How to Get Kids into Classical Music

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

Is there any way to get a teenager to listen to Bach instead of Bowie or Sibelius rather than Sting?

When my children were growing up, I tried to help them discover the pleasures of classical music. I had a theory: just surround kids with the classics from conception through childhood and they will naturally grow to love it. It is one of several parental practices I stubbornly clung to against all evidence to the contrary.

I played Fauré for my daughter when she was a foetus... Enescu when she was an infant... Bartok when she was a baby... Tartini when she was a toddler... Lully when she was a little girl... Bizet as she became bigger... Paganini for her puberty and Albinoni as she reached adolescence.

But that didn't stop her from preferring The Who when she was in the womb... the Beatles when she was a baby... the Grateful Dead as she grew up... and I don't know who now, since I don't know rock from reggae.

I also surrounded her with public television and important books. So, when she was a teenager, she watched soap operas on commercial TV and wouldn't have read "Survival of the Human Race" if her life depended on it.

And that's how I discovered - too late - that I was doing everything wrong.

If you want to raise a child to enjoy public TV, you must never let her catch you watching it. Click past PBS as if those letters stood for Prurient Broadcasting and Sex.

If you want her to read Moby Dick, buy a copy and make sure she sees you putting it back in the family safe after taking a quick peek at its mysterious pages.

If you want your teenager to listen to classical music, firmly forbid it from ever being played in your house. That's the way to get kids to listen to Khachaturian.

As a society we've said "no" to drugs for a long time... and now it's hard to find a youngster who hasn't tried one. Likewise, we should prohibit anyone under 21 from listening to classical music. It wouldn't be long before every crack dealer would be selling Coppelia and pot heads would be turning on to Puccini.

The First Law of Adolescent Behavior is: teenagers want whatever their parents dislike, and crave that which is prohibited. So "just say no" - to classical music - and concertos will provide the high previously reserved for cocaine, and symphonies will save our society.

The imaginative folks at Intersound Entertainment have come up with a similar idea for introducing teens to classical music. Instead of forbidding it altogether, they are trying to turn it into a counter-cultural, "in" thing to do. It's all in the packaging, they seem to be saying, judging by the packaging they use.

Rather than attempting to get teenagers to listen to something called "The Best of Beethoven," for example, they have put out a CD with the offensive title, "WHAT DOES A DEAF GUY HEAR?" The big, bold, red and white letters are blazoned across the recording's otherwise black cover (and on a matching T-shirt). Turn over the cover, or look at the back of the T-shirt, and you read that "Beethoven fought deafness for six years before completing his Fifth Symphony. Sixteen years later, he couldn't hear the applause to his own music. Talent... it hears no bounds or limitations."

Intersound has created a new label just for this series of classical CDs aimed at the youth market: "counter culture/Classical Underground." Other titles include "NOT BAD FOR A KID," featuring the music of Mozart... "PROLIFIC IN EVERY RESPECT," with musical highlights of J.S. Bach, who fathered 20 children and 273 songs, chorales and arias... and "LONG HAIR, LOUD MUSIC," with movements from symphonies by eight different composers.

The liner notes and even the contents listed on the CD labels are written with the target audience in mind. "LONG HAIR, LOUD MUSIC," for instance, includes: "1) Haydn's London Symphony (all we know is that he met some stewardess...), 2) Mozart's 39th (live acoustic version), 3) Beethoven's Fifth (more punch than a fifth of jack), 4) Mendelssohn's Fourth (same hotel, different stewardess), 5) Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (banned in Arkansas), 6) Brahms' Third (different hotel, same stewardess), 7) Dvorak's Ninth (but still seeing Brahms' Third on the side), 8) Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony (no comment)."

This juvenile, sexist humor is limited, fortunately, to the packaging. The music itself consists entirely of excerpts from straight performances from Intersound's extensive classical music library, and features such groups as the London Festival Orchestra and the Berlin Symphony. Not one note has been changed, no digital synthesizer, rhythm section or off-color harmony added. The adagio from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the "...DEAF..." album, for example, is traditionally performed on an acoustic piano by Dubravka Tomsic, who undoubtedly was not consulted before the CD label succinctly listed the work as a "major babe-magnet."

The "counter culture/Classical Underground" approach could be described equally succinctly as a "major dumbing down," a blatant effort to pander to the tastes of tasteless teenagers. But I hope it works. I'd like to see a new generation introduced to the beauty of classical music, and if contemporary graphics, bold T-shirts, bumper stickers and silly jokes do the trick, I'm all for it.

If it doesn't work, let's try forbidding sales to anyone under 21.

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