Children will listen…

In 2005, when I was finishing my Masters at Nottingham University, I had a job one afternoon a week at a primary school. The school’s excellent music teacher was not a pianist, so I was recruited to sit in the hall at the tinny but serviceable upright, and accompany each class as they came in for singing lessons with their teachers. We did all sorts – songs I remember singing myself as a five-year-old from that great collection Harlequin; The Beatles; sea shanties; pastiche rock n’ roll numbers – it was great. And in the afternoon break, I was allowed to stay in and play, so I often brought solo repertoire with me to get in twenty minutes of practice.

One afternoon, as I was working my way through a couple of pages of a particularly showy Liszt song transcription, a little girl came over to the piano and stood at the bass end of the instrument, lowering her head to gaze along the full compass of the keys. On my enquiry as to whether she was alright, she simply nodded and carried on watching. So I played. First I played the passage through slowly; and then I sped it up to real tempo, whizzing up and down a series of arpeggios in one hand whilst the melody played in the other. I thought it sounded rather good.

A heap of instrumentsSo I turned to my observer and asked what she thought. She looked pensive for a minute. ‘It’s good,’ she said. Then she thought a little more, and regarded me very seriously. ‘But can you play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?’

 ‘Yup, I can play that too.’

‘Hmmm. Yes. So can I.’ She nodded, case closed, and wandered off back to her classroom.

It is for conversations like that I adore talking to kids. They are thoughtful, inquisitive, and thrillingly democratic about all aspects of culture, because at primary age, they are still for the most part unaffected by the aesthetic judgments and classifications of older generations. They are fearless in their questioning of the most basic aspects of things, because they don’t understand why there should be anything to fear. Good for them. If you really want a penetrating inquiry into the world around you, ask a five-year-old.

This week, I have been thinking a lot about the amazing wonders that are children. I finally got around to watching Don’t Stop the Music, James Rhodes’s mission to improve music provision in our schools. It was extremely moving, and watching his attempts to get the project off the ground made clear his passion and determination. But the stars of the show, without a doubt, were the children. Their expressions on seeing and hearing a live orchestra, their comments on the importance and centrality and utter joy of music-making, were more eloquent than any adult could ever be. They learned, and worked hard (which improved their performance across the board, of course), and had a tremendous amount of fun. And all  music was valid to the argument – it was all just music. Beethoven, Strauss, Tinie Tempah, Labrinth, Jessie J and a host of others… I take my hat off to James Rhodes for holding onto that childhood eclecticism in the promotion of his adult campaign. We need to get better at discussing a wide range of music, in classrooms, clubs and cafes, and not set up the next generation to imagine walls where none need to exist.  As Stephen Sondheim so wisely has it, ‘Careful the things you say, children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn’ – towards or away things, cultural or otherwise.

Children and music have popped up in several other articles that have caught my attention this week. Suzy Klein’s Radio 3 blog describes her own childhood musical experiences, in the run-up to a series of events around the BBC’s Ten Pieces scheme.  Both children and adults will have the chance to introduce the repertoire on the Breakfast Show, so I’m crossing my fingers that we get some proper existential corkers from the under-18s in the room. Over at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House launched an online debate on Wednesday, asking what people thought about children attending opera . Their tone and wording is ham-fisted (‘Is introducing children to opera smug parenting or a valuable cultural eye-opener?’); but it has prompted a number of thoughtful replies. Personally, I’d say children getting to experience live opera is a great idea. But I’d recommend caution at taking very small people to certain shows, partly because they are long and tiring, but mostly because opera plots are often not exactly U-rated. A child’s wonderful imaginative freedom comes partly from the fact that their sense of a distinction between fiction and non-fiction remains porous for quite a long time (there are some amazing articles on this by Professor Jacqueline Woolley), so opera-choosers need to exercise some discretion.

There is one group of people that we should be careful to remember in all of the many and various educational debates of today, from the BBC’s Ten Pieces to the endless stream of articles trumpeting the enormous benefits of music to developing minds. That group is: children. This may seem like a curious thing to say, but as adults it’s all too easy to look back to our own past as a series of anecdotes that begin with ‘I was so lucky that…’ or ‘I was given a wonderful opportunity to…’. And they probably were (I certainly was). But the point of all this campainging is that musical education shouldn’t be a privilege, or luck, or a wonderful opportunity. It should just be. And if every story we tell on this subject places the children – children now, or us as children in the past – as passive, defenceless receivers of whatever they happen to be given, we are missing something crucial. Children are amazing, complex, powerful, imaginative humans whose hearts and heads are governed by the same vast emotional and intellectual forces as adults. They have agency. They have strong opinions and are not afraid to say them, out loud, to whoever will listen. Don’t Stop the Music makes that very clear. So does Tim Minchin’s fabulous musical Matilda. And so does Stephen Sondheim. Give them a chance; give them respect; give them the freedom to explore and to play. Children will listen.

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