A Parent's Guide to 'A Young People's Guide to the Orchestra'

Perhaps you haven't heard... toddlers have some pretty strong opinions! Lately my two-year-old, Penny, has been weighing in on everything from who gets to screw on the lid of her water bottle (her), what we should eat for dinner (strawberries with yogurt), where we should go for an afternoon outing (Target), and who should sit in her car seat (me, but eventually her, but then she gets to put on the shoulder straps and buckle the top clasp no matter what!). It makes sense—her world is daily expanding through new experiences and experiments, which means this young person is in a state of continual boundary creation, testing, and maintenance. Sometimes all at once. No wonder she tries to up the number of bed time books to six!

Musical preferences are no less subject to the toddler's strong opinions. By and large my daughter's tastes tend toward "children's music": a fluid genre that includes, among other things, African American spirituals, nonsense songs, English Puritan nursery rhymes, anti-war songs by Pete Seeger, Japanese folk songs, and newly-composed works about everything from public transportation to families of ducks, and personal hygiene to lovable arctic aquatic mammals and their daily schedules. This music is characteristically catchy, repetitive, and singable (and on many occasions has miraculously deescalated tantrums during long car trips).

 Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny feels much differently about "daddy music", by which I basically mean "classical" (though there's also a good mix of Gaelic EDM, Hungarian folk bands, and whatever freaky magic Matthias Loibner does with his magnificent Drehleier). Often the act of turning on flute fantasias by Telemann in the car results in a flurry of protestations from the back seat followed by heated negotiations. Indeed, "classical music" tends to be a hard sell for toddlers; very broadly speaking, the sort of musics that fall into this category tend to be long, developmental, enigmatic, and played on a wide range of old instruments.

This is not a post about the aesthetic merits or shortcomings of "children's music". It's also not about the "Mozart effect" and scientific or pseudoscientific arguments for guilting parents into playing more Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It's not even about how Raffi is somehow still recording and performing, and how his eponymous "Down by the Bay" is a song that maddeningly straddles realism and nonsense! This is a post about how I shared something I love with my two-year-old daughter, something that, because of a little parental participation, she has come to enjoy. Here's my guide for engaging your toddler with "classical music".

I started with a specific piece of music: A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra or as I call it in this post YPGO written by British composer Benjamin Britten in 1945. Despite the clear appeal to children in the title and Britten having written it on commission for educational purposes, it seems unlikely that my daughter would choose it over, say, Elizabeth Mitchell's "Little Bird". At face value, YPGO sounds "classically" complicated: it's a twenty-minute series of thirteen variations and a concluding fugue based on a rondeau by seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell written by a twentieth-century composer performed by a room filled with about twenty-five different types of acoustic instruments under the leadership of a stick-waving interpreter!! Sheesh... #canibeexcused

Take courage! What I discovered with Penny was that those very complications listed above which seem to discourage toddler (and sometimes adult) involvement are exactly those things which can hook the young person's interest. You could say that this piece of music has a lot going on. Rather than be intimidated by that, try to see that as the very point of the game. Here's how:

  1. Active Participation or Make it fun! The first thing to do is ditch the audience etiquette we associate with "classical music" concerts, namely, sitting silently in a darkened concert hall in detached cerebral contemplation waiting for the right moment to applaud. Rather stifling, even for adults. My solution is to hold off on the live concert experience and instead find a high-quality video of YPGO online to watch at home. This way you can interact with you child and the musical experience with as much enthusiasm as is necessary to keep things interesting. Penny sat on my lap, I opened a YouTube window, and these are the ideas that I kept in mind to actively participate with my daughter and the concert.
  2. Performative Listening or Use your eyes and say what you see! I developed this idea from teaching "Music Appreciation" to undergraduates at UCSB [link to post]. An orchestra is such a visual experience: bows gliding up and down, gleaming metal surfaces, dancing fingers, crashing cymbals, gesticulating conductor. It's well worth drawing attention to these things as the camera pans around the ensemble and focuses in on a particular section. These observations do not need to be particularly profound or insightful. Penny and I talked about how some instruments were big and some small, some performers had curly hair and some wore glasses, how some instruments were brown or silver or gold or black, and how some instruments are tucked under chins or held between legs or laid upon laps or held in front, etc. etc.
  3. Physical Mimicry or Use your eyes and do what you see! Who doesn't love to "air guitar"? #bohemianrhapsody Observations of how performers hold their different instruments easily morphs into a game of charades. All it really takes is for the parent to initiate by moving their hands and arms or with the use of a prop like a pencil or spoon. Moreover, the panning of the camera to different instruments will keep the game fresh and dynamic as you and your toddler quickly switch positions from sliding trombones to transverse flute to sawing violin to enthusiastic xylophone.
  4. Intuitive Listening or Use your ears and say what you hear! I also developed this idea from my collegiate teaching. The human auditory system comes prewired to detect even the smallest changes in sound. It's how we detect sarcasm in a person's speech patterns, the location of someone talking in a building, the presence of an ambulance. In the case of music, "classical music" in general is known for wide variation, often utilizing every shade of fast-slow, up-down, loud-quiet, happy-sad, etc. Once you notice a change (and in YPGO they are rather blatant) describe it using whatever words or phrases you can. It does not need to be technical. It can simply be descriptive. Or emotional. Or pictorial. The cool thing with watching a video of a concert is that often when there is an important change in the music the cameras will highlight the source of the sound giving a visual correspondence to an aural event. Here's some examples from my time with Penny:

"Wow, that sound was high like a bird!" [Camera focused on piccolo.]

"Those ones play very low because they are so big." [Group of double bassists.]

"They are going a lot faster now!" [Bows jerking up and down quickly.]

"Those ones play loud and strong!" [Group of brass players.]

"This part is very quiet. I wonder when it will get loud again." [String players motionless.]

"It's like they're swinging on a big swing!" [Clarinets alternately playing up and down.]

"I think it sounds like galloping horses." [Trumpets and snare drum clipping along.]

"I'm lost at this part. It sounds like lots of people whispering at the same time." [???]

That last example is extremely important. Whatever you do, don't make it seem like you are only participating in this experience because you have complete confidence in what's going on at all times. In fact, it's best if you aren't for the sake of your toddler. Sometimes the music will sound vague or overly-complicated and you will get lost. Own it! Show your toddler that it's ok to be lost. It's musical hide-and-seek! It's part of the game!

Below is the video I used with Penny. The music starts at 2:00 and they didn't get as good a shot of the percussion section in action as I would have liked, but besides that, I would highly recommend it! Good camera work, lots to see and hear, and very well played. If this one doesn't strike your fancy, find your own, for whatever reasons suit you.

My hope is that this approach to listening to "classical music" with a toddler sounds doable to any parent out there. You don't have to be a musicologist to do it. You don't even need to know the names of the instruments. Or the form of the piece. Or the socio-historical context of YPGO and its meaning for England at the close of WWII. All you need to do is actively participate with your toddler on a visually and aurally interesting journey. If you don't know the way, be attentive and courageous in the face of the unknown and point out all the things you notice. Show young people that life is full of wondrous and exciting things and that given a context of safety, curiosity, fun, and empathy, everyone is equipped to make something of it. #babysteps