Is it ever too early to introduce your child to live classical music?
What age is too young to introduce your child to live music? As a relatively new parent – my son Humphrey was born in January 2011 – that’s a question I started pondering almost as soon as the first nappy was changed and the handlebars were fitted to the pram. Nursery rhymes are an essential rite-of-passage and the ditties my wife has picked up at the various playgroups she’s taken Humphrey to – ‘The Say Hello To The Sun Song’ and ‘There’s A Worm At The Bottom Of My Garden (And His Name Is Wiggly-Woo)’ – are charm itself. But my son’s named after Lyttelton and Searle! And if he is to become the hot jazz trumpeter or the 12-tone symphonist of my dreams, I needed to act now.
Which is exaggeration for comedic effect of course. Humphrey will discover his own pathway through life, but the parental instinct to share that which has been so rich and nourishing in your own life is triggered pretty much instantaneously, and so, on a perishingly cold January morning, I found myself at one of the Wigmore Hall’s For Crying Out Loud! concerts, aimed at ‘new parents and their babies’ – Humphrey balanced on one leg and a concert programme on the other.
Two weeks later Humphrey experienced his first London Symphony Orchestra gig, a concert for under-5s at LSO St Luke’s; then last week a violin and piano recital in Hampstead as part of the series Classics with my Baby. Never before at a concert have I witnessed one audience member hit another over the disputed ownership of a toy truck; never before have I sat through a programme that included Stravinsky and ‘The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round’.
A subtle but key distinction became clear from the off – there are ‘conventional’ concerts made baby-friendly, while other concerts have been tailor-made for young ears. The Wigmore Hall concert, well intentioned as it was – and I’m bound to say very well attended – fell awkwardly between the two. The Wilhelm Quartet opened with Vivaldi (Humphrey cried), Mozart (Humphrey ripped up the programme I’d given him to stop him crying), Schumann (Humphrey slept, worn out by the effort of ripping up the programme), Tchaikovsky (Humphrey was transfixed) before, bizarrely, the quartet played the slow (and very quiet) movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet just as a crescendo of bored, fidgety baby cries hit its peak. The Shostakovich was completely inaudible to parents – but shouldn’t a concert open to babies be trying to engage with them anyway? Stiff onstage announcements added to an uneasy formality, suggesting a concept that needs fine-tuning.
The LSO concert, by contrast, was spot on. Part-concert, part-music lesson, part-story time, part-pantomime, presenter Vanessa King and five players from the orchestra (flute, trombone, violin, cello, double bass) used ‘Goldilocks and The Three Bears’ to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra. Daddy bear was the bass (Gramophone readers ought to be clued up enough to work out the rest), scampering up stairs was symbolised by some pretty mean pizzicato bass playing; a door slam by way of a Bartók pizzicato. Unlike For Crying Out Loud!, chunks of The Nutcracker Suite and Peer Gynt were given a context by King’s spirited story-telling skills. Paul The Trombonist, as he was introduced, was directly in front of us. In truth, Humphrey was too young to appreciate the story; but he knew there was something special about the sound of this grown man and his strange golden metal toy.
Classics with my Baby concerts happen in ten venues across London. Founded by pianist Miaomiao Yu and violinist Philippa Mo shortly after they became mothers, whatever the Wigmore Hall got wrong, they manage to get right. Short pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Schumann, Peter Warlock, Offenbach and Grieg was a programme I’d happily sit through under any circumstances. The babies danced, crawled and were moved in time with the music, and could interact with each other on strategically placed playmats. The concert ended with requests for nursery rhymes. Babies and parents left satisfied.
Given that he lives already in a musical environment, with Beethoven, Mingus and John Lee Hooker regularly blaring in the background, what am I expecting Humphrey to gain from the experience? It might be that he gets nothing out of it at all, and the whole classics-for-babies thing is just indulgent, wishful thinking. Then again, no one thinks introducing your child to ideas of language and narrative by showing them picture books is a waste of time, and I’d like Humphrey to be sonically literate too. Especially as, to be honest about it, the prospect of having to play football in the park fills me, Mr Indoors, with dread and I’m leaving that job to his mum.
Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.