Music Lessons

Classic Arts Features   Music Lessons
Want to turn your kids on to classical music? Houston Grand Opera General Director David Gockley explains how.

Prior to my teenage years, my late father's football coaching career in Pennsylvania took our family to a number of small towns. One was a town of 2,500 called Annville, located in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, halfway between the two metropolises of Lebanon (of bologna fame) and Hershey (whose air truly was fragrant with the smell of chocolate). In case you don't know this, Annville lies along the banks of the rolling Quittapahilla Creek.

My classmates were children of farmers, shop owners, and laborers. The richest girl in my class was the daughter of the undertaker. The area's religious sects were well represented in school‹I remember the Mennonite girls wearing their long skirts and pristine hair nets. Farm boys in stained overalls reeked of fermenting hay and manure.

And yet, in this unlikely environment, by the fourth grade we knew all the musical key and time signatures, the note values, and the different modes (major, minor, and so on). We had sung Schubert in three-part harmony and marveled to know that Beethoven had composed his great choral symphony (No. 9) after he lost his hearing.

We had music class every day, just like arithmetic and spelling. Band and choir were also a part of the curriculum. We had no local symphony orchestra to attend, but our classroom teacher, Mrs. Mayer, played a 15- to 20-minute passage of "classical music" every day during rest period.

Initially, the houses that had a television received only one channel, but that channel carried The Voice of Firestone every Sunday night. The miracle of television brought opera even to tiny Annville and introduced us to great singers like Jan Pierce, Lawrence Tibbitt, Licia Albanese, Thomas L. Thomas, and Jerome Hines. Its successor show, The Bell Telephone Hour, showcased Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, Roberta Peters, and upstarts Sherrill Milnes and Joan Sutherland.

Years later, when a college professor suggested that I might have the vocal chops to sing opera I replied, "Wow, you bet!" Singing for my supper did not ultimately pan out, but the prospect of devoting my life to the promotion and performance of beautiful music made perfect sense. A career had been launched from seeds planted in that fourth-grade classroom in Annville.

My intention is not to characterize the 1950s as a "golden age" or to join in the whining about "what happened to music in the curriculum?" The fact is, it's gone. Poof. Priorities are now on academics, test scores, reducing the drop-out rate, and increasing the numbers of students accepted into college. Recent theories suggesting that listening to Bach and Mozart improves math scores have yet to be conclusively proven. We'd undoubtedly be better off if good music‹and indeed all art‹paid off in some kind of material way, just as the fine arts have to justify their existence in this city by showing they have "measurable economic impact." In fact, Houston Grand Opera does have a measurable economic impact, so we'll play that game‹and we're getting better at measuring!

Meanwhile, if you care whether your children or grandchildren will be bequeathed the joy you receive from, in our case, opera, I make the following suggestions:

1. Play good music continuously in the nursery from day one.

2. Tell them great stories that can be made richer by playing music. Make it a weekly neighborhood party by including other kids. The "Classical Kids" CD series is especially effective. The complete line is available at the HGO Guild's Opera Boutique in the Grand Foyer of the Wortham.3. Take them to age-appropriate musical and theatrical events.

4. If your children's school does not regularly book HGO's Opera to Go! troupe, go in and pound on the principal's desk!

5. Ditto for HGO's student matinees at the Wortham (this year's matinees were of The Magic Flute with the same cast seen by the general public) and at the Heinen Theater (the world premiere of The Velveteen Rabbit).

6. Give high priority to pre-schools and grade schools that offer curricular opportunities to sing and play instruments.

7. Do your best to have your children take at least two years of piano lessons.

8. Make the most of summer opportunities. Excellent music camps are available in Houston during the summer, including our own Opera Camps.

With the same vigor and enthusiasm that we involve our children in athletic activities, we should also include music and art activities in their lives. Both of these experience areas are vital to creating well-rounded, healthy children.

Until our formal educational system once again values music and the arts as part of the "core curriculum," each of us must make up a part of the deficit. Who knows? You might cultivate a future director of your Houston Grand Opera!

David Gockley is the General Director of Houston Grand Opera.

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