Music Professor Succeeds in Making Bucks an “All Steinway School”
December 4, 2017
According to the press release on the school’s website, Bucks President Stephanie Shanblatt stated, “Our goal is to seek excellence in everything we do. Partnering with Steinway and Sons in this endeavor continues our college along that path.”
Steinway Pianos have been hand crafted since 1853 and have set a standard for sound, touch, beauty, and most importantly; investment value. The press release also included a statement from the head of the Music Area of the Arts Department, Professor Steven Brensen, saying, “By investing in Steinway pianos – high-quality instruments that are prized for their superior craftsmanship and design, reliability, longevity, and persistent value over time – Bucks has provided its music program, students, and faculty with a product of exceptional pragmatic and artistic merit.”
The driving force behind the acquisition of these world-class pianos would be none other than Associate Professor Edward Ferdinand. Ferdinand trained on Steinways at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Julliard School and would know more about these instruments than anyone else at the college.
He began his efforts in bringing these pianos to Bucks back in 2009 by working with the Bucks Foundation. He wrote grants and launched a fundraising campaign to bring about this distinguished honor.
“The first grant that we had ever received was from the Presser Organization for $50,000. After that, we received another grant for $15,000,” said Ferdinand. “Not only did we receive these grants, but we also asked for donations from Alumni and friends as well.”
When asked what is so special about these pianos, Ferdinand said, ”The original pianos in this school were between 40 and 50 years old. Their sound boards were just about shot and they didn’t hold tune very well anymore. The Steinway’s are much more stable.”
Ferdinand owes a lot of gratitude toward Bucks Foundation members Tobi Bruhn and Jean Homes. “Those two were a huge help to me throughout this entire campaign and for that, I am very grateful,” said Ferdinand.
The designation of an All-Steinway School represents the dedication that this institution and appreciation for the Arts Department. In celebration of this achievement, the college held “Unrivaled Sound: A Celebration of Steinway Excellence” this past May 6 in the Zlock Performing Arts Center at the Newtown Campus. This performance not only included students performing on the new Steinways, but faculty, alumni, and guests as well.
The acquisition of the Steinway pianos puts the music program at Bucks on a whole new level. Not only that, but it attracts more and more Steinway performers to the school as well. “I am thrilled that this project I began eight years ago has become a reality for our students and faculty,” said Ferdinand. “I’m completely thrilled not just for my own sake, but for the sake of students and faculty as well.”
It’s easy to think about music as just a sequence of sounds – recorded and encoded in a Spotify stream, these days, but still: an acoustic phenomenon that we respond to because of how it sounds. The source of music’s power, according to this account, lies in the notes themselves. To pick apart how music affects us would be a matter of analysing the notes and our responses to them: in come notes, out tumbles our perception of music. How does Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah work its magic? Simple: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…
Yet thinking about music in this way – as sound, notes and responses to notes, kept separate from the rest of human experience – relegates music to a special, inscrutable sphere accessible only to the initiated. Notes, after all, are things that most people feel insecure about singing, and even less sure about reading. The vision of an isolated note-calculator in the brain, taking sound as input and producing musical perceptions as output, consigns music to a kind of mental silo.
But how could a cognitive capacity so removed from the rest of human experience have possibly evolved independently? And why would something so rarified generate such powerful emotions and memories for so many of us?
In fact, the past few decades of work in the cognitive sciences of music have demonstrated with increasing persuasiveness that the human capacity for music is not cordoned off from the rest of the mind. On the contrary, music perception is deeply interwoven with other perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes, the province of theorists and professional musicians, and more a matter of fundamental human experience.
Brain imaging produces a particularly clear picture of this interconnectedness. When people listen to music, no single ‘music centre’ lights up. Instead, a widely distributed network activates, including areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory and planning. Far from revealing an isolated, music-specific area, the most sophisticated technology we have available to peer inside the brain suggests that listening to music calls on a broad range of faculties, testifying to how deeply its perception is interwoven with other aspects of human experience. Beyond just what we hear, what we see, what we expect, how we move, and the sum of our life experiences all contribute to how we experience music.
If you close your eyes, you might be able to picture a highly expressive musical performance: you might see, for instance, a mouth open wide, a torso swaying, and arms lifting a guitar high into the air. Once you start picturing this expressive display, it’s easy to start hearing the sounds it might produce. In fact, it might be difficult to picture these movements without also imagining the sound.
Or you could look – with the volume muted – at two performances of the same piano sonata on YouTube, one by an artist who gesticulates and makes emotional facial expressions, and the other by a tight-lipped pianist who sits rigid and unmoving at the keyboard. Despite the fact that the only information you’re receiving is visual, you’ll likely imagine very different sounds: from the first pianist, highly expressive fluctuations in dynamics and timing, and from the second, more straightforward and uninflected progressions.
Could it be that visual information actually affects the perception of musical sound, and contributes substantially to the overall experience of a performance? Numerous studies have attempted to address this question. In one approach, the psychologist Bradley Vines at McGill University in Canada and colleagues video-recorded performances intended to be highly expressive as well as ‘deadpan’ performances, in which performers are instructed to play with as little expressivity as possible. Then the researchers presented these recordings to the participants, either showing them just the video with no sound, or playing them just the audio with no video, or playing them the full audiovisual recording – or, in a particularly sneaky twist, playing them a hybrid video, in which the video from the expressive performance was paired with the audio from the deadpan performance, and vice versa.
It turns out that participants tend to describe as more expressive and emotional whichever performance is paired with the more expressive video – rather than the recording with the more expressive sound. In a separate experiment, the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London showed that people predicted the winners of music competitions more successfully when they watched silent videos of their performances than when they merely heard the performances, or watched the video with the sound on.
Pairing minor (sad) audio with major (happy) video leads to the minor music being rated as happier
Music, it seems, is a highly multimodal phenomenon. The movements that produce the sound contribute essentially, not just peripherally, to our experience of it – and the visual input can sometimes outweigh the influence of the sound itself.
Visual information can convey not only information about a performance’s emotional content, but also about its basic structural characteristics. Work by the psychologists Bill Thompson at Macquarie University in Sydney and Frank Russo at Ryerson University in Toronto showed that people could judge the size of an interval being sung even when they couldn’t hear it – merely by watching facial expressions and head movements. When video of a person singing a longer interval was crossed with audio from a shorter one, people actually heard the interval as longer. Similarly, when Michael Schutz and Scott Lipscomb, then both at Northwestern University in Illinois, crossed video of a percussionist playing a long note with audio from a short note, people actually heard the note’s duration as longer.
Multisensory integration at this basic level feeds into some of the higher-level effects of vision on perceived emotion. For example, pairing audio of a sung minor interval, typically heard as sad, with video footage of someone singing a major interval, typically heard as happy, leads to the minor interval being rated as happier.
Amusical experience is more than an audiovisual signal. Maybe you’re trying out a new band because your best friend recommended it, or because you’re doing your parent a favour. Maybe you’re experiencing a concert in a gorgeous hall with a blissed-out audience, or maybe you’ve wandered into a forlorn venue with a smattering of bored-looking folks, all of whom seem to have positioned themselves as far from the stage as possible. These situations elicit markedly different sets of expectations. The information and inferences brought to the concert can make or break it before it even starts.
Joshua Bell is a star violinist who plays at the world’s great concert halls. People regularly pay more than $100 per ticket to hear him perform. Everything about the setting of a typical concert implies how worthy the music is of a listener’s full attention: the grand spaces with far-away ceilings, the hush among the thousand attendees, the elevation of the stage itself. In 2007, a reporter from theWashington Post had an idea for a social experiment: what would happen if this world-renowned violinist performed incognito in the city’s subway? Surely the exquisiteness of his sound would lure morning commuters out of their morning routine and into a rhapsodic listening experience.
Instead, across the 35 minutes that he performed the music of Bach, only seven people stopped for any length of time. Passers-by left a total of $32 and, after the last note sounded, there was no applause – only the continued rustle of people hurrying to their trains. Commentators have interpreted this anecdote as emblematic of many things: the time pressures faced by urban commuters, the daily grind’s power to overshadow potentially meaningful moments, or the preciousness of childhood (several children stopped to listen, only to be pulled away by their parents). But just as significantly, it could suggest that the immense power of Bell’s violin-playing does not lie exclusively in the sounds that he’s producing. Without overt or covert signalling that prepared them to have a significant aesthetic experience, listeners did not activate the filters necessary to absorb the aspects of his sound that, in other circumstances, might lead to rhapsodic experiences. Even musicianship of the highest level is susceptible to these framing effects. The sound just isn’t enough.
People liked the music more and were more moved by it when they thought it had been written for a happy reason
Other studies also suggest a powerful role for context in the experience of music. In 2016, with my colleague Carolyn Kroger at the University of Arkansas, we exposed participants to pairs of performances of the same excerpt, but told them that one was performed by a world-renowned professional pianist and the other by a conservatory student: people consistently preferred the professional performance – whether they were listening to the professional, to the student, or had in fact just heard the exact same sound played twice. And, in another factor unrelated to the sound itself, listeners tended to show a preference for the second excerpt that they heard in the pair. When these two factors coincided – when the second performance was also primed as professional – their tendency to prefer it was especially strong. My own subsequent neuroimaging work using the same paradigm revealed that reward circuitry was activated in response to the professional prime, and persisted throughout the duration of the excerpt; this finding is in line with previous neuroimaging studies that demonstrated the sensitivity of the reward network to contextual information, affecting or even improving the pleasantness of a sensual experience.
It’s not only our sense of the quality of a performance that is manipulable by extrinsic information; our sense of its expressive content can also vary. In a recent study, we told people that we had special information about the musical excerpts that they were going to hear: in particular, we knew something about the composer’s intent when writing it. Unbeknown to the participants, we created the intent descriptions so that some were highly positive, some highly negative, and some neutral. For example, we could say that a composer wrote the piece to celebrate the wedding of a dear friend, to mourn the loss of a friend, or to fulfil a commission. We scrambled the description-excerpt pairings so that the same excerpts were matched with different descriptions for different participants. In each trial, participants read the composer-intent description, listened to the excerpt, and answered questions about it.
When told that the excerpt had been written for some positive reason, people heard the music as happier, but when told that the excerpt had been written in a negative circumstance, they heard it as sadder. Recasting the emotional tenor of an excerpt had important consequences for the listeners’ experience of it. People liked the excerpts more and were more moved by them when they thought they had been written for a happy reason (intriguingly, another part of the same study showed that people liked and were more moved by poetry when they thought it had been written for a sad reason). The social and communicative context within which a performance occurs – rudimentarily approximated-by-intent descriptions in this study – can imbue the same sounds with very different meanings.
The right music can get a roomfull of people dancing. Even people at classical concerts that discourage overt movement sometimes find it irresistible to tap a finger or foot. Neuroimaging has revealed that passive music-listening can activate the motor system. This intertwining of music and movement is a deep and widespread phenomenon, prevalent in cultures throughout the world. Infants’ first musical experiences often involve being rocked as they’re sung to. The interconnection means not only that what we hear can influence how we move, but also that how we move can influence what we hear.
To investigate this influence, the psychologists Jessica Phillips-Silver and Laurel Trainor at McMaster University in Ontario bounced babies either every two or every three beats while listening to an ambiguous musical excerpt that was capable of being understood as characterised by perceived accents every two or three beats. During this exposure phase, babies were hearing the same music, but some of them were being moved in a duple pattern (every two beats, or a march) and some of them were being moved in a triple pattern (every three beats, or a waltz). In a later test phase, babies were presented with versions of the excerpt featuring added accents every two or every three beats, translating the emphasis from the kinaesthetic to the auditory domain. They listened longer to the version that matched the bouncing pattern to which they had been exposed – babies who had been bounced every two beats preferred the version with a clear auditory duple meter, and babies who had been bounced every three beats preferred the version with the triple meter. To put it another way, these infants transferred the patterns they had learned kinaesthetically, through movement, to the patterns they were experiencing auditorily, through sound. What they perceived in the sound was framed by the way they had moved.
The findings paint an embodied picture of music-listening: the way you physically interact with music matters
Testing whether this transfer from movement to sound occurs in adults required a few modifications to the study design – it’s not as easy to pick up adults and bounce them. Instead, adults were taught how to bend their knees every two or three beats as a musical excerpt played. And rather than devising a listening-time paradigm to infer aspects of perception from preverbal infants, researchers simply asked participants which of two excerpts sounded more similar to the one in the exposure phase. Participants chose from versions of the excerpt to which auditory accents had been added every two or three beats. Mirroring results with the infants, the adults judged the version to be most similar when it featured the accent pattern that matched the way they’d moved. The effect persisted even when participants were blindfolded while moving, demonstrating that perception could transfer from movement to sound even in the absence of a mediating visual influence. Movements much subtler than full-body bounding can also influence auditory perception. Participants asked to detect target tones occurring on the beat from within a series of distractor tones performed better when they tapped a finger on a noiseless pad than when they listened without tapping.
Together, these findings paint an embodied picture of music-listening, where not just what you see, hear and know about the music shapes the experience, but also the way you physically interact with it matters as well. This is true in the more common participatory musical cultures around the world, where everyone tends to join in the music-making, but also in the less common presentational cultures, where circumstances seem to call for stationary, passive listening. Even in these contexts, when and how a person moves can shape what they hear.
The musical vocabularies and styles that people hear while growing up can shape the structures and expressive elements they are capable of hearing in a new piece. For example, people show better recognition memory and different emotional responses to new music composed in a culturally familiar style, as compared with new music from an unfamiliar culture. But it’s not just previous musical exposure that shapes their perceptual system: the linguistic soundscape within which a person is raised also reconfigures how they orient to music.
In languages such as English, the pitch at which a word is pronounced doesn’t influence its dictionary meaning. Motorcycle means a two-wheeled vehicle with an engine whether I say it in a really high or really low voice. But other languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Thai, are tone languages: when Chinese speakers say ma with a high, stable pitch it means ‘mother’, but if they say it with a pitch that starts high, declines, then goes back up again, it means ‘horse’. The centrality of pitch to basic definitional content in these languages means that tone-language speakers produce and attend to pitch differently than non-tone-language speakers, day in and day out over the course of years. This cumulative sonic environment tunes the auditory system in ways that alter basic aspects of music perception. Speakers of tone languages, for example, detect and repeat musical melodies and pitch relationships more accurately than non-tone language speakers.
Culture and experience can change how music is heard, not just how people derive meaning from it
The psychologist Diana Deutsch at the University of California, San Diego concoctedtritones (two pitches separated by half an octave) using digitally manipulated tones of ambiguous pitch height. People heard these tritones as ascending or descending (the first note lower or higher than the second) depending on the linguistic background in which they had been raised. Speakers of English who grew up in California tended to hear a particular tritone as ascending, but English speakers raised in the south of England tended to hear it as descending. Chinese listeners raised in villages with different dialects showed similar differences. A striking characteristic of this ‘tritone paradox’ is that listeners who hear the interval as ascending generally experience this upward motion as part of the perception, and have trouble imagining what it would be like to experience it the other way, and vice versa for listeners who hear it as descending. The effect influences what feels like the raw perception of the sound, not some interpretation layered on later. Culture and experience can change how music is heard, not just how people derive meaning from it.
Music’s interdependence on so many diverse capacities likely underlies some of its beneficial and therapeutic applications. As the late neurologist Oliver Sacks showed in Musicophilia (2007), when a person with dementia listens to music from her adolescence, she can become engaged and responsive, revealing the extent to which these tunes carry robust autobiographical memories.
Music cannot be conceptualised as a straightforwardly acoustic phenomenon. It is a deeply culturally embedded, multimodal experience. At a moment in history when neuroscience enjoys almost magical authority, it is instructive to be reminded that the path from sound to perception weaves through imagery, memories, stories, movement and words. Lyrics aside, the power of Cohen’s Hallelujah doesn’t stem directly from the fourth, the fifth, or even the minor fall or the major lift. Contemporary experiences of the song tend to be coloured by exposure to myriad cover versions, and their prominent use in movies such as Shrek. The sound might carry images of an adorable green ogre or of a wizened man from Montreal, or feelings experienced at a concert decades ago.
Despite sometimes being thought about as an abstract art form, akin to the world of numbers and mathematics, music carries with it and is shaped by nearly all other aspects of human experience: how we speak and move, what we see and know. Its immense power to sweep people up into its sound relies fundamentally on these tight linkages between hearing and our myriad other ways of sensing and knowing.
LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ — Christie Peery-Skousen will discuss technique during the Piano Teachers Forum’s monthly meeting on Friday, Dec. 1. The meeting begins at 9:45 a.m., preceded by coffee at 9:15 a.m., at Jacobs Music, 2540 Brunswick Pike in Lawrenceville.
In “Technique: Right from the Start,” Peery-Skousen will uncover the 10 most important techniques that when taught and mastered from the very beginning, will unlock a student’s technical and musical future.
Peery-Skousen is the Master Teacher and founder of Peery Piano Academy, and is the author of the Peery Piano Habits Program, a conservatory style teaching and certification system based on the teachings of Dr. Irene Peery-Fox.
She serves on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory Preparatory where she is head of the First Steps at the Keyboard program. Her students are frequent prize winners in local and national competitions and perform as soloists and with orchestras throughout the Bay Area.
The Piano Teachers Forum is an active professional association that has served piano teachers in Central New Jersey since 1981. The goal of the forum is to provide a friendly and supportive atmosphere that allows for an open exchange of ideas and the development of valuable relationships among colleagues.
On the first Friday of each month, it looks to continue to educate and stimulate professional development through its workshops and programs. Visitors are invited to attend the programs for a $20 guest fee at the door.
For this year’s full program calendar, and other information about the Piano Teachers Forum, visit www.pianoteachersforum.org, or email email@example.com.
Image via Shutterstock
This monthly broadcast series, proudly sponsored by Jacobs Music Company, spotlights some of the best young piano talent in The Classical Network’s immediate broadcast region of Central and Southern New Jersey. Kids on Keys is hosted by Steinway Artist, composer, critic and author Jed Distler, The Classical Network’s Artist-in-Residence. The program airs on the first Saturday of each month at 1 pm. Each Kids on Keys program features performances given by young artists in recital at the Lawrenceville location of Jacobs Music Company and other regional venues.
Featured on Saturday November 4th were pianists Nicholas Gritz, Raymond Xu, LiYuan Byrne, Jason Liang, Grace Xiong and Max Wang who were heard in selections by Haydn, Kuhlau, Toch, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Childhood recordings by future adult luminaries Shura Cherkassky and Glenn Gould were also featured, along with a rare 1931 disc by the 14-year-old British child prodigy Wilfred Worden.
Playing for a Musical Fix
Broken instruments in concertBy Samantha Melamed STAFF WRITER
Su Spina normally plays kettledrums. But when she went to pick up the instrument she’d be playing in the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra — a new composition for 400 amateur and professional musicians, all playing broken instruments from the Philadelphia public schools — her options were limited.
“Would you prefer a violin without strings? Or an auto-harp?” Andy Theirauf asked her.
Spina, 22, a recent college graduate who studied music at Franklin and Marshall College, said if knocking on a broken violin for 40 minutes is what it takes to get these instruments fixed, she’s in.
“I started music when I was in elementary school,” she said. “So, knowing a whole bunch of students in the Philadelphia School District don’t even have access to instruments, I wanted to be a part of anything that helps.”
The project —conceived by Robert Blackson, director of the Temple University Contemporary art gallery — is part crowdfunding campaign to fix the instruments (adopt one at) and part avant-garde music experiment, with a score from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.
Its world premiere is Dec. 3 at the 23rd Street Armory. It is a one-night-only event: After that, the instruments will be repaired and returned to schools.
But it may be the start of something even bigger.
“We’ve gotten many, many, many requests from school districts all around the country,” Lang said. They want to perform his symphony with their own broken orchestras. “To me, that’s a really beautiful thing — that it has given other people the opportunity to imagine how they can help to fix their own instruments.”
We’ve gotten many, many, many requests from school districts all around the country.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang
The Inquirer and Daily News first covered the launch of the project in February. The work started with collecting the instruments, and cataloging the special way in which each one is broken: horns with stuck valves and long-lost mouthpieces; violins and cellos missing bridges, let alone strings.
Now, Lang’s score is written, the musicians are hired, and rehearsals are underway.
Lang said that as he began listening to the recordings, what became clear is that the instruments were unreliable. A broken trumpet couldn’t be counted on to make trumpetish sounds.
“I wouldn’t be able to write a beautiful melody where every instrument plays the melody and you hear them blend,” he said. “So I designed a piece of music where the individual characteristics would come out and there’s a lot of independence in what they do”
The score is a mix of musical notation and written English — a solution he devised when he was writing Crowd Out, his composition for a thousand community members who yell, sing, whisper and clap. Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is divided into 10 sections with headers like “punching chords” and “mysterious again, for a short while.”
Altogether, it’s an exploration of the capabilities of the instruments — and of the performers.
“Oftentimes, when you see a musical performance, it seems to happen effortlessly,” Blackson said. “Here, the audience can connect to musicians because they can see that it’s a struggle to play, and that struggle is part of the humanity of the piece.”
The struggle got real for Kat Paffett, 39, during instrument distribution. She received a stand-up bass with no fingerboard, bridge, or case in which to bring it home.
Ben Mulholland, 35, was pleased with the French horn he received in a disintegrating case. “It’s broken in interesting ways. You can make it into a weird, farty whistle.”
As for Aidan Peterson, 11, a six-year veteran on the trumpet, he was confident.
“I know all I need to do is try my hardest and it will end up good,” he said.
At rehearsals, though, the effort was evident.
Natalie Martin led a group of about 20 musicians through a call-and-response section of the symphony, her broken cello croaking and rasping like a singer who’s long since worn out his vocal chords. Midway through the movement, half of someone’s clarinet clattered to the floor.
Martin gave directions like: “Whatever the person next to you is doing, try not to start at the same time as them. It’ll be like a real middle-school orchestra rehearsal.”
Then, Evan Kassof took the musicians through a percussion movement, bows tapping on wood and keys clacking open and shut, but with variations in volume and tempo.
“Loud! Angry! You want your instrument fixed!” he told the group. “There’s pain in here. We’re the voice of these broken instruments.”
Kassof, who has a doctorate in composition from Temple, started playing cello in his middle-school orchestra. He believes this work is important, even in a school district with many other financial pressures.
“Just fix the damn instruments, and they’ll fix the kids. A working cello will do a lot more than some new policy,” he said.
Then, Anna Drozdowski, the project manager, sent the musicians home with brief instructions: “Please, don’t try to fix your instruments at home. I know it’s tempting, but we will engage professionals to handle that. Also: Please don’t break them any more than they are already broken.”
So, what will 400 broken instruments sound like?
“Mysterious,” said Lang. “Powerful.”
“A beautiful mess,” said Drozdowski. “There are people as young as 9 and as old as 84 that are playing and there are people from almost every zip code in the city. That’s a testament to Philadelphia’s ability to come together around this issue.”
Owen Brown, band leader of Urban Classical and a former member of the Sun Ra Arkestra, had a different take: “I think it’s going to sounds like a desperate cry for help — which is exactly what’s going on.”
There’s a sticker on the plastic-wrapped CD I’m holding that reads, “Produced by Phil Ramone.” The late, great producer, who died in 2013, has a name brand that few other music producers can rival: He worked with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Madonna and Sinéad O’Connor. This album, though, is a little different. It’s classical music, curated for children.
“He actually started as a child prodigy violinist,” said Marc Neikrug, a renowned classical composer who collaborated with Ramone on the album, “Sunken Cathedrals,” after being introduced by Dr. Rock Positano, a podiatrist with a special interest in music’s value to medicine. “The three of us were all very, very interested in promoting classical music to children, for many reasons.”
Parents have heard about the specific benefits of classical music for developing minds and calming babies for decades — imagine a mother playing Mozart through headphones stretched over her pregnant belly — but the scientific debate has continued to rage.
In an age when children develop surrounded by constant stimulation and distraction, however, Neikrug sees a very particular value in classical music. “I’m concerned about a world in which there is an almost corporate, aggressive move to lower people’s attention spans, so that your brain actually can’t focus for more than half a minute on anything without needing some other stimulus,” he told me. “That’s terrifying. How do you even absorb and learn things? How do you expect kids to do well in school?” With TV viewing consistently on the rise, including among very young children, some studies have suggested that frequently watching television as a small children or infant can harm attention spans later in childhood.
Where does classical music fit into this landscape? “I think it’s really important to let kids, at the earliest age, build some kind of ability to focus,” Neikrug said. “Great music can do that, because you’re drawn into what you’re listening to.” A two- or three-minute waltz may not seem so long to concentrate on, but it’s “a good attention span, for kids,” he said. “We picked the pieces very deliberately to be not too long.”
The pieces are calm, beautiful, and simple, the sort of music that won’t rile a kid up or throw up constant distractions. Much like reading aloud to a child, calm classical compositions engage a child in a form of entertainment that’s low-stimulus and substantive.
“I think it’s really important to let kids, at the earliest age, build some kind of ability to focus.”Marc Neikrug
All of the pieces on the two-part album are unadapted, complete works of classical music, either solo piano or piano with violin, from Schubert to Schumann, Mozart to Debussy. “Both Phil and I, and Dr. Rock, were completely convinced that we need little, short, beautiful pieces for kids. They happen to be really good for adults, also,” he points out, though the words “Classics for Kids” on the cover might scare some grown people off.
The ability to fully enjoy classical music later in life, Neikrug argued, is one of the potential benefits of playing classical music for a child. “If you listen to classical music at an early age, even if at the age of say, eight or nine to 20, they go off into that world [of popular music] […] if you come back to it, it’s the same as learning another language early,” he said.“They come back to it.”
This doesn’t mean you should toss all of your Raffi albums or trash all the screen devices in your home. “I’m not an advocate for disregarding the reality of living in this world,” Neikrug said. “I just don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. I would say someone who grows up able to focus for an hour […] and equally able to text under the table with one hand, is fine.”
So how does one get modern adults to pick up an album of classical tunes that might benefit their kids? “In the end, I think it’s the people,” said Neikrug. “Phil Ramone was one of the great record producers, and it’s two very respected people in the classical music world. It’s not Yanni. It’s not ‘Sesame Street.’” Parents who grew up on Ramone’s music — from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga — can let their babies do the same, even from infancy. Maybe, along the way, those babies will fall in love with the quiet joys of classical music.