01 July 2009

Teaching Classical Music

A game plan for the uninitiated

You're a homeschooler. Maybe a Classical Homeschooler, or maybe you just want to include music appreciation in your curriculum. Whatever the reason, you're interested in teaching your child to understand and appreciate classical music. The problem is, you don't have a music background and you have no idea where to start.

That was me not long ago.

But having no idea where to start isn't something a homeschooling parent can afford let get in the way, so I did what I always do when faced with a puzzle: I Googled it.

The first thing I did was find out who the classical composers are.

Classical music, though it's the popular term, is actually a misnomer. It turns out that the classical era is just one of many periods we will want to study. Serious music -- or what Leonard Bernstein calls "intentional music" -- started with the first musical notation of choral music in the middle ages, and extends to today. The Classical period lasted from roughly about 1730 to about 1820.

I started with theory that at five or six, exposure to the music and familiarity with the names and biographies is more important than music theory. I recognized Beethoven's name and decided we'd start there.

It occurred to me that if the music were to be more than pretty noise, we needed to know not just the music, but the stories behind the music. I knew about a Classical kids DVD of Beethoven's music called Beethoven Lives Upstairs, so we ordered that from the library. I also hunted on Amazon for any other movies or books that could extend our understanding a bit more and selected two biographies aimed at young people.

Then I got a handful of music CDs of Beethoven's music from the library.

We watched the DVD together, and listened to the story as a book on tape for a couple of weeks, and then we read the books. In the meanwhile, we played the music at dinnertime and at other times during the day when music wouldn't be intrusive. (We found it went ok to play it while Jack was playing quietly, but during lessons, it didn't go well. The music was too compelling and his attention drifted off.)

Interestingly, Jack also found a 'step by step' music book that had a few notes from Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and he decided to learn to play it -- and he did!

This method was going pretty well, so we moved on to Mozart, using the the movie Amadeus. (It has some scenes that may not be appropriate for all children, but Jack enjoyed it.) Had I been able to get a more child-friendly movie about Mozart, I'd have gotten that.

We also got the Classical Kids book on tape Mozart's Magnificent Voyage, a couple of books about Mozart aimed at kids, and a stack of Mozart CDs from the library.

Then we followed the same pattern.Watch the movie, listen to the books on tape, read the books, and listen to the music a lot over the course of a couple of months.

Now I am planning to do the same with Hayden, but we may have to try someone else, depending on my ability to get information that's aimed at the right age.

My thought, in essence, is to make each composer real to Jack using several senses and several media. Ideally it would include one movie, one book on tape that uses the composers music as a backdrop to a biographical (or semi-biographical) story, and a couple of books of biography -- and a whole lot of music.

What I am noticing is that, having heard the music in the movies and books on tape, Jack tunes in to familiar melodies as we play the CDs during dinner and has started to hum many of them at odd moments throughout the day. I had played classical music most of his life, but this is the first evidence I have seen that the music is more than a background him to him.

I think this is working...but I am also open to more suggestions. (Rod is several steps ahead of Jack in learning music theory, and they are having a blast figuring that out together...which may well have as much or more to do with Jack's new interest in classical music as do the movies and books on tape...)


  1. I don't have anything useful to say; just wanted to note that I enjoyed reading about this. Jack is one lucky child! :)

  2. Thanks, Valerie! One major bonus is that classical music is coming to be more than pretty noise *to me*! I am beginning to recognize styles as belonging to specific composers for the first time...it a lot of fun!


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