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Love That Mozart!
Does It Make Kids Smarter? Maybe Not. Is It Smart Fun? You Bet.

By Buzz McClain
(4/9/01)


While the evidence of whether the "Mozart Effect" works is still being studied, parents and politicians alike are hedging their bets that exposing their children to classical music makes them smarter.

Item: The governor of Georgia wanted to hand each new mother a CD of classical music as they left the hospital after giving birth.

Item: In Florida, legislators wanted to require state-funded childcare centers to play Beethoven for a minimum amount of time each day.

"This troubles me," says Martin Goldsmith, the program director for XM Satellite Radio's classical and opera channels and the former host of National Public Radio's "Performance Today" for a dozen years (he also wrote the book about his parents, "The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany").

"The implication is we listen to Mozart to improve quantifiable areas of our lives. Listening to Mozart is valuable in and of itself, not because it will give you higher test scores but because it opens up a window to the best part of the human animal.

"Mozart is one of the supreme achievements of this species, and that's a good enough excuse as far as I'm concerned."

In our household, Bach rocks and Vivaldi rules, and Goldsmith thinks we've done things right by simply exposing our kids to classical music without much fanfare. Samantha, 5 1/2, requests Rossini while she does her homework and chills out to Chopin; sometimes she and her 3 1/2 year old brother Luke ask us to put in a "Three Tenors" video instead of watching "Batman Beyond." No kidding.

Chances are your infant, toddler, pre-schooler, school kid or teen-ager is a classical music fan too, but you just don't know it - and neither do they. Here are some ways to help them discover "serious" music. You may already have: Remember, "Close Your Eyes" is Brahms' Lullaby.

Don't make a big deal about it. Slip in Liszt in the car tape deck or CD player as you drive. Make it part of your daily life, just as you would with any music you play on the stereo. Don't be afraid to show how much the music makes you happy, and if you are not an aficionado, now's the time to explore classical music for yourself. There's good reasons these pieces have been around for hundreds of years.

"Children do the things their parents do," says Goldsmith. "If you sit around watching 'Survivor,' that's what they're going to do too. If you play them Mozart and Brahms, they'll probably listen along. After a while your kids will say, 'We want to hear that one that goes like this.'"

Present car radio. Keep the local classical music station on a button on the radio. You'd be amazed at how much mellower the ride home from school is.

Get to know your Instruments. As you drive along or listen at home, point out what instrument is being played at the time. If you say, "That's a violin," the next time you hear the piece your young one might chime up with the name of the instrument. Just don't confuse your French horns with oboes.

Go short. If your young one's attention tends to roam, try shorter, punchier pieces. Look for the words "intermezzos," "gavottes," "scherzo," "minuet" or "theme" in the title. Rossini's overtures are good for starts. The label Deutsche Grammophon has a wonderful collection by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, including a rousing 11-minute "William Tell," which your kids probably DON'T recognize as the theme to "The Lone Ranger."

Make up a story. Stories go great with pieces. For some music, you don't have to - they're already there. Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," for instance, is about an epic battle; the composer plays out the fierce fight right before your ears, all the way to when the Russian cannon finally come to save the day. The most popular story/symphony is "Peter and the Wolf," in which a different instrument represents each character (the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, etc.); a narrator talks listeners through the story. "Star Trek's" Patrick Stewart narrates a fine version by the Orchestre De L'Opera De Lyon.

"I still can't listen to a clarinet without thinking of a cat," says Goldsmith of the piece.

"There is a story but there also is great music. . . Some music is not about anything, it's just about itself. It can be enjoyed on a sensual level for the sounds it produces. Children need to know that their imaginations and sensory equipment are important to develop, not just the logical parts of their minds."

Teens are different. A teen tends to enjoy things his parents don't; it's his way of becoming his own person. Which is why Intersound Entertainment calls its classical label "counter culture/Classical Underground" and has packaged a music CD with the name "What Does a Deaf Guy Hear?" The "deaf guy," of course, is Beethoven. Also by Intersound are "Not Bad for a Kid," the kid being young Mozart, and "Prolific in Every Respect," featuring J.S. Bach, who fathered 20 children.

See the real thing. Many orchestras have morning performances for school groups, but that's not to say you can't go with your four-year-old. Call for a schedule and find out about individual ticket sales. And don't overlook free concerts in parks.

Lighten Up. With older kids, especially if they play in the school band and read music, don't overlook P.D.Q. Bach, J.S. Bach's lesser known son. Actually P.D.Q. is the nom de plum of Richard Schickele, a fiendishly clever composer and madman who turns the nuts and bolts of "serious" music on its ear. Try the Grammy winning "Oedipus Tex and other Choral Calamities" (Telarc), which includes "Howdy There" sung by the Okay Chorale.

Think hands-on. Encourage involvement. Visit music stores where instruments are on display; ask for demonstrations. Check the classifieds and sign up for lessons. Music, like languages, is easier to learn the younger the child is; don't miss the opportunity to begin a lifetime love of music - for both of you.

"Back in the old days it was almost axiomatic that kids would take some kind of music lesson," says Goldsmith. "I think when you fully participate in something there's a further level of creation that goes on. If you took piano lessons or played trumpet in the school band, you have a deeper understanding of what it takes to make music."




Buzz McClain is an at-home dad and a music critic for the Washington Post.





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