This month’s Music Book Review is another in The Story Orchestra series, this time Swan Lake using the music from the ballet by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. The book is illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle.
This book, with its gorgeous illustrations, tells the story of the ballet Swan Lake. There is a Prince, Siegfried, who starts the tale at his 21st birthday party where he is told that he must find himself a wife and take on his role of looking after the kingdom. Siegfried does not want to do this, so he runs off from his party. He meets and falls in love with a Princess who has been cursed by an evil sorceror to appear as a swan during the day and only at night can she take on her human form. The evil sorceror tries to trick Siegfried by getting his daughter to pose as the Swan Princess so that his curse cannot be lifted (of course the curse can only be lifted when the Swan Princess Odette finds true love). Will the curse be lifted, and will Odette spend the rest of her days as a swan? Well, you will have to read the book to find out if you don’t already know.
This is a sound book, so throughout the book there are musical notation symbols which, when pressed, play excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
At the end of the story, the book gives you a glossary defining some of the terms used that your children may not be familiar with, such as “ballet”, “motif” and “scoring”. There is also a very short biography for the composer along with a very brief introduction to the ballet itself and how it is usually performed.
Finally, you can hear all of the different excerpts from the ballet in one place on the final page of the book. For each excerpt, there is a short description of the music as well as information about where in the ballet you can find this particular excerpt.
I love these books. I have a couple of them now, this one and The Nutcracker, which I will probably review around Christmas time) and they are an absolutely excellent introduction to the ballet and the wonderful music of those ballets.
This question can be answered in a couple of different ways. When most people talk about classical music as compared to other types, or genres, of music like pop music, or folk music, they are probably talking about instrumental and vocal music composed before the time of pop music, so before around 1950.
In reality there are many different periods of classical music, each period having a different name and representing a different time in music history. Each of these periods have distinct musical styles which are clear to hear once you have been introduced to them. One of those musical periods was named the Classical period (and it is music from this time that musicians are talking about when they discuss Classical music) and it is this period that I would like to focus on today. To try to be as clear as possible I will use the word Classical with a capital C, to refer to the Classical period in music history.
The Classical period ran between approximately 1730 and 1820. Composers of this period included Mozart and Beethoven (although Beethoven was also composing during the Romantic period of music history, so he was something of a cross-over composer) as well as composers like Haydn, Gluck and Salieri (a contemporary of Mozart’s, and famously rumoured to be the cause of Mozart’s death. This is not true, but it does make for great drama in the film Amadeus).
I have given you 3 pieces by each composer apart from Mozart and Beethoven as they are both very prolific composers whose music is absolutely beautiful and will already be highly recognisable to you, to give you and your children a flavour of music from the Classical period in music history. Some of it you and they might love, and some you might not, some you might downright hate. That’s ok. To my mind, the point with music is to find pieces of music you enjoy and get something out of – whether that is finding music to dance around the kitchen to, or music to help you relax and calm you down before bed, and you will find them in every period in music history.
You can listen to these pieces of music by following the YouTube links in the post below, or by listening to them all together, perhaps over dinner, while doing something else like painting with your children, or as background music while they play. For the majority of the works below, a different artist or group will be performing the piece than the one listed here, and I have tried to include the whole work. Sometimes some of the movements may have escaped me, as I seem to be using a very cumbersome method of adding the pieces to my playlist – something I must change, and soon – so please excuse any omissions if you spot them. Do not feel obliged to listen to the whole work either, it is just there for you if you would like to listen! Finally, unfortunately I could not find Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ 5th string quartet on Spotify when putting this playlist together. If you happen to spot it (ha!), please let me know and I can add it in.
My Spotify playlist with this Introduction to Classical Music can be accessed here, or at the end of this post.
Mozart is, undoubtedly, the most famous, the most iconic of the Classical period composers. His life story and the story of his music has been written about countless times, and for very good reason. Mozart was an unusual composer, in his day, because while he was a respected mainstream composer, he also wrote music that more ordinary people could listen to, not just music for the Court. So a lot of his music is more light hearted, more fun than many other composer’s of this era. You will have heard some of Mozart’s music, even if you don’t already know it as his, not least because one of his melodies, Ah vous dirai-je, maman, became the melody to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and the ABC song. I have very strong memories of listening to a Roald Dahl story CD in the car as a little girl, and one of the tunes used for the song about the bad guys Boggis, and Bunce and Bean, came from Mozart’s Horn Concerto. Here you have just a flavour of Mozart’s musical work as an introduction:
Beethoven was another giant of this period in music history. In all music history really. Beethoven composed music that fits into the timeline for both the Classical and the Romantic periods (this will be my next playlist blog post, so look out for it in the coming weeks). Beethoven had a very dramatic personal history, and there are loads of books, articles and films dealing with this so I won’t delve into it here. He wrote some absolutely beautiful pieces of music, and here are just 3 that were written in the Classical period that would be great as a starting point to get to know his music:
Haydn was an Austrian composer of the Classical period. His work writing many string quartets and symphonies earned him the titles of “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet”. A couple of Haydn’s works to listen to:
Christoph Willibald Gluck was a German composer who is mainly known for his opera compositions. Gluck was so influenced by the fashion for French opera at the time he was writing that he moved to Paris in 1779 where he stayed for a few years before moving back to Vienna where he stayed for the rest of his life. Some of Gluck’s works:
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a French composer, amazing violinist, conductor of the main Symphony Orchestra in Paris and a famous champion fencer! In fact when he first performed as a violinist, the audience were surprised that the famous fencer was such a good musician. A few pieces of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music:
CPE Bach, or Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach, was the son of the more famous J S Bach who was a composer from the Baroque period of music history, the subject of a later playlist. CPE Bach was a composer in his own right, however. His brother, Johann Christian or JC Bach, was also a composer based in London, whereas CPE Bach lived in Germany. While his brother was known as “London Bach”, CPE was known as “Berlin Bach”, or later on “Hamburg Bach”. Here are some of the musical works of CPE Bach to introduce your children to his work:
On Friday my daughter and I attended a music class from the Royal Academy of Music: Academy Tots.
It is a music class aimed at 2-4 year olds which takes place every other week at 10.20am on a Friday morning. The class is run by students at the Royal Academy of Music and is part of a course those students are on to give them experience of running sessions like this. It was, therefore, free of charge, though places had to be booked in advance and participants are encouraged on the website to make a financial donation.
This is, I feel, a benefit of the pandemic. Before this happened there is no way that I could have taken my children to a class at the Royal Academy of Music because of where we live. Now for us that wouldn’t be too much of an issue as we live in Birmingham with Symphony Hall, the Town Hall, the CBSO Centre and many other wonderful venues only 15 minutes drive away, but if you live in an area without access to so many arts venues then being able to access virtual classes is fantastic.
On to the class itself:
We were admitted into the room after the class had begun and were greeted by one of the students waving hello (a nice touch which made my very excited little girl smile), before our screen showing two musicians performing an improvisation on French Horn and percussion. My daughter listened intently for a while. I did feel that this improvisation was a little long as it was for nearly 10 minutes at the start of the session. Children this age have very short attention spans, and are built to move as much as possible (I often comment to my family that my daughter especially is only still while she is asleep – and even that is not guaranteed), so a 10 minute listening experience is quite a difficult task for them. The hello song followed this improvisation.
The rest of the session took the form of a mix of children’s songs such as a nice peekaboo song set to the tune of What shall we do with a drunken sailor, a sleepy bunnies song Hop Little Bunnies Hop, Hop, Hop; hymns like Morning Has Broken – my daughter tried to copy the actions of the musicians she could see on screen which was very cute; and some further listening exercises for the children including getting them to take part in a unicorn ride to the Mozart Horn Concerto in E flat Major, to me this piece is always associated with Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox as it was used as the song for the bad guys in the book:
Boggs and Beyoncé and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean
These horrible crooks so different in looks
Were equally horrid and mean
We had a Roald Dahl story CD that was played in the car that had this song on, and that chorus pops into my head every time I hear the Horn Concerto!
The theme of the session was animals and before the class we were asked to bring our favourite stuffed animal, and the theming was evident in the music chosen and activities such as the unicorn ride. My daughter chose to bring 3 animals to the session (I must work on her working within a brief!), 2 that she insisted on referring to as Winnie the Pooh despite clearly being a general bear and a panda, and a unicorn. I loved the fact that each of the musicians had their own animal stuffed toy that they also introduced. The session leaders made some lovely attempts to get the children involved in the class with getting them to jump up and down, ride their unicorns and act like sleepy bunnies. They asked children lots of questions and were very engaging. Sadly there weren’t many children attending the session and of the children who were there two were under the suggested age range for the class. For our part, my daughter stopped wanting to join in at all after the sleepy bunnies task because she took it a bit too literally and decided she was going to remain a sleepy bunny for the rest of the session, and that was that!
The only criticism I would make of this class was that for children of this age I think it was a little long. The classes I taught were all 30 minutes long, and attending other classes as a parent with my children, the ones that were around 30 minutes were the best length. Any that lasted longer needed a break for just general play in the middle of them, just to match the children’s ability to concentrate, do one thing, and stay relatively still.
In future sessions it would be lovely to be advised to have a musical instrument – a shaker, a set of bells, or a saucepan with a spoon, to play along with some of the music.
I would recommend these sessions if you have a 2-4 year old at home with you on a Friday, it was a lovely thing to do to start the weekend off.
You can book a free ticket for this by following the link below:
I have shared some playlists of my favourite Christmas Carols and Christmas Songs in the last couple of weeks, but for today I thought I would share some rather lovely pieces of classical music on a Christmas theme (I use the term classical to refer to music that is not pop or folk music, not just music from the classical period). These will be really nice works to listen to with your children while you are doing other things like making or writing Christmas cards, or doing a bit of festive baking, or maybe while you are having dinner one evening. Perhaps get out your sleighbells, tambourines or wooden sticks (wooden spoons would work well for this too), to play along with your little ones.
As usual you could play each of the YouTube videos I have included below, or play the whole playlist from my spotify, a link to which is included below.
For now, and once again with no further commentary, here is my playlist of 8 pieces of classical music for Christmas (and I use the term to refer to non-pop or traditional music, rather than music from the Classical period).
This might not sound like an item that would have a place in a music box, but sensory scarves are a great addition to any musical play you do at home. They are an inexpensive and versatile thing to include in your music box.
What are sensory scarves?
Sensory scarves are brightly coloured, lightweight scarves that can be used in a range of sensory activities, including music. They can be used by children of all ages, including very small babies.
Sensory scarves are a small square of soft, usually see-through chiffon material. They come in many different colours, often very bright colours, which children love. They can be referred to as sensory scarves, dance scarves, juggling scarves when you are looking for them to purchase, and come in multi-packs of, say 12 or 20 scarves. They are generally machine washable, which is great when your baby puts everything in their mouths, but should not go in a tumble dryer. That’s not really a problem though because they dry really quickly. The only thing you have to really watch out for with these scarves is leaving them on the floor because they are very slippy.
How to use Sensory Scarves
We have used these scarves for both musical and non-musical play. I will talk about how we use sensory scarves with our musical play below. In non-musical play we have used them to used them to play hide and seek with – burying the children or toys under a pile of scarves (we have quite a lot of them at home!) and then going to find them. We have played at wrapping things up with the scarves, playing birthdays or Christmas. I have put the scarves inside a Green Toys recycling truck and got the children to pull the scarves out from the different slots in the truck; that was a great game that kept my children busy for at least 5 minutes when they were very small. We have used them to make rainbows. We have used them to hide behind when playing Peekaboo. I am sure there are lots of other games we have played with them, but I can’t think of them right now.
Musical Play with Sensory Scarves
Sensory scarves are great for musical play. As I mentioned above, they can be used by even the youngest children. They are easy for small hands to grasp hold of and, as they are machine washable, it doesn’t matter if they go in baby’s mouth (although obviously any toy should be played with under close supervision with small children). Scarves are very soft and so you can run them over your little one’s body, they can be put over their heads, they can be thrown in the air etc without worrying that they will hurt anyone. So what musical games have we played with sensory scarves at home?
We have held the scarves in our hands (me holding them when the children were babies, and as the children have grown, they have held them scarves themselves), and moved them in time to them music. The scarves can be moved up and down in time to the music, or from one side to the other.
Waved the scarves in the air above the children’s heads, or at eye level, or even down on the ground to get them to follow the movement with their eyes or heads. When doing this I tell the children what I am doing, and again I time my movements to coincide with the beat of the music I am playing.
Put a song like The Grand Old Duke of York on and used my scarf to illustrate the song – as we sing about the Grand Old Duke’s men going up the hill I wave my scarf up in the air, and when they go back down the hill my scarf moves down towards the ground.
When singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes we place the scarves on our heads, shoulders, knees or toes.
When singing songs about hiding, or playing peekaboo using a sing-song voice, I have used a scarf to either hide behind myself, or to hide one of the children. Removing the scarf with a flourish is a fabulous, fun and very clear way of playing peekaboo with your little ones. Peekaboo is a great game to make small children laugh, as well as a great way to teach your children about object permanence – that people and things do not disappear if you cannot see them.
Singing the rainbow song, and using the scarves to point out the colours.
As my children have got older, I have given them a scarf or two, put some music on and got them to just dance around moving the scarf to the music as they see fit.
Here’s an example of musical play with sensory scarves, playing along to Dance of the Knights from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev:
I made some suggestions of songs that could feature on a Halloween playlist in a previous blog post, but it is not just pop songs/soundtracks that are appropriate for the spooky season. While we may or may not play these works at our Halloween party I will certainly be playing this music over the half term break while we are doing Halloween crafts and playing Halloween games. The link to the spotify playlist to listen to all of these suggestions together is at the end of this playlist.
Night on a Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorsky arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov
Written originally by the composer Mussorsky when he was a young man, it is the version of this piece that was arranged by his contemporary Rimsky-Korsakov that has become famous and that is included in this playlist.
Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens
Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death is a tone poem (an orchestral work that paints a picture inspired by a work of fiction, poetry, or art) written in 1874. According to legend Death appears each year at midnight on Halloween. Death then calls the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (violin). This piece begins with a harp playing a single note 12 times (midnight) before the orchestra starts playing its dances. This is a piece that always sounds rather mischievous to me.
O Fortuna from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff
The Carmina Burana are a set of over 200 poems and dramatic texts from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. In the 20th century based on 24 of the poems. They discuss issues such as the fickleness of fortune and wealth, and the perils of greed and gluttony to name a few of the themes of this work. O Fortuna begins and ends the work. I love Carmina Burana, and one of my favourite memories of this piece is playing percussion for a performance in Sheffield Cathedral in my final year at University. It was such a fun piece to play!
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J S Bach
One of the most famous pieces of organ music, composed by Bach. The piece starts with the Toccata section, which is composed as a virtuosic piece of music – or as a piece of music designed to show off the skill of the performer. The fugue follows. A fugue is a piece of music that has two themes that follow one another, almost like they are chasing each other. This is a very dramatic piece of music, the loud opening on the organ lending it a rather spooky atmosphere.
In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg
Composed originally to accompany Henrick Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, In the Hall of the Mountain King later formed part of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. It is a dreamlike, some would say nightmarish, fantasy piece of music from a story about trolls, goblins and gnomes. What could fit Halloween better than that?
Totentanz by Franz Liszt
Translated as Dance of Death, this is an obvious inclusion in a playlist of music to listen to at Halloween.
Third Movement of Piano Sonata no 2 in B flat Minor by Frederick Chopin
The composer Chopin wrote many, many pieces of music for the piano. He is probably mainly known as a composer of beautiful, romantic pieces of music. The second movement (a sonata is written in a number of movements, here 4 movements) is a funeral march and has been performed at many funerals, including Chopin’s own funeral.
War Requiem by Britten
I could have chosen almost any Requiem to include in this playlist. A Requiem Mass is part of a catholic service, a mass for the dead. There are many beautiful, dramatic, wonderful Requiem Masses to listen to, but I am including this one because it has as its subject matter the horrors of war as well. This is the Libera Me. The text is Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna which means Liberate me, master, from eternal death.
Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass by Verdi
The Dies Irae appears in every Requiem Mass, and translates as the Day of Wrath. This is such a dramatic piece of music. Another that always comes to mind for me from a performance in a cathedral. This time from my school days as a flautist, but I can’t remember where I was. I remember how exhilarating this was to perform, however, especially this part of the Requiem.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a piece of music all about magic. It was written based on a poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Disney Fantasia version has Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who is tired of having to fetch water himself and who has a go at using magic to get the chores done with unexpected results. I have mentioned Fantasia several times in my playlists, and in fact a couple of the other pieces of music in this playlist featured in the first Fantasia film because it had such a good selection of music, and the cartoons that was made to accompany these pieces of music made the music so much more relevant, affecting and memorable for me as a child watching.
You can listen to the whole of this playlist here:
We have music on a lot of the time at home. I love pretty much any music, and my husband particularly loves classical music and jazz. So we have music on when we are cooking, when we are eating, when we are working, when driving the car, when the children are playing….. It is almost always there in the background, like a soundtrack to our lives.
While it is great that my children hear lots of different musical works from different genres, I also want them to be able to properly listen to that music, to properly hear it rather than just use it as a soundtrack, to think about that music, and express their opinion about it: Do they like it? How does the music make them feel? Do they want to dance to it?
To do this, I have tried a number of techniques to get the children to tell me what they think of it, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the questions I have asked or the things I have asked them to do have just been way too advanced for them, but my questions sometimes produce some very funny and lovely responses, especially from my son who can go off at a stream of consciousness tangent at the best of times!
When driving the car with the children when they were very small, I would ask the very simple question “do you like this music?” The answer was always yes. I don’t think they were always telling me their actual opinion on whether they liked the music, they were just giving me the answer they thought I wanted. I would answer my own question, and talk a little bit about why I liked a piece of music, or why I was not so keen on that piece of music.
I started putting some music on at the same time as getting paints and paper out at home. I would ask the children to paint something as a response to the music. They would paint exactly what they wanted, and in no way was their painting anything to do with the music. However, they were engaged in relating their pictures to the music being played.
At dinner time I sometimes talk to the children about a piece of music and what it makes me think about: what pictures come to my mind when I hear a piece of music. My husband does the same, he has different pictures in his head when hearing the same piece of music. The music means different things to us both. My children are both asked for their opinions on the music as well – what does the music make them think of? Does it make them imagine a particular scene, or imagine a story? Generally my three year old just shouts out “Peppa Pig” and my son says something about superheroes, or bad guys, whatever he is interested in at that point.
Although their responses are not necessarily about the music they are listening to, what I am doing with this exercise is encouraging the children to develop their own opinions and express those opinions about music. Their opinions and what they want to tell me about it are valid. To show them that music can be a prompt for your imagination, that it can tell you a story, and that it is what the music means for you that is important.
As I said, it can be quite amusing to listen to what my children says the music means to them, and I thought it might be a fun series of blog posts to write, noting down their responses to various pieces of music. To see how their responses develop over time, and whether they start to match the music a little more, rather than just be a stream of consciousness response on the subject of superheroes or Peppa Pig for example. Watch out for it here, and I would love to see the results of you doing this with your children too.
My Music Book Review for today is the sound book Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan and illustrated by James Williamson.
It is an exploration of both the instruments that play in a Symphony Orchestra, and also the 5th Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. You almost certainly have heard this symphony before as it is very, very well known. If you would like to listen to it in full, you could listen to it on Spotify here:
The book is a sound book, so as you go through the pages there are prompts to press corresponding buttons on the book that demonstrate the sound of the violins, the cellos, the oboes or the trombones that go into making up a symphony orchestra. I don’t know about your children, but being able to press buttons and make noises when reading a book is just the best thing in the world ever. So a noise book is always a winner in this house. It’s also a great way to get the children enthused about a book about music. Music is all about what you can hear, so it makes perfect sense to have a book you can listen to as well as read.
There is an on/off switch on the back to save the batteries, you just have to remember to turn it off, something I don’t always do.
This book, goes further than talking about the instruments of the orchestra (which this book I have previously reviewed covers, as does this one), and also introduces your children to an amazing work. It explains what terms like melody and harmony mean, again giving examples for your children to listen to, and explains the main structure of the symphony. All of this is presented in very simple form so that its young readers can understand the concepts explained.
There are lovely illustrations with an adorable audience of mice.
I would say that this book is mainly aimed at younger children, so pre-schoolers or those just starting school, especially if you are reading the book with them. For developing readers the book is written in simple language so that young readers would be able to read the book independently. My 6 year old thoroughly enjoys the book and I have sometimes found him sat on his own reading the book, pressing the buttons and listening carefully to the examples given. It has prompted him to ask to listen to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I would love to say that he sat transfixed listening to the music, and he did concentrate on it for about 5-10 minutes before getting something out to do while the music was on.
Mini tambourines are a good instrument choice for smaller children. They are easier for small children to hold onto, and therefore play independently; and for very small children who mouth objects, enclosed mini tambourines are available, which are much safer for them to use on their own.
What Is a Tambourine?
Tambourine means little drum, and is an instrument from the percussion family. Percussion instruments are those that are played by hitting, shaking, rubbing or scraping them. They are generally hand held, but can be fixed into position, like a drum kit. Tambourines have a round frame with metal discs, called zils, within that frame. The frame can be left open, so just the frame with the zils; or a drum skin can be stretched over the top of the frame.
How Does a Mini Tambourine Differ from a Normal Tambourine?
A tambourine looks like a drum with bells around the side, whereas mini tambourines look much more like a sleigh bell type instrument. We own two, one that is enclosed and one that is open. The open mini tambourine is shaped like a crescent, with a hand hold that does not have any bells on it. It is made out of plastic and so is very hard wearing with children who drop it all the time, chuck it back into the music box, even at each other on occasion if I have not been looking.
Our other mini tambourine does not really look like a tambourine. Again it is made out of plastic. The zils are covered over with plastic as well so that the children cannot actually access them. There is a handle attached to the instrument for easy holding. This type of instrument is the safest option for small children who like to put everything into their mouths as the zils cannot easily detach from the instrument, and if they do detach they cannot escape their plastic container.
How Do You Play a Mini Tambourine?
Basically, a mini tambourine is played in the same way as a tambourine.
You can tap the mini tambourine with your hands or with a stick.
You can hold the instrument in one hand and tap it against the palm of your other hand.
You can tap the instrument against your body, for example your legs, or feet. If you choose to tap your mini tambourine against yours or your child’s head, it would be worth doing it gently, perhaps!
You can shake the mini tambourine.
Basically, these are the same instrument as a tambourine, but on a smaller scale. In the case of the enclosed mini tambourine, they are a much safer alternative for very small children to play independently. You don’t have to keep your eyes on your child constantly with the mini tambourine, and you just have to watch that they don’t hit themselves or their siblings (or the cat) too hard with them!
Mini tambourines are a great alternative not only for tambourines, but also for sleigh bells when playing Christmas music, especially the enclosed ones. They make a similar sound and can be played in the same way as the sleigh bells.
I have previously put together a playlist of children’s songs that have animals as their subject matter. Animals are not only a good subject for children’s songs, but also provide great subject matter for composers of classical music. Here are some classical music pieces that feature animals as their subject. This blog post contains links to YouTube videos of these pieces, extracts of them for the longer works, or alternatively, you can have a listen to the whole playlist on Spotify, my Spotify playlist is at the bottom of this post.
The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens
Written by the French composer Saint-Saens in the late 19th century, the Carnival of the Animals is a set of 14 pieces of music that were written for children. Each piece of music is intended to describe a different animal. So you have an elegant, graceful swan in one piece played on cello with long, smooth graceful notes accompanied by a tinkling piano suggestive of the water the swan is swimming along on); a lumbering elephant played by low stringed instruments that are painting a picture of how big and heavy an elephant is; a piece about birds in an aviary that is played by wind instruments – flutes playing high, fast notes suggesting the way that birds flit and dart about in the air. I have put this music on at home sometimes when I want the children to dart about and burn off some energy getting them to pretend to be the birds, or to be horses running along really fast. I have also put this on and asked my eldest to listen carefully to the music and tell me what animal he thinks is the subject of each particular piece.
Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev
This piece of music was my son’s favourite thing to listen to and watch for a good 4 or 5 months when he was 2 years old. We put the Disney version on one day to try to get him to watch something that wasn’t Peppa Pig I think, and he was absolutely hooked. We had to play Peter and the Wolf every day for a while – that wolf was caught and taken to the zoo so very many times. He even got us to make the characters out of play dough and then air drying clay so he could play Peter and the Wolf. I’ll be honest, all of the shapes I made for the characters were incredibly similar, just the wolf was perhaps a bit longer, but it didn’t seem to matter to my son.
Peter and the Wolf was written by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1936. It is a musical symphony written for children telling the cautionary tale of Peter who is warned by his grandfather to stay at home after reports of a wolf in the area are received. Of course Peter thinks he can tackle the wolf himself and save the town, so he ignores his grandfather’s warnings and sets off to catch the wolf accompanied by a duck a bird and a cat.
Each of the characters in the story – Peter, the duck, the bird, the cat, the grandfather, the wolf and even the hunters – has their own theme tune which introduces the character and appears regularly when that character is part of the action, helping young listeners understand the story.
Flight of the Bumblebee by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Another composition from the Romantic period in music history, this was written originally to be featured in an opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The piece sounds like a bumblebee flying, darting around and changing direction. There are many versions of this work available to listen to. The most common are for violin, flute or piano. The piece works very well as an energy buster for young children – ask your little one to dance around like a bumblebee to the music and it will quickly wear them out! It is a very descriptive piece of music, so an older child could be asked to guess what animal is being portrayed when they listen to it. I have linked to the piano version below, but the spotify playlist with these pieces of music on has a version of this piece played on violin. Which do you prefer?
The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Originally composed for violin and piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1914, and inspired by the poem The Lark Ascending by George Meredith, Vaughan Williams re-wrote it for violin and orchestra during the First World War. It is the version for violin and orchestra that is most often performed today. Listening to this piece you can hear the bird, the violin, flying up high into the sky, with the orchestra painting a picture of the landscape below that the lark is flying over. The piece ends as it began, with just the violin, at the end the lark flies high up into the sky as the violin plays up in its highest register. It is beautiful.
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring by Frederick Delius
This is a tone poem (a piece of music in one movement that paints a picture of a poem, short story, painting etc) composed in 1912. Here as the orchestra plays it is depicting a countryside scene. The clarinet is the cuckoo, and at first you can only hear it occasionally, but the clarinet plays more and more as the piece continues. With an older child, ask them to listen to the piece and count how many times they hear the clarinet and its cuckoo sound. Perhaps you could have a competition between yourselves to see how many cuckoo calls you can hear in the piece?
Le Merle Noir by Olivier Messiaen
This is a piece of music that I know quite well as I am a flautist. I battled with trying to play this whilst at University, not always successfully! The subject of this twentieth century composition is a Blackbird. The flute (an instrument that is quite high in its register, and so is often used to evoke birdsong) is the ideal instrument for this piece of music.
The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky
This orchestral piece of music, a ballet, was based on a fairy tale about a magical glowing bird that is imprisoned in a castle with a beautiful princess. Prince Ivan searches for this bird and tries to rescue the bird and the princess. The ballet tells the tale of Prince Ivan’s search and rescue and what happens afterwards. The Firebird Suite featured in Disney’s updated animation Fantasia in 2000 and it is the audio of this version that I link to below.
It is now officially Autumn (or Fall for those in the USA). Music has always been written about and for the seasons, and Autumn is no different. I am writing this on September 21, the equinox, or the day on which there is equal amounts of daylight and darkness. From now on, the nights will start drawing in, the leaves will change to beautiful oranges and reds and eventually fall off the trees. We will start wrapping up in scarves and coats and gloves. I love this time of the year, and I love the music that is written about this season. If you are planning to sit down for a relaxing day with your children, or are looking for a playlist to accompany your child’s learning about the season, then you could do worse than playing my classical music for Autumn playlist that I link to at the end of this blog post.
The Four Seasons – Autumn by Antonio Vivaldi
A playlist about the seasons has to, of course, start with The Four Seasons by Vivaldi for obvious reasons. The Four Seasons was written as four separate, but thematically linked, concerti for violin and orchestra. The third concerto in this series was written in the key of F major and was entitled “Autumn”. At the same time as publishing The Four Seasons Vivaldi published a set of accompanying sonnets telling his audiences what he had tried to convey in the music. Listen out for hunters with horns and dogs in the second movement (the Allegro, or faster movement) and see if you and your children can hear them in Vivaldi’s music.
Das Jahr by Fanny Mendelssohn
Das Jahr translates as The Year. Fanny Mendelssohn’s piano song cycle was written in 1841 as a set of 12 pieces, each roughly attributed to a month of the year. It was written as a sort of musical diary of a year she spent in Italy with her family.
The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst
Imogen Holst composed this piece for her friend, the cellist Pamela Hind o’Malley. It is a set of three studies on a piece of music by Martin Peerson, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book which was composed around the 16th or 17th century. It’s title places the piece in this season. This piece does not feature on my spotify playlist below as I could not find it on spotify.
Music for Rainy Weather
Folk Songs of the Four Seasons by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams wrote this for a women’s choral festival based on English folk songs. Autumn, here, is made up of three songs, two harvest songs: John Barleycorn and An Acre of Land sung by the whole chorus; and a song called The Unquiet Grave for 3 unaccompanied (or acapella) voices, a somewhat bleak song about a girl meeting her dead lover at the grave.
Shaker Loops by John Adams
This is not actually a piece of music that is written about Autumn, but listening to the string instruments it sounds a little like wind rustling through leaves, first gently, and then in a much more stormy fashion.
9 Songs for Summer
Autumn Gardens by Einojuhani Rautavaara
A beautiful piece of music from this Finnish composer, written at the turn of the century, this is a beautiful musical portrayal of the colours and sounds of an autumn garden.
String Quartet no 15 by Ludwig van Beethoven
This piece of music was composed in 1825 after Beethoven had recovered from a near fatal illness. String Quartets are pieces of music for four instruments – two violins, viola and cello. This string quartet is in 5 movements, the third being a song of thanksgiving entitled Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. For this reason this piece is often played in November, near Thanksgiving in the USA. This is the movement you will find immediately below. I have included the whole string quartet in my spotify playlist.
I have been writing this blog for a little while now, and I must admit that by now I had expected to have written quite a few reviews of live music events that we had gone to as a family. However, 2020 had different plans, and I can count on one hand the number of times that we have been out of the house somewhere other than my mother’s house or the supermarket!
We have been very lucky, however, to get to see two live music events in recent weeks. We are members of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and they have live music on a Sunday from their band stand. We had not been expecting it, but were delighted when we arrived there one Sunday to find a band playing. My children had an absolute ball dancing around in front of the band stand, despite the rain. And for the whole of the following week my son told everyone we saw (admittedly that wasn’t many people, and mostly via a screen) that we had seen live music.
We had a bigger treat last Thursday when two professional musicians, cellist Jackie Tyler and violin player Julia Aberg played a concert on our road – even better for us was that it was pretty much right outside our door!
Jackie and Julia played pieces such as Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens and an Argentinian Tango. My little girl, when she wasn’t trying to make a bid for freedom up the road, thoroughly enjoyed dancing along in our front garden. Jackie and Julia also played the theme tunes to Harry Potter and In the Night Garden. There were quite a few families with young children there, and an amusing “oooh” went around as In the Night Garden began – Jackie and Julia knew their audience!
The weather, that had been threatening thunderstorms, held out for us, and we had a visit from the local ice cream van, who I am sure initially thought it was their lucky day, turning up to a street with loads of people already outside waiting for them, until they realised we were there for something else. Thankfully they turned up in between pieces.
It was really lovely seeing so many people from our local area turning up and watching the concert. In a time when arts venues and artists of all disciplines are struggling so much it is so good to see that the appetite for live performance has not diminished. And on a personal note, it was so good to see and hear live performance. As brilliant as it is to have online concerts and performances available (and I am so grateful that this has happened, if it had to happen at all, at a time when technology makes it possible to have amazing entertainment at the touch of a button in your own home) there is no substitute for live performance. Music sounds and feels different when you experience it happening in front of you, and when you experience it with other people. It is a shared experience that I have very much missed in these last few months.
Jackie and Julia normally perform with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a world class orchestra right on our door step. We have been to the CBSO’s brilliant Notelets series of concerts, which are aimed at children, and you can read my review of the concert here. The CBSO have, of course, been forced to suspend their concert performances during the pandemic. Hopefully it will not be too much longer until it is possible for musicians to perform together again.
I have been singing to my children from their very earliest days. I love to sing, and am a singer, so there are very few days that go by when I don’t sing at all at some point, whether my children want me to or not!
Babies absolutely love the sound of their parents’ voices. The hearing function in a foetus starts at around 4 months gestation, although the ear is not fully formed for another 2 months. Babies can hear sounds closest to them from very early on in their development. The sounds that are closest to them are their mother’s bodily functions, like the sounds her lungs make as she breathes, the sound her heart makes as it is beating, and the sounds of her voice as she is talking. They become very familiar with her voice and the voices of people closest to her. Once a baby is born, the sounds of their parents voices and those of people who have stayed close to their mother during pregnancy are very important and comforting to them, and the most beautiful to them. So, no matter what you think of your own voice, your baby will love it and will love to hear you sing to them.
I have sung to and with my children in celebration, to get them to dance around, as entertainment for them and for me, to comfort them, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, because it made them smile, because it calmed and reassured them and helped them sleep.
Here are some of the songs I have sung to my children in an effort to get them to sleep.
Amazing Grace is a hymn that has been around since the 18th century. It became popular in America, particularly in Baptist and Methodist churches, after the composer William Walker set the words to a new melody; the tune that is most frequently sung today. Amazing Grace is a song that holds memories not only of my mother singing to me, but also of it being my Grandma’s favourite hymn. My son was not a good sleeper for the first 2 years of his life. So in common with many sleep-deprived parents I turned to baby sleep books. One recommended putting sleep cues in place for baby when trying to lessen reliance on feeding to sleep, such as having the same routine, using the same smell for bedtime, and singing the same song every night so that baby would associate that song with sleep and (the theory went) fall asleep just by smelling that smell and/or hearing that song. So I chose Amazing Grace and sang the song to him every night for months and months, possibly even a year. He never fell asleep by the end of the song, but he does like it! When my daughter was born, after singing the same song to her brother every single night, Amazing Grace popped out of my mouth when singing to her to go to sleep without even thinking about it. This video is me singing Amazing Grace to my daughter when she was 3 months old. It was VERY familiar to her by then and I am sure she is joining in!
Goodnight Sweetheart by The Spaniels
This song was used in the film 3 Men and a Baby, and the song magically got the baby to sleep within seconds just like it always happens with TV/movie babies. In the same way, that in TV/movies parents can say goodnight to their children, give them a kiss and ruffle their hair, turn the light out and their child instantly goes to sleep. That never happened with my children, but it was a nice song to sing to them.
Wiegenlied (or Lullaby) by Johannes Brahms
If you were asked to think of a lullaby out of the blue, there is a very good chance that the melody to this piece of music would be one of the first you would think of. One of the composer Brahms’ most popular pieces of music, it was composed in the 19th century for voice and piano and first performed in December 1868 by Luise Dustman and Clara Schumann, a pianist and composer in her own right. The original Lyrics were taken from a collection of German folk poems, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or The Boy’s Magic Horn. I have included an instrumental version here, for obvious reasons – the baby just couldn’t resist going to sleep here!
Stay Awake from the film Mary Poppins
As my son got older, and I wanted a change from singing Amazing Grace to him (as an adult you can get sick of any piece of music!), I started singing this song to my son. On the surface the lyrics seem to be encouraging the children to stay awake because they are not sleepy at all, hence the title, but really enticing the children with their soft, deep pillows and the world all being fast asleep. My son really liked this song and still occasionally asks me to sing it to him before he goes off to sleep.
Go to Sleep from Tee and Mo
I loved the CBeebies programme Tee and Mo. Tee and Mo is a lovely cartoon about the adventures a monkey called Tee and his mum Mo have – all very ordinary things like going shopping, but it’s lovely. And the songs from the show are brilliant too. I don’t think it was around when my son was very small, but my daughter loved it, and I bought the album to play in the car for her (and me to be honest). There are so many great songs on there to sing with your children, but this one has to be my favourite.
Lullaby by Josh Groban featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo with lyrics by Dave Matthews
This is just a beautiful song, a fusion of Western and South African music. I heard this song long before I had children, and it was one I knew I would want to sing to my children when I had them.
OK, this is a rather odd song to include in a list of lullabies as it is a Christmas song. I include it because for all of my thinking about what I would sing to my children/ how I would be with my children etc before they actually arrived, in the fog of new motherhood this was the song that actually popped into my head as I was pacing up and down the bedroom in the dark trying to get him to sleep largely because of the lyrics to the song “Lully Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child” Despite some of the sad (That woe is me, poor Child for Thee) or even violent lyrics (Herod the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day. His men of men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay), the melody is gentle, and beautiful. Needless to say I only ever sang the first verse!
If you have read this blog before you will know that we very much enjoy making our own musical instruments. We have made all sorts of instruments from drums, to windchimes, to shakers, and I have more in the pipeline to make with the children over the summer holidays which are due to start at the end of the week – 8 weeks of holidays!! We are also lucky to have a number of musical instruments at home as well – I am a musician after all!
If you are wanting to start a collection of musical instruments for your children what should you start with? And how would you play those instruments if you got hold of them? Where would you find those musical instruments at a reasonable price? I can hopefully try to help you with these questions over time, and I thought I would start with providing a spotlight, if you like, on some of the instruments we have at home for the children to play with. If you have any specific questions, please ask, but for today let us have a look at the tambourine.
Tambourine means little drum, and is an instrument from the percussion family. Percussion instruments are those that are played by hitting, shaking, rubbing or scraping them. They are generally hand held, but can be part of a drum kit and so fixed into position. Tambourines have a round frame with metal discs, called zils, within that frame. The frame can be left open, so just the frame with the zils; or a drum skin can be stretched over the top of the frame.
We have had a few tabourines over the years. Both of my children, together with pretty much all children who are allowed anywhere near a television I think, discovered the delights of Peppa Pig when they were small. At times they have been bought Peppa Pig magazines, and on one occasion there were free gifts of musical instruments on the cover of the magazine. These were small plastic instruments and I think there was a guitar, a harmonica and a tambourine included. None of these instruments survived all that long, I think the guitar broke within days, but the tambourine lasted for quite a while. It was made entirely out of plastic, and so produced a rather muted sound, but the children enjoyed playing with it.
I found our next tambourine in a charity shop, and this one has stayed with us much longer. I have found many musical instruments in charity shops over the years, and would recommend having a look in there, especially when your children are small and like to either chew or chuck instruments more than try to play them. Obviously, especially in these times, anything you buy from a charity shop needs to be cleaned before your children play with them, especially wind instruments like recorders!
For one of the children’s birthdays we asked one of my relatives to buy a set of musical instruments for them, and so we were given the lovely closed tambourine pictured at the top of this blog post. This makes a much nicer sound than the plastic tambourines that we had previously, but it is a little more expensive, and easier to damage, than a plastic tambourine.
So, the tambourine, can be played in three ways.
Firstly, it can be hit or banged like a drum using a beater or hands, as long as you have a tambourine with a skin on rather than an open tambourine. For very small children you can either play the tambourine for them, letting them feel the vibrations of the instrument while they listen to the sound it makes, or you can take their hands or feet and gently manipulate them to play the tambourine themselves. Older children can go wild hitting the tambourine and making their own music, if they want to!
Secondly, a tambourine can be shaken; either gently to produce a quiet sound, or more vigorously to produce a loud sound. Very small babies will be unlikely to be able to shake a tambourine by themselves and will need your help to hear the sound it makes. However, as soon as they are able to grasp the tambourine themselves, your baby will thoroughly enjoy being able to make a noise with it. It is an instrument they can start to play independently from a very young age. It will help your baby to understand cause and effect as well – I move my hand while holding this and it makes a noise.
Finally, it can be played combining the two above. If you use a clapping action, hitting the tambourine with one hand while holding it in the other, or shaking it then hitting it with one hand like this:
You could even use another part of your body, like a leg or your tummy, tapping the tambourine against it to make a sound.
I must sound a note of caution, however. Babies put everything in their mouths, and the metal discs, or zils, on the sides of tambourines that give them their distinctive sound are not safe to go into a child’s mouth. They can be very sharp, they are generally made of metal so not a great material to be chewed, and the spokes holding them in place can break so they could be a choking hazard. A normal tambourine can be played with only under close adult supervision, therefore. You should not leave your baby or young child alone with it. There are baby tambourines, like this one that you can buy that alleviate this problem as they enclose the metal discs and so your baby can’t get them into their mouths. These are great, but the downside is that they cannot be played as a drum like a normal tambourine, so are a little limited in their application. They can provide great peace of mind if your baby always finds the things they are not supposed to be playing with on their own as soon as your back is turned, however.
Today’s Music Book Review is Listen and Learn Musical Instruments from Usborne Books.
We do have quite a lot of Usborne books at home. They are quite fantastic for young children – and that is my experience so far as my eldest is 6 years old as I write this. My recommendations may change as my children get older. It is a rather different book than many of my other recommendations as there is no story to be told here at all. It looks a bit like a list of instruments. The book is actually meant to be listened to rather than read.
It gives children an opportunity to hear the sounds that different instruments make. The book consists of a number of different cards that have pictures of musical instruments on. To hear each instrument, you need to press the “go button” at the top of each page/card and then press on the picture of the instrument. The name of each instrument is given as well, and they are grouped into various categories – instruments that are played by hitting them, by blowing into them, by plucking their strings etc.
In addition to the set of wind instruments on the main page, a further 4 double-sided cards are included in a pocket each with 9 further instruments to listen to. To hear those instruments you slide the card into the keyboard frame, press “go” and select the instrument you want to listen to.
As with all sound books, there is an on/off switch so if your children will not leave it alone and it starts to drive you mad you can turn the sound off, and also to make sure the battery doesn’t go flat when you are not using it.
We really like this book, and like exploring the different instruments depicted – I had probably heard but never seen a shofar or a serpent before reading this book. Both my children like it – it involves pressing buttons, what is not to like?! And I chose to write about this boom today largely because my 6 year old found it yesterday and was playing around with it yesterday by himself.
The volume on the book is fairly low, which is great when listening to it at home. However, if you are using this as a resource in a group setting it only works on a one to one basis or very small group basis. I tried using this in a larger group setting once and it just did not work as it was too quiet to grab the children’s attention. One on one, though, it is a lovely guide to the sounds that different instruments make. I would highly recommend it.
And here it is in action with a couple of the pages in the book:
For today’s Music Book Review I have another lovely Usborne Books sound book, Baby’s Bedtime Music Book.
This is a lovely book to snuggle up with and read at bedtime just before sleep. It combines a little tale about the animals of Dreaming Valley getting ready for bed, settling in for the night and being serenaded by the owls of the valley who are playing beautiful lullabies to help their fellow animals drift off to sleep.
There are extracts from 5 different pieces of classical music included in the book with an easy to press and clearly labelled button on each page to hear the pieces. Even small children can press the button and get the music to play- there are some sound books where you have to press the button really hard to get any sound out of it at all and my children quickly give up with these books because they can’t get them to work by themselves. These books are different because they only need a light touch, and even at 2 my youngest was able to get the book to play for herself.
There is an on/off switch at the back of the book so that you don’t waste the battery and you can turn it off when you have had enough of the pieces! There are only 5 short extracts after all.
I won’t play them all here, but here is the cover page in action with an extract from Brahm’s Lullaby:
My children finished their school year this week, and while lockdown is easing and we will try to have a few days out over the holidays we will largely be spending the next 8 weeks, yes 8 glorious, wonderful, oh my good grief how many, weeks at home. With a 6 and 3 year old.
Now I don’t know about your children, but mine, especially my youngest, do not sit still. In fact I think the only time my 3 year old is still is when she is asleep- and even that is not guaranteed. So I need to find ways to help them burn off a lot of energy at home.
As always, I turn to music (who could have seen that one coming, eh?!) Dancing around to music is so good
It is great physical exercise, getting the heart rate up
It’s great for helping children develop a sense of pulse
It helps develop their gross motor skills
It helps develop their sense of balance
It helps develop your children’s understanding of their place in space
It helps children with developing self-expression
Here are 11 pieces of music I use to help me.
Absolutely our favourite piece of music to dance around like lunatics. We have danced to this since my son was a few months old and I flew him towards his Daddy and his Grandma. In more recent years my children like to listen to this song after dinner while my husband and I clear up. My daughter wants to hold hands with her brother to do the dance properly, but he likes to just run across the room for pretty much the whole song. Even without the unusual dance technique my son prefers, this is a good workout!
Jump Around by House of Pain
The clue to this song is in the title. No, it is not a children’s song, but young children don’t really listen to the lyrics and you can’t argue with getting your children to jump around for 4 minutes to burn off any excess energy.
Superman by Black Lace
This is an action song. The singer calls out actions for the children to follow as the song goes on. I think it was a staple of the parties I attended as a child. Just the opening bars and I am transported back to church halls and party dresses and eating too many sweets before being taken home by my parents.
Happy by Pharrell Williams
We use this song for musical chairs, musical bumps etc. My children love these games. Whenever we have a difficult day (and there have been many over lockdown!), I break out a bit of Pharrell Williams and we play either musical statues or musical bumps and after a couple of rounds everything is so much better!
Ring a Ring a Roses
This nursery rhyme has been around for a long time, possibly as early as the 1790s. There were versions of this song in Britain and America, and even from India and New Zealand. I always thought it was a song about the plague from 1665, but there are historians who contradict this. Whatever the song’s history it is good for getting children moving. Children form a circle, holding hands and move to the left or the right as they sing the song. On the line They all fall down the children jump down to the floor, jumping up again on the line We all jump up with a 1, 2, 3.
Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov
Flight of the Bumblebee was written by the composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov as an orchestral interlude to his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Listening to the piece evokes the way a bumble bee darts around from flower to flower in search of pollen. When I play the song at home I often get the children to pretend to be a bumblebee and fly around the room.
Agadoo by Black Lace
Another song from my childhood and another song in this list by Black Lace, Agadoo was released in 1984. I am not sure if it was intended this way, but we use it as an action song, and I remember doing the same when I was a child. The lyrics tell you to jump up and down and to your knees etc. The song is, as it was described in Q Magazine, “magnificently dreadful”
Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes
This is a song that helps children to learn body parts. They touch their head, shoulders, knees or toes along with the song, and as they do this several times over the course of the song it is a surprisingly good workout.
Jumping Up and Down in Muddy Puddles
The clue as to why I have included this song in this list is in the title! It is a Peppa Pig song, so if you have children under 3 you are pretty much guaranteed to have heard it once, twice or 17 bazillion times already. This morning. It’s always a quick win with my children to get them engaged in something, to put something they are familiar with on.
William Tell Overture
The William Tell Overture is an overture to the opera William Tell by the composer Rossini. It is a piece of music that lasts for 12 minutes and paints a picture of life in the Swiss Alps. However, for me it is much more closely associated with horse racing than mountains in Switzerland. The finale to this overture is a fun piece of music to dance around to and with the horse racing connection, it is fun to put this on and pretend to be jockeys racing around the house!
Gallop Infernal from Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach
Otherwise known as the Can-Can after the music from this opera was adopted by the Moulin Rouge and Folies-Bergere to accompany their can-can dance. It is fun, lively and clearly a great piece of music to dance around to. It is perfect for getting the children to bounce around the house for a while to burn off some of their excess energy.
Our experience: a lovely, interactive concert for pre-school children introducing classical music and opera to our little people.
For 2020 I had booked us up to see quite a few concerts. We went to see Peppa Pig: My First Concert, read my review of this show here, and a fabulous concert from the Notelets series at the CBSO centre in March, and you can read about it here. It feels like that was about 6 million years ago now! We had several other concerts booked as well, and were looking forward to a year of regular live entertainment. Of course we now do not anticipate being able to go to see any of those concerts this year, very sadly. So I was delighted to see that the Birmingham based organisation B’Opera were doing one of their relaxed concerts online last week. It was on the theme of a Teddy Bear’s Picnic.
I have taken my daughter to one of B’Opera’s live relaxed concerts before at St George’s Church in Edgbaston, just over a year ago and was very impressed with the concert. We had been to a concert run by a different organisation and that had been billed as a concert where small children were absolutely welcome, in fact the concert was for the children and their grown ups, but I had not been impressed with this other organisation’s concert. It felt like it was a concert for the parents where their small children were tolerated rather than being aimed at the children. B’Opera’s relaxed concert was entirely different. It was a concert that was genuinely for the children who attended. It was for adults to bring their small children along to introduce them to music, not just nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes were included in the performance, as something familiar for the children, but there were many other songs in the concert as well. I left the concert feeling that this was an organisation that really understood how to put on a concert for small children and babies, and no wonder because they held music classes for babies and small children at Birmingham Hippodrome every week (owing to the coronavirus pandemic these classes are online at the moment).
Booking tickets and accessing the concert
I was really looking forward to watching this concert with my children. The relaxed concert on Saturday morning took place at 10.30 and lasted for about an hour. It cost £7.50 for a ticket and was broadcast on the service Crowdcast. There is an iOA app for Apple users, a website if watching on a laptop, and probably also an Android app. It was very easy to access crowdcast once tickets had been purchased, although I had not downloaded the app until just before the start of the concert, so we ended up watching the concert on my iPad via the website. I think that the experience would have been better if I had managed to get the app downloaded in advance of the concert so that we could have used that for the concert.
The live concerts are very interactive and online Zoe Challenor and Jacqueline White, who are professional musicians and who run B’Opera, added in as many interactive elements as they could. There was a chat function on the crowdcast app, and Zoe and Jacqueline answered as many comments as they could onscreen. One of the B’Opera team, Aliyah was also answering comments on the onscreen chat as they happened, but we could not see them – technical limitations of, well, me I’m afraid as I could not work out how to get the chat box up on the website without messing around and I didn’t want to do that while the concert was ongoing!
There were several games played during the concert, like Peekaboo with scarves that my children quite enjoyed, and a game of fruit snap. At the end of the concert I asked the children what they had enjoyed most about it and my 3 year old said “me like fruit game”! There were also some lovely touches, like cakes being passed and water glasses filled up between Zoe and Jacqueline.
The programme was picnic and summer themed. There were a mix of live performances and pre-recorded songs, the pre-records being performances by the pianist Phil Ypres-Smith who would usually be performing at the relaxed concerts, and a duet between Jacqueline and Zoe. The concert started with Debussy’s song about mandolin players, Mandoline, and included songs like Fleurs by Poulenc (Flowers), the Flower Duet from the opera Lakme by Delibes, and Where the Bee Sucks, There Lurk I by Thomas Arne. All songs about things you would see or experience if you were on a picnic. There were two fun songs by composer Jenny Gould performed towards the end of the concert as well including My Face is Made of Funnions. The concert ended with a rendition of, of course, Teddy Bear’s picnic and requests for favourite nursery rhymes were taken and performed.
Experience of watching concert online
What I really like about B’Opera’s concerts is that they strike a really good balance between children’s songs and traditional, familiar nursery rhymes and other classical music, proper arias from opera that are not at all dumbed down. Zoe and Jacqueline give the children attending their concerts the chance to listen to, to experience all sorts of music, more complex, “difficult”, less familiar music for them is included, and so children have the opportunity to become familiar with lots of different music.
It is far easier to keep children’s attention in person, and my two did not concentrate very well at all for this online concert – they were at home, my son could feel the pull of his lego upstairs, my daughter just wanted to play babies, and so they did not take in as much of the concert as I think they would have done if we had attended in person. I think that the concert, at one hour, was maybe a little too long. That may be because my two are at school and nursery so we don’t attend the weekly First Songs classes that B’Opera are offering at the moment, or it may just be my children, especially my 3 year old who absolutely cannot stay still for even 2 minutes at a time! For us I think the concert could have been shorter. However, this is not in any way a reflection of B’Opera, it is the circumstances we are in, that we cannot attend concerts in person at the moment. On the other hand, with the cost of the concert, as just one ticket is purchased for an online concert rather than paying for 4 people to attend, then it is easier and more affordable to take a chance on an online concert. If the children don’t enjoy it, or are not in the right mood to watch it on that particular day, then you have not spent as much money as you would buying separate tickets for the whole family. B’Opera also leave the concert available on crowdcast for a week at no additional cost, so you can watch it at any time or as many times as you like during that week. This is brilliant for people with small children as they love to watch things over and over again, and as mentioned above sometimes they are just not in the mood right then and there to watch a concert just because Mummy says it is time!
All in all, this was a really good concert, a lovely thing to do on a Saturday morning, and felt like a step towards normality, that we could go to a concert even though we were still at home. The arts in general, and organisations that are reliant on singing in particular, are really struggling at the moment with social distancing requirements, so I would urge you if you are at all tempted to try something like this out to do it and support these organisations like B’Opera so they are available still for live concerts when all of this is over and we can gather to enjoy music together.
For this week’s playlist, we have a selection of very happy songs, or pieces of music. These are all fun, bubbly, joyful works that will have you up and dancing and maybe even singing or humming along to them. If you ever need a pick me up, these would all be ideal to listen to.
If You’re Happy and You Know It
Probably one of the first songs you will sing with your babies, and probably one of the first they will actually be able to join in with you with the actions, this is a lovely song. The tune is very simple, and has just one verse that repeats throughout the song. Starting with clapping your hands, then stamping your feet you can add any action you like at the end- nod your head, jump up and down, twirl around, kiss your mum/dad/gran. This happy song can get your little one moving around and can help them burn off some energy. You could add some instruments to it as well, for some extra musical fun – If you’re happy and you know it, tap your sticks, bang your drum etc.
A song from my childhood, I distinctly remember my mum singing this to me when I was little. It is the theme tune from a sitcom Only When I Laugh that was on when I was young, and while I don’t remember the sitcom much I do remember singing the theme song! Having listened again to it for this blog post I realised how sad and bitter sweet it is in the show’s intro – the main character is trying to convince himself he is happy, rea;;y. However, at the end it is much happier, and so that is what I have included here.
Happy by Pharrell Williams
This song was written for the film Despicable Me 2 by Pharrell Williams. It is, as the name would suggest, a very happy song! With its steady beat it is great for dancing along to, and this is usually the first song I would put on when playing musical statues or musical bumps with my children (games they absolutely adore!)
Get Happy by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Ted Koehler
Get Happy was written in 1930 for the Nine-Fifteen Review. It is, however, known today for Judy Garland’s version of the song. Get Happy is influenced by the African-American Gospel Music Tradition of the same name that referring to the experience in Church or receiving the Holy Spirit. The song asks people to forget their troubles, come on get happy. I love this song!
Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin
Written by Bobby McFerrin in the late 1980s, this song was featured in the film Cocktail starting Tom Cruise. Bobby McFerrin was inspired to write the song by seeing an inspirational poster bearing the words “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. The song is a cappella, which means voice only, there are no additional instruments used. The song’s lyrics speak for themselves!
Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys
This song is quite complex and experimental using unusual instruments such as an Electro-Theramin. The music was composed by Brian Wilson who was inspired to write it by his mother talking to him about dogs barking at some people who had “bad vibrations”; his band mate Mike Love wrote lyrics to the song using good vibrations as inspired by the hippie flower power movement. Even in the title the song suggests happiness!
Gloria by Vivaldi
The Gloria is a sacred work, so written to be sung as part of worship. The words to it are Gloria in excelsis deo, or Glory to God in the Highest. The music for this piece shouts out its praise, almost can’t contain its joy and enthusiasm. This Gloria was featured in the film Shine in the late 1990s which told the story of pianist David Helfgott. Listening to Vivaldi’s Gloria on headphones in the film Helfgott is jumping on a trampoline. That is exactly what this music makes you want to do.
Overture toThe Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
I challenge anyone not to find this piece of music absolutely joyful right from the word go. This overture begins a comic opera written in 1786. It is bright, and exuberant. Written in a major key- in Western music major keys are associated with happy music, with a fast tempo, again it is very difficult not to want to dance along.
I bought this book for my little girl about a year or so ago. She was just over 2 at the time and she really liked just turning pages over. She also LOVED a noisy book, anything with buttons to press! Most of the noisy books in the house at the time had been bought originally for my eldest and he loved to remind her that they were bought for him, so I wanted to get her a noisy book of her very own.
In those days, you know before a global pandemic hit us and you could vary your days with little ones by taking them out of the house, and even to the shops, we liked to go to Foyles in Birmingham. I have taken both of my children there because there is a lovely children’s department that has (had?) a Brio train set for the children to play with while you were browsing. So we went quite regularly. I saw this book there and loved it.
Happily my little girl has also loved this book, and it has proven to be a great book for her to look at independently as well.
Published by Usborne Books, this is a guide to the orchestra. The book goes through the different sections of the orchestra – strings, woodwind, brass, even timpani (large tuned drums), and plays Hungarian Dance no 5 by Brahms. Showing children what those instruments sound like. At the end of the book the whole orchestra is brought together to play a short excerpt of. And the role of the conductor is briefly explained.
There is a round button, clearly marked, on each page to press to play the music, and this is easy even for small hands to press – we have had some noisy books in the past where you have had to press really very hard to get any sound to come out, and the book has quickly been abandoned.
Best of all, because we all know that noisy books can very quickly become a pain, there is an on/off switch at the back of the book for when it just gets a bit too much!
It is a lovely book that I would highly recommend, and a nice way to start introducing orchestral music and the instruments of the orchestra to very young children. Here it is in action:
On Saturday 7 March we attended a concert at the CBSO centre, the hone of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It was one of their Notelets series of concerts that are mini-concerts aimed at toddlers and small children. I went with my 2 children aged 5, and this concert featured percussionists from the orchestra, hence it being titled Crash, Bag, Wallop!
In short, it was superb and we will be booking to go to another one of these concerts.
On arriving at the CBSO Centre, there were craft activities in what I think is usually the cafe/bar area. On this occasion, the activity was making tambourines out of paper plates, bells and bottle tops. There were stickers and pens to decorate the tambourines as well. My 5 year old was much more interested in actually making the tambourine, but my 2 year old liked shaking her tambourine- the 5 year old mostly told us his was a parachute and he kept trying to use it as a parachute!
A musician from the CBSO, a tuba player, was also out in the foyer before the concert and he was sat on the floor with some percussion instruments on hand for children to explore. There were several children there already playing with the instruments, and the tuba player was playing songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and encouraging the children to explore the percussion instruments available. Playing boomwhackers with some of the children as well.
The concert lasted for about an hour. It had an Inspector Cluedo theme to it and was a very interactive concert. The musicians dressed up and told a story through the concert of a missing shaker, we had to find and solve clues to work out which of the Cluedo characters had hidden the shaker. To help find the clues, the children were asked to use their tambourines they had made to help find the clues.
The percussionists played some lovely music, proper pieces of music that were not at all dumbed down, though maybe shortened a little. The piece I liked best was Philip Glass’ Mad Rush. We even played it at home while having dinner that night. The children’s favourite part of the concert, however, was where different children’s TV theme tunes were played and they had to guess what programmes they came from. They talked about that part of the concert the following day.
My 2 year old did start to ask to go home after about 40 minutes. We had some snacks with her, so that helped to keep her in the concert hall, but also there were more opportunities for the children to get up and dance or march around the room in the second half of the concert, and this really helped to keep her attention and stop her getting bored. My boy loved the dancing too!
At the end of the concert some percussion instruments were brought out in the concert hall and the children could go up and try them out. They were similar, largely, to the instruments in the foyer, but my daughter who had been hesitant to try anything out in the foyer was much more keen to play with the instruments at the end of the concert.
What I liked most about this concert was:-
It was a proper concert with pieces of music that would feature in any adult concert, perhaps with the exception of the TV theme tunes!
Most of the opportunities to get up and move were in the second half of the concert- when the children were starting to get restless.
There was nothing else to pay for once we got there. The craft activities were free to do; there was a handout flyer that gave information about the music performed so no programmes to buy; there was no merchandise available.
We did not take a buggy with us, I did see some parked in the foyer, but do not know if there was a buggy park. I suspect there was somewhere as I did not see any in the concert hall. We did not use any baby change facilities as we weren’t there long enough so can’t tell you anything about that. I also didn’t see anywhere to buy a drink while we were there as the cafe/bar area (I think as I have not been to the CBSO Centre before) was being used for the craft activities.
All in all, this was a lovely concert to take the children to, and there was more than enough there to keep both children interested in the concert. A really nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and as I said we will almost certainly be booking another one of these concerts again.