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Five ways to get your family into classical music

Classical music offers something for everyone, says Kate Faithfull-Williams, from toddlers to teens to the kid rolling their eyes as they read this over your shoulder.

Playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory, coordination and teach them perseverance. Photograph: Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy United
Playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory, coordination and teach them perseverance. Photograph: Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy United

Classical music can be daunting. With a genre dating back hundreds of years, the choices are overwhelming. So where do you start? With the benefits, that’s where.

“Music brings people together and helps kids – and parents – listen better,” says composer John Webb, who has worked with everyone from five-year-old songwriters to traditional Indian musicians and a virtual symphony orchestra to introduce new audiences to classical music. Classical tracks are also scientifically proven to relieve stressboost brainpower and even help us be more open emotionally – all good news for happy families. So, here’s how to get involved …

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Toddlers and preschoolers
“Young kids are innately musical,” says Webb, mimicking the singsong speech and extended vowel sounds we instinctively use with small people – “Ooh what a bee-yoo-tiful baby”. Children have an unrepressed desire to dance, too. “Kids move in different ways to different music, tiptoeing, stamping and twirling,” explains Webb.

So how can you bring out the best in your mini maestro? Composer Oliver Davis, whose 2018 album Liberty topped the iTunes Classical Charts, says: “Try listening to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, which describes lots of wild animals through music.”

From age five to eight
Did you know that this is the prime age for children to write music? “Kids naturally make up their own songs as they play,” says Webb, who generously describes those improvised 10-second tunes as, “mashups”. To enhance that natural ability, he advises using a story as a hook. “Kids love stories, and quickly understand that different notes and speeds of music create a sense of character. Classical music is easily simplified and it can be creative and powerful for children.”


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Want to get involved? Try something like the BBC Singers Family Concert (9 February 2020, Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, London; prices from £5), which promises to be very interactive and is aimed at kids aged five and over. Alternatively, join the BBC Concert Orchestra at Musical Roots(22 February 2020, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London; prices from £5) for a magical adventure the whole family can enjoy, exploring exciting and unusual connections between composers, their music and their families.

From age nine to 12
You may know that playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory and coordination, and teach them perseverance. You definitely know that persuading your pre-teen to practise playing an instrument is like lighting a stick of dynamite, so explosive are the arguments.

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The solution, suggests Davis, could be as simple as inspiring your child by letting them see someone older play their instrument expertly. The BBC is laying on two upcoming events that will transport young people into a different world and get them excited about playing.

Try Family Total Immersion: Lift Off! (1 December, Barbican Hall, London; prices from £5) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which celebrates 50 years since the moon landing with live music, interactive workshops and film to take you on a musical adventure through space. Best of all, there are more than two hours of drop-in foyer activities, including the chance for kids to try a variety of instruments before the show.

David Walliams is also doing a special performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2 May 2020, Barbican, London; prices from £5), which is virtually guaranteed to hook kids into playing classical music. Walliams will read from his bestselling children’s books, including Bad Dad and The World’s Worst Children, alongside musical treats from a full orchestra.


The teenage years
Can parents introduce anything to their sceptical teen? “The kiss of death is for a parent to show keenness,” warns Webb. “Osmosis is your best bet, so play the pieces you like at home. Go for tracks with a pounding rhythm and bleakness, like Shostakovich Symphony No 5, as the raw energy and emotion may get your teen’s attention.”

Film can also be a good entry point for teenagers. “I would always point towards innovative composers and performers who are very current,” says Davis. “So maybe don’t start with Mozart. Instead, go for composers like Max Richter, who scored Mary Queen of Scots,or Joby Talbot, who scored The League of Gentlemen. Both Richter and Talbot are also serious concert hall composers in their own right.” Talbot’s Everest will be performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra next year (20 June 2020, Barbican Hall, London; prices from £10).

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If all else fails …
Stealth is a weapon at your disposal. “There are so many great concerts out there, but the mistake is dragging a reluctant child to a classical concert and expecting them to walk out enlightened and interested,” warns Davis. “So find an appropriate concert of music your child might grow to like and research the music that’s going to be performed. Play sections of it in the car and at home ahead of the concert. Otherwise it’s a huge amount to take in. As the composer Philip Glass once said: ‘People don’t know what they love, they love what they know.’”

Learn more about getting the whole family into classical music with advice and events from the BBC’s Get Involved initiative

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