Instilling an appreciation for classical music can be daunting for a parent or teacher raised on pop, rock and rap music. But it can be done. I know — as a young mother, I had good intentions of teaching my children to love the best kinds of music. Before my first child was even born, I would turn on the local classical radio station and plug in headphones, then put the headphones up to my pregnant stomach so the baby could hear it, but I wouldn’t have to listen. By the time I had two preschoolers, I had a plan to listen to exactly two hours of classical music every day (for the children’s sake!), but after a half hour, I had usually had enough and needed to turn on some pop music for relief. Yet now, we listen to classical music for quite a bit more than two hours a day, and it’s by my preference rather than because the schedule says so.
I won’t try to convince you of the reasons why classical music is great, or why it’s important to attempt to develop an appreciation for it. For my purpose here, it’s enough that it’s one aspect of a Charlotte Mason education. Others have written about the complexity of its composition and how it utilizes more of the brain (some have even claimed that it can make you smarter!) It has a timelessness that pop music can’t rival. During the first days after 9-11, when a sense of pervading fear was in the air, and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under the world, I had an overwhelming desire to hear classical music — to hear something beautiful that had been written by someone who had lived in a world that knew nothing of 9-11, and that would still be loved and listened to long after 9-11 had faded into distant history. I needed a connection to something timeless enough to take me beyond the horror of “here and now,” and, at that moment, classical music was what I craved.
For someone intimidated by classical music, getting into it can be done in slow, easy steps. You don’t have to cover everything. The goal isn’t a comprehensive knowledge of music history and knowledge of who wrote what, and when. A Charlotte Mason education isn’t about collecting all the facts and information about everything. The goal is personal enjoyment and mental enrichment, to spark an interest that can be continued on into adulthood and bring pleasure and beauty to one’s life even years after school is over. Music appreciation isn’t a chore to endure, like memorizing multiplication tables, or finishing your vegetables; it’s more like a gourmet feast at a buffet table to be tasted and nibbled. If you don’t like one thing, you can try something else. If you find a side dish you love, you can skip the salad and fill your plate with more of that. The point is to try a little of this, a little of that, until you find something that you like. Very often, something that didn’t impress you one way or the other at first will grow on you once you get used to it. That’s even more true of music than of food. Classical music can sound strange to ears used to hearing popular music, but it can be eased into.
There are various ways of acclimating oneself to classical music. Combining music with relaxing sounds of nature may make true afficionadoes cringe, but it made a comfortable introduction to some of Bach’s more well-known works for us. “Bach Naturally” (by North Sound), with bird songs, rippling brooks and rain in the background became a favorite CD. We also loved a similar CD of Beethoven’s music by Lifescapes. There’s nothing like Moonlight Sonata with soft, rolling thunder to add drama to a lovely piece of music.
Another non-threatening way to ease into music listening is with CD’s intended for babies — relaxing pieces that are deliberately selected for their accessibility for infant ears, and played in a soothing way. Collections labelled “for relaxation” and Adagios are also nice for playing in the background to get your ears used to the sounds of classical music. As a bonus, many of these types of collections are offered as budget CDs (or even as budget mp3 downloads). We also have a collection of Famous Marches (think John Philip Sousa), a collection of famous opera overtures, and “Fortissimo: The World’s Loudest Classical Music.” Those aren’t as relaxing, but they were fun for the kids.
Books can also spark some interest. We read Kathleen Krull’s “Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought).” It was a fun, light-hearted way to aquaint ourselves with some of the world’s most famous composers. Now that I’ve put a little more serious study into the lives of some of these composers, I realize that many of the “biographies” in this book are collections of some of the weirdest, quirkiest habits and incidences in their lives, some true, some legendary enough to be questionable. Still, it’s a fun way to know who’s “out there” in the world of classical music.
Local symphonies usually have at least one concert a year for the general public, where they play pieces most people will recognize and enjoy. We took advantage of those when we could. Often, they were a mix of classical music, popular music and show tunes. These are done as outreach events and appeal to a public who might not be ready to sit through two hours of Mahler’s Third Symphony, but who would enjoy part of one of Mozart’s popular symphonies followed by some foot-tapping tunes from West Side Story. We’ve been to some in auditoriums as events offered to schools and homeschoolers, and some outdoors, as a free public concert where you could bring a picnic dinner.
With modern technology, classical music can be enjoyed without leaving your home, and without spending any money. Before we started our collection of music, we listened to the radio. It was a painless way to get the music into our home without having to figure out which composer to choose. When we heard something we liked, we would listen for the name of the piece and the composer, and write it down. After a while, we had a list of classical pieces we liked, such as Faure’s “Pavane,” Bach’s “Air on a G String,” Satie’s “Gymnopodie,” Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise,” Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E minor,” and Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre.” That led us to pay attention to other music from the same composers, and we slowly started a list of composers we liked. Classical radio stations are disappearing as public interest declines, but there are many stations that stream over the internet. In fact, the station that played a big part in our early music education (WDAV) is gone from our airwaves, but we listen to them online now. YouTube is also a great (and free!) resource. We’ve looked up specific pieces of music and almost always found someone playing it on YouTube. We’ve been able to watch some of the greatest musicians of our era – violinists such as Joshua Bell and Jascha Heifetz, and pianists such as Alfred Brendel, Valentina Lisitsa and Vladamir Horowitz.
At one point in our music journey, I discovered that I loved Chopin. I think we spent two years listening almost exclusively to him. It’s not exactly the strict CM formula of studying one composer for a term, but it grounded us by providing a main focal point from which other composers expanded – Chopin led naturally to Liszt and Mendelssohn, who lived at the same time he did, and then to Schumann. Another year we spent on Mozart, taking time to really get to know his Requiem and a few other pieces. Although we covered less, familiarity with these few pieces has grown into love as we’ve gotten to know them better.
Did all of that translate into a love of classical music? Yes and no. As my sons have grown up, one of them loves classical, one likes it, and one prefers popular music. For myself, it was just a beginning. From the mom who couldn’t take more than a half hour of classical music, I now have a long list of music and composers that I’ll probably never have enough time to get to know as well as I’d like. Currently, I’m back to Chopin, devoting this year to getting to know his Ballades. Maybe next year I’ll listen to his Mazurkas, or maybe I’ll have to put those off to listen to his Nocturnes again. Then there’s still Tchaikovsky and Schumann, and I haven’t even touched Mahler yet. I’m starting piano lessons, and my youngest child is just starting school, so we have twelve more years to continue discovering what else is out there, and finding new works and composers to love.
She’s already telling me she prefers Satie to Chopin.
(Leslie Noelani Laurio is a homeschooling mother of four children, and an Advisory member for Ambleside Online, a Charlotte Mason curriculum.)
© Leslie Noelani Laurio 2012