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IN AN INCREASINGLY VISUAL WORLD, LISTENING IS A LEARNED ART
by Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.*
In an increasingly visual world, learning to listen is becoming a learned art. Every parent wishes that their child would just listen. But listening is differentiated from hearing because it denotes comprehension, and today young people are bombarded with pictures as the fundamental way of acquiring information. My father, a poet and English professor, lamented the decline of reading and the takeover of the “Cyclops in the living room,” namely, the television. “We are returning to the middle ages where the vast majority of people acquired their information through pictures,” he noted, and I thought of all the stained glass windows in European churches. The visual medium is very powerful, but we must be careful to balance all five of our senses if we are to appreciate the richness of the world we live in.
I encourage parents to have a CD or tape player in three places: the kitchen, the child’s bedroom, and in the car. The first step in learning to listen is, simply, listening, and most people discover that they need to make a conscious effort to turn off the video or TV and turn on some music. Psychologists are now saying that no child should be put in front of a TV or computer before the age of two, and neurologists maintain that listening to symphonic music improves the hardwiring of the brain. Step one of learning to listen is to think about music and how you would integrate it into your life.
Your child’s first musical experience will probably be the lullaby that you sing to him or her at bedtime. Fear not, regardless of how well or poorly you sing, your baby will like your singing because it is you. The next music may be the CD that you put on softly but, remember, music is not just for inducing sleep. Turn music on when you are playing with your baby or toddler. There is great music to romp to. If you do not know where to begin, I recommend John Feierabends’ Make the Beat, a CD of 36 Pieces of classical music in 75 minutes. You can start your classical music collection just by purchasing the complete versions of pieces you enjoy on this CD. Children as young as two can enjoy having a simple player and a small collection of tapes or CDs in their room. You will discover that your child has musical preferences rather early in life. Almost all children like music, but as parents purchase toys and books for their child’s room, they often forget to include music in the mix. Why is it so important? Because of what is known as the “Mozart effect.”
The “Mozart effect,” as it is commonly referred to in America today, began with studies in France in the 1950’s where Dr. Alfred Tomasi studied the effects of music on children with speech and communication disorders. In the 1990s, studies at the University of California, Irvine, showed that 20 minutes of listening to Mozart before taking intelligence tests resulted in a significant improvement in scores that measured spatial intelligence. Further research has shown that listening to music can not only improve listening disorders, dyslexia, attention disorder, autism, and other mental and physical disorders and injuries, but also improves the brain functioning itself. In short, playing classical music is good for your child’s brain development.
Television and video are like wisteria, the wonderful fragrant, fast-growing, flowering vine that needs constant vigilance if it is not to overtake your house and garden. Visual media, from the video game to the DVD, will consume your child if you are not careful. Resist putting a DVD/video game player in your car as long as possible. A journalist recently recounted walking out of an electronics store without having purchased a video player for his minivan for the 4th time, even though his family was driving cross-country. The songs they sang, the games they played, the rest stops they took, convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had done the right thing. Put CDs of children’s songs in the car, learn them and sing with them. Teach your child every song that you know and every song that your parents taught you. Remember, they have to be listening to be able to sing the song by themselves.
When it is time just to listen, introduce your children to Stephen Simon’s and my new Stories in Music™ series with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Stories in Music: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Stories in Music: Casey at the Bat) that include educational tracks to help develop listening skills. Susan Hammond’s Classical Kids series based on composers’ lives and music (Mr. Bach Comes to Call, Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, etc.), a series that began in the 1980’s, continues to be a classic. John Lithgow’s Carnival of the Animals, is another classic. Children and parents can enjoy listening to these intelligent musical experiences together.
The kitchen, often the home of the TV news channel, is a wonderful place to listen together. Turn off the television and try putting on a tango. Both my sons, who are very different, learned to tango when they were very young because we had an old jukebox with tango records in it in the kitchen. Many family listening traditions (Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk) have started with listening in the kitchen before or after dinner when there is time to talk, and many parents have found it to be a more communal activity than watching television.
I am often asked why, in this increasingly visual world, have I decided to produce a series of audio CDs with no video component. Being able to listen is like adding color to a black-and-white picture; it offers a completely new dimension to life. I want children to eventually notice that Pirates of the Caribbean has a great musical score and that Bugs Bunny’s barbershop cartoon is set to music from Rossini’s Barber of Seville opera. But if this is to happen, we need to provide our children with broad musical experiences first, both live and recorded. We need to give them lots of information, to teach them what to listen for, and to reinforce the importance of listening by listening with them.
A short list of ways to add music to your child’s life:
- Sing to your child (your singing ability does NOT matter.)
- Listen to music while playing.
- Put a CD player in the child’s room and the kitchen.
- Keep DVD and video game players out of the car.
- Watch videos with great music, such as The Nutcracker ballet and the French film The Red Balloon.
- Listen to a wide range of music and be sure that it’s music that you also enjoy (Magic Maestro Music’s Stories in Music™ series, and Classical Kids series as well as Raffi and Tom Chapin.)
- Take your child to family concerts twice a year at the local arts center.
- Keep your child’s favorite CDs in the car.
- For the technologically savvy, create MP3 disks together for car rides.
- Ask yourself each day if your child has sung, played, or listened to some music; if not, sing a lullaby or play a CD softly as you say good night.
Learning to listen is a journey that you and your children can embark on together. Be ready to laugh and cry, to dance and sing, but, most importantly, to enjoy your musical adventures.