Classical Kids

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

I am full of admiration for anyone who can manage to make a living from home without hooking up with an outside company. My admiration only increases for someone who can do this in the media. It becomes nothing short of hero- or heroine-worship for a person who can accomplish this by doing something that is also socially useful. I know from first-hand experience that it ain't easy.

So you can imagine how I feel about the woman from Toronto who started Classical Kids, a series of CDs which introduces children to classical music. Susan Hammond not only accomplished all of the above; she started a multimedia empire from her dining room table.

In 1988 Hammond was a 37-year-old piano teacher and mother of two, worrying that classical music was not being introduced to the new generation. She felt strongly that kids who were exposed to classical took to it, and she knew that young children loved to listen to stories. She decided to mix the two, and produced a demo tape to show people what she had in mind.

A small inheritance permitted her to produce her first recording, "Mr. Bach Comes to Call" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84235-2). She auditioned actors, hired an orchestra and scriptwriters and publicized the recording to newspapers, radio stations, record stores and teachers. Hammond sold 15,000 copies out of her house when she was interviewed on the CBC's morning program. That resulted in another 12,000 copies being purchased all across Canada. The album was nominated for Canada's Juno Award for Best Children's recording in 1989.

Later that year Hammond produced "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84236-2). Like its predecessor and its successors, this CD combines a story- acted out with sound effects like an old-fashioned radio drama-with excerpts from the composer's music. "Beethoven..." sold 50,000 copies in Canada, won the Juno prize for Best Children's recording, and led to BMG distribution throughout the United States.

While sales of "Mr. Bach..." and "Beethoven..." continued to climb, Hammond recorded "Mozart's Magic Fantasy" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84237-2). That was in 1991. Since then the Classical Kids collection has grown to include "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84238-2), "Daydreams & Lullabies" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84239-2), "Tchaikovsky Discovers America" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84240-2) and, just this year, "Hallelujah Handel!" (BMG KIDZ 06847-84263-2). There are, of course, many more famous composers left to choose from for the future. For now Hammond has already worked herself out of that ideal home office situation.

Classical Kids has branched out from the recording of CDs and cassettes to the production of TV specials, videos, books, CD-ROMs and live symphony concerts. These concerts bring the Classical Kids stories to family audiences in fully staged presentations. Four such concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Orchestra Hall were sold out, as were six with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, four with the Detroit Symphony, four with the Toronto Symphony, seven with the Minnesota Orchestra and 12 with the Long Island Philharmonic - just to mention a few. The 1995-96 live concert schedule includes more performances than I care to count. They are taking place in cities big and small throughout North America.

The awards keep coming in and, I presume, so does the money. Last May Michael Jackson licensed an excerpt from the "Beethoven..." CD for inclusion on his "HIStory" recording. Opera Atelier has been presenting "Mozart's Magic Fantasy" as a fully-staged opera to sell-out crowds in Toronto. There is no arguing with success, and I certainly hope all these efforts to attract young children to classical music are working. But I have a few reservations about the CDs themselves.

Classical Kids' use of sound effects, actors and child-centered fictional stories are all designed to attract and hold their intended audience. But I'm concerned about this mixing of fact and fiction. How can young children tell which is which?

Then, too, I find the story lines weak. My mind wonders, and I end up listening to the well-selected, beautifully performed excerpts, wishing that the actors would keep quiet.

When I do force myself to concentrate on the stories and try to pretend that I am about 10, I find some of them a bit grim. "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" begins with the death of a young boy's father. "Hallelujah Handel!" features a physically abused orphaned boy who sings like an angel but refuses to speak. "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery" centers on a young, orphaned girl violinist who breaks a Stradivarius which then disappears from the repair shop.This, of course, will not bother kids the way it will disturb anyone old enough to know what a Stradivarius is!

The balance between music and words is sometimes off in these CDs, making it difficult to understand what is being said. The acting is occasionally excellent, as in Jon Granik's performance as Bach, sometimes so-so, and often, as in the case of most of the children, well, childish.

But what counts is not how much I enjoy these recordings, it is how much the younger set takes to them. If Classical Kids CDs bring kids to the classics by the thousands, they deserve all the high praise and awards they are getting, and more. Even if it means Susan Hammond has to commute to work for the rest of her life.


The Magical Music of Disney (Telarc CD-80381) - Spirited performances by the Indiana University Singing Hoosiers with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel make this a children's CD that everyone can enjoy.

Classics for Children (RCA 6718-2 RG) - Arthur Fiedler conducts the Boston Pops in this Gold Seal reissue. Sir Alec Guinness narrates Prokofiev's environmentally incorrect "Peter and the Wolf," followed by Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals," without Ogden Nash's clever poems, and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite."

Family Folk Festival (Music for Little People MLP D2105) - This delightful collection includes Pete Seeger singing "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad," Maria Muldaur with "The Circus Song," and Taj Mahal singing "Humpty Dumpty," plus 10 other songs with the Smothers Brothers, Doc Watson, Claudia Gomez, Lillian Allen, John McCutcheon, and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

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