Introducing Your Child To Classical Music

by Bonnie Ward Simon

About 75 years ago, an internationally known composer was sitting with his children in the Children’s Theater in Moscow when the director of the theater spotted him. After the performance she contacted him. “Wouldn’t you like to compose a work for children?” she asked. And the rest is history. Actually, she had a young poetess write a story and when she arrived at Prokofiev’s apartment, he listened to it and threw her out. In the following two weeks he wrote the story and composed the music for the greatest work for children ever written, “Peter and the Wolf.”

If there is one piece that every child should grow to love during their childhood, it is “Peter and the Wolf.” The charming story of a young boy named Peter who disobeys his grandfather and goes out into the forest and there meets a wolf, is told both in words and by the instruments of the symphony orchestra. The wolf, the bird, the duck, the cat, the hunters, and Peter himself are all represented by instruments of the orchestra. What a wonderful, and memorable, way to introduce children to the rich sounds of these instruments. Every time a parent stands in front of the Maestro Classics booth at a trade show, they pick up the Peter CD and wistfully say, “I remember listening to this over and over when I was young.” They often have never remembered another single work of classical music from their entire childhood.

We have found that introducing children to great music by having a narrator tell the story with the music is probably the very best way to instill a love of classical music. For years there was only “Peter and the Wolf.”  Then there were a couple of others like “Tubby the Tuba,” but, by and large, it was a musical genre with one work. A number of years ago, when I, as the executive director of the Washington Chamber Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, proclaimed that every year there should be a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” for parents to take their children to, my husband Stephen, the music director, said, “And what are you going to do for the other half of the program?” And so began the “Stories in Music” project where we collected and created new works for narrator and orchestra. Sometimes the works were great pieces of programmatic music like William Tell, to which we added a narration; sometimes they were classic stories to which we composed new music, as in “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel”; and sometimes they were just wonderful, little-known works that we had discovered along the way, like “Juanita the Spanish Lobster.” Over and over again, parents would come backstage saying, “We purchased our tickets to hear “Peter and the Wolf,” but we really loved “Swan Lake.” Where can we purchase a recording”. And we would always have to sadly reply that most had never been recorded.

The Maestro Classics’ “Stories in Music” series was our answer to all those wonderful parents in Washington, DC who came to our family concerts year in and year out and always clamored for more. When we finally designed our CD signature format, it included all those aspects of our programs that had made the concerts sold-out successes for fifteen years. We always provided a program book, which included musical and historical information as well as activities and games.  Also, to show young and old that you can like all kinds of music, we linked the orchestral music to some popular music that was more familiar to them. The maestro always talked about the music and what to listen for.  Audience participation was a part of the program as well.

In the CD series, each CD includes multiple tracks: the title track with the story for narrator and orchestra; one on the composer and the history of the story; the one that I call the “fun track,” where invited guest artists perform themes from the music of the story in different musical genres – they range from marching band to heavy metal; one where the maestro gives a child-appropriate discussion of the music they have heard with musical examples and, finally, there is a sing-along or play-along or dance-along track at the end.

Music that you listen to with your child will be with them forever, and someday, when they hear “Peter and the Wolf” or “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” or “The Story of Swan Lake” they will be transported back there to the kitchen or the car remembering you and the time you spent together.

Bonnie Ward Simon is the 

Executive Producer and Creative Director of Maestro Classics™