“You’re a frigging idiot.”
That’s what the guy behind us said. He spoke so loudly that two rows of concert-goers heard it. He didn’t even wait until the intermission to announce he considered us boorish.
I’m still not sure what upset him so much. My seven-year-old daughter had begged to attend what she called a “real performance” after enjoying a number of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Musical Rainbows concerts for young children. Nearly every day since she’d been three years old she put on recordings such as Beethoven Lives Upstairs,
Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf / Narrated by Patrick Stewart · Opera de Lyon · Nagano, Song of the Unicorn, and Mr. Bach Comes to Call. Sometimes she played, sometimes she danced but mostly she drew pictures as she listened to compelling music woven around stories.
Going together to the concert was a rare night out for the two of us but I knew her three brothers weren’t as entranced by classical music. So that evening she and I dressed up, taking our eagerness to velvety seats not far from the stage. As the concert hall filled many people greeted us kindly. The musicians began to tune up and my daughter nodded at me. She knew this was her cue to be quiet until intermission.
Then the man behind us arrived. He squeezed past others, sat down and said aloud, “Oh no.” Because he exhaled so repeatedly and in such an exaggerated manner I wondered if he’d sat on something awful. Nope, the something awful was us.
Just as the conductor lifted his baton, the man behind us leaned forward as if to whisper, but his hissed words weren’t quiet at all. He said, “I paid good money for this seat. Your kid better not wreck it.” Then he muttered “idiot” under his breath. I turned around to look at him, more surprised than annoyed, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was glaring hatefully at my beautiful child.
The performance started and my daughter was enraptured. At times she looked over at me, squeezed my hand or leaned her head against me. Sometimes her hands floated just above her lap as if carried by sound. I paid close attention, hoping to hold the whole experience in my memory.
As the applause died down after the first piece the man behind us started sighing in exasperation. And he kept it up. I tried to notice what might have been bothering him. My daughter didn’t speak, didn’t hum along. She simply adored the music. But when the man started bumping my seat I turned my head just enough to look at him. He was still glaring at my child.
For reasons of his own he was fed up. He looked at me and said loudly, “You’re a frigging idiot.”
The moment intermission began he stomped off and didn’t return. I hoped he’d find some peace despite possession by keep-children-out-of-concert-halls demons. But I’m no saint, I was pretty thrilled he left.
The woman next to my daughter assured us we weren’t the problem. An elderly gentleman at the end of our row, an orchestra patron for thirty years, said he hoped to see more children who loved classical music. By the time the musicians filed back some people had chatted with my daughter, happy to learn about her specific knowledge of that evening’s program. Others said, quite tactfully, that it was rare to see youngsters attend an evening concert.
A common perception is revealed by this experience. Fine arts and eager children don’t go together.
It’s not just one guy convinced the presence of a kid will ruin his evening. Most people set the arts aside as something special or worse, something for those who really know what they’re reading/seeing/hearing.
To me that’s the sort of separatist thinking that keeps fine arts in the underfunded, under appreciated realm where nearly extinct things go to die. But that’s how they’re introduced to most young people. Arts are imposed using the old “eat this spinach or you’ll be punished” method. Great way to inspire a hatred of spinach. And art. It isn’t woven into their lives and it doesn’t grab them (or at least many of them) in a way that’s personally meaningful. Instead fine arts are introduced in later grades. Students are lectured, assigned work and graded. If they’re lucky they get extra doses of the arts doled out in guided museum visits and a class trip to see Shakespeare performed after weeks of preparation. The vitality is bled right out.
In Shakespeare’s time his plays were part of popular culture. People from all social classes crowded into the Globe Theatre where they enjoyed the bard’s social commentary, melodrama and comedy. Chances are they didn’t bother to analyze a thing. Chances are those plays did for them what art does when it means something to any of us, it illuminates.
Now I may provoke the label “idiot” again for admitting this but I love the way young people discover and appreciate art when it isn’t imposed on them. These days my kids are older (teens and young adults). They enjoy fresh visual arts on YouTube, soaring new classical music scored for video games, and performances everywhere. Better yet, they aren’t passive. They connect and engage with it. During a recent discussion I overheard my kids relate the theme of a recent movie to Homer’s Odyssey, tie that to quotes from a Terry Pratchett book, then they were off parodying the theme using quotes from movies and song lyrics. Lightening fast, funny and sharp. No curricula could possibly keep up.
My kids swam in the current of fine arts from the very beginning, as it flowed naturally with all the other influences in their lives.
Here’s the enjoyment-based, jump-right-in way we’ve always gotten comfy with fine arts in my family. (Caution, some may deem it idiotic.)
- Build in some fun. If you’re going to a concert in the park take along silent amusements for small people—a tiny stuffed animal that just might want to dance on its owner’s lap, drawing materials to capture impressions of the performers or the feeling of the music, a small treat that’s specific to concerts (consider bending that no lollipop rule). And if it isn’t much fun don’t stick around. Mosey off and wait until your children are older. And once your kids are older the experience is a greater pleasure for them if you let them invite a friend. We were often surprised to find that our 20th trip to a museum, where my kids clamored to see favorite sculptures and new exhibits, was the first trip for their friends.
- Make it an adventure. When you journey any distance to see a music performance, attend a play or ramble through galleries make that stop one of several anticipated events. Try to spot murals or other public art on the way (when they were little my kids knew we’d arrived when they waved at the Guardians of Traffic pylons as we drove over the bridge to Cleveland). Take a break in an ornate big city library, eat a packed lunch in a park, stroll through an open air market, pick up unusual snacks at an ethnic grocery, and let your child’s curiosity help guide the day’s events. If part of the day incorporates a lot of sit down time (including the ride to and fro) be sure to balance that with movement, exploration and sensory adventure.
- Tune it to the child’s level. Let preschoolers stroll as interest leads them through museums, especially art museums. You might decide to look for something specific on the way (one of my sons liked to spot animals, another son made it his quest to find anything airborne—birds, planes, angels, flying carpets).Make galleries a place of discovery. chat, ask questions, and when they lose interest it’s time to go.
- Make it an ordinary part of life. As with anything, it’s what you pay attention to that you magnify. Conversations about music, philosophy, poetry or logic are just regular mealtime topics, brought up with the same casual interest as sports or the weather. Literary discussion with a four-year-old is easy. Simply talk about the picture book you’ve just read together. How could it have ended differently or gone on longer? Why do you think the main character acted that way or made that decision? Which character would you like to be in the story? Why?
- Start early. Listen to music as you nurse babies to sleep, imagining the wonderful association that child is making between sound and comfort (whether Bach or the blues). Hold up tiny ones to get a better look at paintings or sculpture. Indulge in sock puppet conversations with your toddlers. Dance and sing together unselfconsciously. Display your child’s artwork in frames and on shelves. Make CD’s available to kids for bedtime listening or quiet time, especially those by professional storytellers such as Odds Bodkins (who started my kids’ love of Homer’s Odyssey) and Jim Weiss. A great selection is available at Gentle Wind, Chinaberry, and your local library.
- Enjoy it the way you choose. Shakespeare’s work may spark fascination in a lavishly illustrated picture book such as Coville’s William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Picture Yearling Book), an early chapter book such as Mayer’s The Tempest or maybe a graphic novel like The Tempest The Graphic Novel (American English, Original Text). See The Tempest in any number of movies from productions done in 1928 to the newest, recasting Prospero as a woman. Check out how The Tempest has been interpreted by artists throughout the years. My kids appreciate a stage performance best after they know the story well, on their own terms, after bumping into it in books or movies or music. After seeing the play, one of my kids noted that it was written 400 years ago but names from The Tempest are still popular today— Miranda, Ariel, Antonio,Iris, Sebastian. That reminds me that the roots of what we care about today go much farther back than we imagine.
Find more suggestions in Free Range Learning.
Orchestra artwork by Samuka