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Thomas Wilkins, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Youth and Family Conductor, leads a band class last year at Roxbury’s Roland Hayes School of Music, which comprises the music department of several Boston public schools. PHOTO BY STU ROSNER
by David A. Tyler
As a parent, you’ve heard it before: classical music is good for kids. You may like it as well, but you’ve never played an instrument in your life and have no idea where to start when it comes to exposing your children to the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
Thanks to modern technology, classical music can easily be researched online and downloaded right onto your home computer or MP3. Nearly all local orchestras or opera companies have concerts and resources specifically for kids. Classical music may intimidate parents, but conductors, performers and educators welcome families with open arms.
“You do not have to feel you need to be an expert before you share it with your child,” says Jessica Schmidt, director of education and community engagement at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
Consider these five steps to take to get your kids interested:
1 Make music a part of your life. “Let the music be real in your house and in your life,” says Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s youth and family conductor, “so it is real in your conversation, as opposed to ‘I’ve got to check this off my list of how to turn my kids into classical music lovers.’ It has to be as natural and genuine as possible.”
2 Show enthusiasm for all kinds of music, including classical. “As with anything, the parent or guardian should show excitement. That will rub off on the kids,” says Schmidt.
In fact, parental involvement is critical. “Children who are given the right environment, nurturing and instruction will grow up to be musical,” writes Robert A. Cutietta, dean of the University of California’s Thornton School of Music and a nationally known music educator, in his 2001 book Raising Musical Kids. “What is most important to realize is that you, the parent, may be the single most influential person in your child’s development as a musician.”
Your enthusiasm and involvement can take many forms. When playing classical music at home, a parent can clap to the rhythm of the music, march around the room or dance, according to Cutietta.
4 Play different types of classical music. Experts recommend that parents start playing recordings of classical music just after their babies are born. “Even 6-month-old babies, when you sing to them – they start dancing to the beat,” notes pediatrician Lisa Wong, M.D., past president of and a violinist in Boston’s Longwood Symphony Orchestra.
One of the best introductions, she says, is a series of CDs, called Classical Kids, about famous composers becoming involved in a child’s life. The recorded stories are fictional, interspersed with actual works by each composer.
Stories are an important way for kids to connect with classical music, especially opera. “I would emphasize how opera has so many ways to get into it,” says Ruth Knott, director of education for the San Francisco Opera. “It can be the stories, it can be music, it can be the visual arts,” she says. “For me, opera is always based on a story. There are characters you can learn about and think about, and really delve into a story.”
Opera combines “classical music, acting, dancing,” says Nathan Troup, stage director with the opera and vocal studies faculty at The Boston Conservatory. “It is really this amazing amalgamation of many things. I think, developmentally, it is so multilayered, and it cuts across so many disciplines,” that children really benefit from listening to it.
5 Open yourself up to learning alongside your children. Download or purchase different classical music recordings and talk together about them.
Attend a local concert together as a family. Watching a live performance is one of the most exciting ways to introduce kids to classical music. A live concert is also a way for kids to see how a community comes together around a shared goal.
“The orchestra is a great demonstration of 80 or 90 people working together as a community,” Wilkins says. “None of the instruments sound the same. They have to figure out a way to work together for this incredible product to come to fruition.”
The idea that listening to or playing classical music has a concrete impact on child development has been controversial since 1993, when a study demonstrated that college students who listened to a Mozart piano sonata temporarily improved their spatial reasoning IQ scores. The study spawned a trend known as the Mozart Effect, which suggested that listening to classical music makes you smarter.
Wong acknowledges that the Mozart Effect oversimplified the benefits of classical music, but, she says, it has helped bring attention to legitimate research. “While listening to music is beneficial, there are multiples studies now that actually playing an instrument actually changes the structure of the brain,” she says.
Music training in childhood does improve cognitive function, according to research by Ellen Winner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Winner and Schlaug followed 59 children ages 9-11, 41 of whom began regular music training at the beginning of the study, according to the Dana Foundation, which co-sponsored the research and published information on the findings in 2009. The researchers tested all of the children to see if musical training impacted skills such as fine motor control and sound discrimination. Brain scans of the kids revealed stronger connections in auditory and motor areas of the brain in students who took 15 months of training, compared with kids who received no musical training.
At the time, Schlaug called the research, “the first study to show brain plasticity in young children as a function of instrumental music instruction.”
Beyond brain development, however, classical music has broader benefits. “Music is a universal language—it stands the test of time,” says Wong.
Robert Cutietta believes simply that studying classical music makes children more well-rounded. “We want children to study music to develop their musicality and develop all the mental capacities we were born with,” he writes in Raising Musical Kids. “When one area of intelligence is developed, all areas are enhanced.”
David A. Tyler is a freelance writer and father.
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