Saturday, September 28, 2013

Music to Soothe the Weary Soul

by Megan Hoyt

This week, I'd like to share some of my favorite music with you and share how we developed a love for classical music in our family. Here's the key to it all -- love music in front of your students! Voila! There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. And although it seems like an easy enough task since most learning is caught and not taught, it can be daunting, especially if what you love is, well, a little less than savory. (If your favorite music is punk rock or your favorite band is ACDC or Kiss, this is not going to be easy!)

I had the secret advantage of having been raised by symphony musicians. My parents met while playing for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York in the late 1940s. The story goes something like this:

Before the era of air conditioning, it was stifling hot during the summer, and Mom was prone to fainting spells during long rehearsals. So one day, Dad began  carrying smelling salts. He kept them on his music stand and whenever Mom started to tip over he would lean over and put the smelling salts in front of her face to rouse her. A match made in Heaven, right? Well, at least it was a story-worthy beginning! From there, they both got jobs with the Dallas Symphony, and we became Texans.

I spent long hours backstage at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, listening to classical music in stops and starts during rehearsals (now air-conditioned, which was great since Texas is HOT). After I was tucked in for the night snug as a bug in my bed, my parents always turned on WRR, the local classical music station. Or they turned on my portable record player so I could listen to Tchaikovsky or Benjamin Britten or one of the other record albums I treasured as a child. Sometimes I listened to Songs From France.

So that's the backdrop for what I'm about to say. It's easier to pass along something that comes naturally to you, and listening and loving classical music comes easily to me. That doesn't mean this isn't doable for you, though! In fact, a more step by step approach might be better than my haphazard love affair with this and that -- depending on what I happened to hear them playing that week.

Here are my handy dandy tips:

1) If you live in a city large enough to have a symphony, attend concerts with your children. Often.

2) If you are able to attend live concerts, contact the symphony office and ask them for a study guide, some web links, recordings, samples, and maybe even a tour of the concert hall or venue. Find out what to wear, and lay out special clothes for each child the night before the performance. Make it a special event for them!

3) Go to park concerts whenever possible. Fresh air, fresh fruit, something bubbly, a blanket, some pillows, sunsets, and lilting classical music will help you make a memory.

4) If you live near a university that has a music program, go to as many recitals as you can. They are usually free, and you and your children will learn what individual instruments sound like. You can learn together. And don't forget to congratulate the student afterwards. Recitals are difficult!

5) Listen to your local classical radio station, in the car, at home, or if you have Spotify or iTunes or something else, load in one composer at a time and delve deeply into his or her music, life, times, place, etc.

6) Have Composer Study parties! We used to celebrate certain composers' birthdays by hosting parties where we did a scavenger hunt or a treasure hunt, using clues from the composer's life to lead to the next piece of the puzzle. It's fun. There's always cake. And the children never forget what they've learned because it was a special event where they were in charge of seeking out the information rather than the teacher droning on and on and the student regurgitating the facts on a test at the end of the term. My favorite party was the one where our local opera company was giving away free tickets to La Boheme to anyone who dressed in 1800s costumes. We got all the kids dressed up and got the best seats in the house. It was spectacular.

7) Find the best recordings of the very best composers of all time. There are many ways to accomplish this. Check out the websites I will list at the end of this blog entry for a great head start. Then, listen, listen, listen. Spend some focused time listening to the same piece each day, listening for tone, style, dynamics, musicality, and, of course, for fun. It may help to keep a plackard with the current composer's name written on it beside your school table or desk as you listen so they don't forget who they're listening to. It's easy to do.

8) Talk about music. Talk about how to read music, what sharps and flats are, what the different rests look like. Draw them. Draw notes. Practice clapping rhythms. Create a staff and write your own music. Learn how to play an instrument and practice some simple tunes by your favorite composer. Have a favorite composer. Know who your favorite composer is because you have listened to many and decided for yourself.

If you don't know where to begin, try Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Johann Strauss Jr, Rossini, or Tchaikovsky. For opera, Puccini and Verdi. For piano music, Chopin and Liszt. For modern music, Debussy or Stravinsky. I'm leaving out a lot of really special music in between, but this is a great start.

Here are my personal favorites:

Mendelssohn's Elijah

Chopin's Impromptu
Massenet's Meditation from Thais
All of Puccini's Tosca and Nessun Dorma from Turandot
Beethoven's Romance No. 2 in F
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt
Offenbach's Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet
Franz Liszt's Liebestraum
Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody 
Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain
And here is the Hodie Natus Est (I led the huge candlelight procession when our choir did this at St. Michael and All Angels in Dallas, so it holds special meaning for me and is a great example of gregorian chant, though written much later by Benjamin Britten.)
Frank's Panis Angelicus (so pretty!)
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade
Faure's Sicilienne
Any guitar music performed by Andres Segovia or John Williams

And last, but not least, the song my mother played on the piano whenever she was waiting for everyone to get ready to go somewhere. I am not sure why she sat down and played this song over and over, but she did and it's etched in my heart forever. I can still smell her Windsong perfume and hear her passionate rendition of this lilting Brahms piece. Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2.

Andres Segovia and his beloved guitar
I just noticed a startling lack of Mozart and Bach. Well, one cherishes what one cherishes!

Dive in. Savor the experience. Have fun!


Free Classical Music online

How to read guitar music notes

Free piano lessons
How to read music
How to read music (easier)

Composers by Time Period

100 Best Composers
Top 10 Composers
(This one is just someone's opinion, but they ranked them with photos which I would like you to have.)