Children are missing out on classical music

Susan Elkin

127245152 300x264 Children are missing out on classical musicThis week The Peacock Theatre, part of the Sadler’s Wells complex near London’s Angel underground station, soared to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent, evocative, tuneful Sleeping Beauty music – one of his three great ballets.

But no ordinary production, this. My First Sleeping Beauty is for family audiences from age three. It is the first in a series of My first … ballets performed by ENB2, a new touring company featuring graduating dancers from English National Ballet School. After this week in central London it tours until 3 June to Birmingham, York, Wimbledon, Crawley, Bromley, High Wycombe and Manchester.

Created with young attention spans in mind, My First Sleeping Beauty is choreographed and designed by dancer and choreographer Matthew Hart.  The dancers wear the sumptuous Georgiadis costumes from the Company’s full production of The Sleeping Beauty and elements of the original sets are used. But the story and choreography have been scaled down.

What interests me particularly about this is that it will expose hundreds of children to the sound of classical music and I bet many will come out with Tchaikovsky’s waltz tunes rattling around in their fertile young heads.

Throughout the Far East, Western classical music is acknowledged to be the finest possible basis for any other musical genre that students might get involved with later. Witness the months British Associated Board and Trinity music examiners spend examining students in Hong Kong, for example, every year. Look at the number of Japanese and Korean players in every symphony orchestra almost wherever you go in the world.

So why don’t British people generally expose children to a varied diet of classical music? It isn’t ‘posh’ or ‘elitist’ and it should be part of every child’s everyday experience. Yes, we all know they benefit from actively participating in it too, but here I’m concerned with their simply hearing it as a starting point. That, after all, is easy to do and costs almost nothing.

Visiting a north Kent primary school recently, I was assailed by the inimitable strains of the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony as I crossed the playground and couldn’t initially think where it was coming from. When I reached Reception I realised that it was being played over loudspeakers in corridors as background music throughout the school. ‘We have a number of pieces that we play regularly so that classical music is a continuous presence’ said the headteacher, showing me the board in the hall which informs any passing child what the current piece is.

Such a simple idea. Why don’t more schools do it? Individual teachers could simply have classical music playing in their classrooms too.  As with so much else that’s valuable in education, this is something they might not discover without help so adults have to build it into children’s lives consciously.  Youngsters will discover many forms of very accessible modern popular music readily enough for themselves. Education should be about extension and opening new doors – the ones which might otherwise remain shut.

Not only is there a cultural value in widening the focus of children’s appreciation of the arts, but since American researchers Francis Rauscher and Gordon Shaw demonstrated in the late 1990s that classical music can improve performance in other curricular areas, the so-called ‘Mozart effect,’ has been experimented with in some quarters.  But I don’t see much evidence of adults simply playing classical music in the hearing of children and, perhaps, talking to them about it.

For many years, I led secondary school assemblies and would often make listening to a piece of classical music the focus of the assembly. I’d play them a minute or two of the Siegfried Idyll and tell them the story of Wagner writing it as a gift for his wife and how the musicians played it outside her bedroom window. Or the opening of the second movement of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony and tell them about the composer’s homesickness while he was in America – as well as sharing a joke with them about a certain TV advertisement for bread. Or we’d listen to ‘Halleluiah’ from Messiah and discuss about George II’s (fabled?) reaction to it. The possibilities are endless.

A friend who has a three year old had the slow movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony playing. Felicity was drawing at the kitchen table. We were all chatting and paying little attention. When the CD had finished, Felicity began to sing to herself: ‘Bye Baby Bunting’ and, yes, it’s more or less the same tune as the big theme in that Beethoven, but it took an unconsciously receptive three year old to pick it up. None of us had ever noticed or made the connection.

So can we find ways, please, of making sure that more children hear more classical music – not to the exclusion of other genres of course. But it should be a key, perhaps dominant, part of the mix and too often, in Britain at least, it isn’t.

My First Sleeping Beauty could be a good starting point. Failing that – because tickets aren’t cheap – it costs nothing to switch on Radio 3 or Classic FM.

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  • sceptic3

    Children are exposed to black music every day with rock, rap etc. Why does music have to have a colour anyway.  I think it’s tragic that many black people reject classical music because it wasn’t invented by their own culture.  White people didn’t invent the wheel but we have four of them on our cars.

  • Tapani Rauha

    You are not listening carefully enough if you can’t spot where classical music misses out compared to the popular styles. Classical music has more structure, but less content in danceable grooves and singable melodies. In other words it is harder to participate in.

    The exclusive nature is easy to understand as the whole manufacturing process in classical is far more based on a hierarchy. In popular styles there are more people contributing to the creative process. Every note is not mapped out by a single composer. Being a more participatory process the result is thus a richer tapestry. 

  • Kugelschreiber

    When I was little back in the 60’s, my parents had JUST ONE record of classical music, it was the first classical music I ever heard, it was an old 78 record.  I loved it and played it again and again.

    It was The Blue Danube, by Johann Strauss, played by an orchestra.

    I can remember my big sister, who was about 8 years older than me, going on about this thing called “Fingal’s Cave”, which she said was lovely. I finally managed to get round to listening to it when I was about 50 something. Yes, it is very nice, I think it’s by Mendelssohn

    We were not a posh family, very working class, Mom worked in a canteen, I remember one of her favourites was Handel’s Largo, although she wasn’t into classical music in a big way.

    My other sister used to like the Rolling Stones & then the Moody Blues. My very little sister used to like all the 80’s stuff, I forget the groups, that nice song “I know that love is good” for example, forget name of group.

    When I was 15, I saw this Cornel Wilde film about Chopin (A Song to Remember I think) and after that I just HAD to learn piano. Mom and Dad managed a 2nd hand piano, which still had candlesticks on it, and I had to pay for lessons out of my pocket money. A man who’d been blinded in the 1st World War used to come and tune it occasionally.

    When I was a bit older, maybe early 20’s, I discovered Fats Waller and his marvellous piano playing.

    I play piano on my electronic keyboard nowadays.

  • Dexsster

    At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s a lot of music that is uplifting and positive, and it can be found in (pretty much) all genres. Kids should be exposed to a wide variety so that they can choose what speaks to them, and I’d oppose any efforts to push one genre over the others. Definitely in favour of playing more music at schools though : classical, blues, jazz, rock, folk and punk – why not mix it up a bit! Just need to check the lyrics first… :)

  • Kugelschreiber

    Back in the 60’s, when I was little, about 10,and all that beastly tiresome SATS & League Tables stuff hadn’t started, so teachers still had time to teach & to be creative,  & respond to the individual needs of the class,  our teacher put on a production of Sleeping Beauty, in which the WHOLE CLASS had a part, even me! (I was a tree and I had to grow).

    There was no talking, just mime & classical music playing, which was lovely.  I forget what most of the music was now, but when Sleeping Beauty woke up, I can remember the teacher telling us the music played  was from Vivaldi’s “Spring”, which I now know to be part of  the 4 seasons by Vivaldi.

  • Kugelschreiber

    I really think that it’s a matter of individual taste.  Every brain resonates & responds to a different kind of music.  And some (perfectly nice) people arent’ bothered about music at all.

    Having said that, it is a good thing to give children to opportunity to hear classical music, since SOME of them will probably love it & they might not otherwise have heard it.  

    But not ALL of them will like it, simply because we all have different tastes.

  • mightymark

    Not sure this is right. True about the structure of Classical but I’d say classical often has better melodies too than popular music - by definition it is more melodious than for example rap music. It is actually often quite danceable too – try Beethoven’ss 7th symphony though few actually do so – but then isn’t a lot of popular music enjoyed just by listening e.g at rock concerts?

    And much pop music composition is  attributable to a single writer – especially in the case of singer song writers. In the case of the immensely popular “19″ album 7 of the 12 tracks are attributed (words and music) solely to Adele.

    I think both musics (all musics really) have sometiems greater and soetimes lesser levels of participation – no musical form can be said to have greater participation than opera in terms of numbers involved in the creative process.

    Clearly “popular” music has the edge in “popularity” but I am not sure Tapani’s post has the real reason for this which I think is more to do with accessability, availability and commercial promotion.


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