Introducing Kids to Classical Music

Music teacher, Carolyn Sloan, wrote an interactive book called, Welcome to the Symphony, which uses Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5., to introduce children to the world of classical music. Here we talk to her about the book and why music is so important in a child’s upbringing.

What prompted you to write Welcome to the Symphony? I teach music at an independent school in Brooklyn, the Berkeley Carroll School. I teach an orchestra unit to the 4th grade and I noticed that a lot of the students had never been to a symphonic concert before. I wanted to find a way to introduce kids and their parents to the wonders of classical music, hoping that they would then frequent the orchestra, the opera, or the ballet and become more acquainted with these art forms. I also wanted to make sure that kids had the experience of something different while they were reading a book about music. I thought it really would be better if the music was somehow in the book itself. So I started talking with some people about how we could do that, how maybe with just the press of a button they could hear the theme, hear the music in context and also it would be fun; it would be interactive for the children.

Why is music so important to a child’s upbringing or education? There are so many reasons, first music brings an enormous amount of joy to most people so just in listening, a kid has a reason to sing, to dance, to imagine. I like to say “music is the language of imagination.” It gives a context where our minds can be free and we can dream and imagine.

What’s the best part about teaching music to kids? Mostly it’s fun. I have a really good time working with kids; they really keep me on my toes all the time. You never know what’s going to happen and every day is different. With teaching, in general, children demand inherently that you be flexible, creative, and present and I think that’s a really great way to be all the time. Kids keep you honest. I have to think about how to keep their interest and I have to be ready to change my plans at any moment. I just really enjoy coming to work every day.

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How did you choose the song? I thought Beethoven’s 5th symphony was the perfect piece because of its motivic melodies. What that means is that it has these very short, melodic fragments. It’s very easy for kids to recognize those three short notes and one long one. Their ears train to hear that. When you think of playground melodies they are all short motivic melodies that kids’ ears really gravitate to, so I thought, Beethoven, in that piece, takes that little fragment and repeats it and repeats it, which made it very accessible and also kids have heard it before so it’s a good starting point. It’s also really dramatic and kids get so excited by the music they start conducting and moving their bodies right away.

Have you used the book in any of your classes? I have used it and actually I’ve been doing forms of this in my classroom for a long time with different pieces of music. I’m lucky enough to have really good tools. I use a smart board, which is like an interactive white board and I’m able to bring things up as I need to, and that’s what gave me the idea for the book, to make it as interactive as possible.  In class, I bring different composers in all the time and we have fun playing “name that composer.” I’ll play a piece and ask, “who wrote this?” 

Any tips for parents who want to start playing more classical music at home? A lot of the time we use music too much as background music and don’t pay attention to it. We put it on and it’s almost like a movie score to our lives, which is fine. But I think it’s really important to use it very deliberately. If you are going to put in a CD, then I think you need to sit down and listen and then talk about what you’re hearing. Talk about how this music makes you feel, or dance to the music, or draw attention to the different instruments and look up the instrumentation. Really focus on it and make it important. Use music at bedtime in addition to stories, put on music and make up a story to the music that you hear. Create the stories and act them out with your kids. You can also play music in the bath and kids can splash along to the rhythm of the music. Make it part of playtime. Add music to almost everything you do, but bring focus to it. 

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