piano, even if it’s from John Thompson Book 3, or if the radio is tuned to the classical station during car rides (actually, better than classical radio is a classical CD purposefully chosen), or if the whole family air-conducts to the Star Wars theme some night while watching the movie—your child will see that music is important to you, and they will (hopefully) start to form a sentimental, emotional attachment to it, even if the attachment is subconscious.

This is basically how I got into classical music. I don’t come from a family of musical virtuosos. In fact, no adult in my family played live music except for my mom, who played this from John Thompson on our little spinet piano. Also, I was in elementary school when the movie Amadeus came out, and my mom would blast the soundtrack pretty much daily from our little stereo. At the time, I was in 3rd grade and had only a year of piano lessons under my belt, and we had just moved to a new town and weren’t able to bring our piano with us–a big old upright with chipped keys that my mom had learned on. So, what I would do was, play piano on the carpet along with the Amadeus soundtrack. My favorite was the Concerto for Two Pianos and man, was I good! I could play all those runs and feel the excitement of the speed in my fingers–and it was all on this shabby brown carpet. I had internalized the music so much that if there had been a piano in the room I almost believed I could have played this concerto right then and there. Over the next couple of years, when I was able to take piano lessons again, my teacher told me I had a knack for classical music. Once I could play classical music, I was hooked and continued studying it in college and grad school.

From what I understand, this is similar to how Anthony Tommasini, the music critic for the New York Times, got interested in classical music. It all started with a toy piano and a recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces his mother picked up at the supermarket (imagine picking up classical music at the grocery store!).

Who knows what will happen if you play more classical music at home? Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps something….

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[The photo above is a picture of my musical lineage. It shows the teachers of teachers my teachers studied with, and it goes back to Liszt, Nadia Boulanger, Marcel Moyse, Henry Cowell, and Georges Bizet, to name a few. In Berman’s article he mentions his violin teacher “initiating him into the culture of classical music,” of which knowledge of his teacher’s musical lineage played a part.]

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