30 Days of Listening: A Challenge

As a violin teacher, the question I field most often is, “How do I get my kid to practice?” I have plenty of short-term, pat answers involving parental engagement, encouragement, music listening, concert attendance, fun music, and stickers. A lot of stickers.

But when I’m having those conversations and giving that advice, what I really want is access to a time machine. I would step into the time machine with those families and jump back in time five or ten years. And then I would tell them this secret and encourage them to put it into practice. 

Cultivate a love and fascination for music, starting at birth. Long before you ever hire a teacher or buy your kid an instrument.

I think it’s fair to say, generally speaking, that the cultural norm in the USA is that kids don’t get exposed to good music until they are older. (In fact, most of the “good stuff” in the world is withheld from them until they hit double digits, or highschool.) And yet millions of kids take music lessons, starting early on. So there’s a massive disconnect, and everyone’s frustrated, and most people quit. 

Here’s the heart of the problem: most people who begin music lessons have virtually no context for their music study. Their experience with live music is very, very limited (more ideas for tackling that issue here). They’ve never seen the discipline of practice modeled for them. They have rarely even listened to classical music. Which means that a real love for music is probably non-existent. And, while there are other key factors at play in the music lesson experience (good teaching, dedication, having a good teacher, practicing hard, etc.), I am sure that the biggest problem is a lack of context, positive context, and with it, a lack of love. It occurred to me recently that I can point to very specific excerpts from particular pieces as the tiny fragments that collectively gave me the fascination I needed to pursue music as a career. And–mainly–I heard them at home. They’re still the pieces that remind me that I love music, and they were given to me as a gift when I was young. 

I’m not saying that you can’t cultivate this love for music later on; I’m just saying that it’s much more likely to really become a part of a person if it starts being cultivated very, very early on. So, ever since Sam was born, and before, I’ve been introducing him to great music of all genres. And not so that I can ensure that he will be a brilliant musician–that’s not my goal. In fact, he doesn’t have to be a musician at all. If he wants to become one, this will give him the context he needs to thrive in his study, with an inward flame of familiarity and fascination. But, musician or not, great music is part of our culture, our history, our world. It’s worthwhile for each of us to dip into. It’s also just beautiful, and that’s merit enough. 

I think the first step toward cultivating that love is listening–with enthusiasm. So, here’s a challenge, for you and for me, whether or not you have kids. It’s a challenge to spend a few minutes every day familiarizing yourself (and your kids, if you have any), with some of the best bits of classical music. And it’s called 30 Days of Listening.

An important note here: Even though I strongly believe that cultivating a love for music means listening widely across genres, I chose to go with classical music for this challenge, because for most people it takes a little more effort to pick out great classical music than to put on other music that we gravitate toward more naturally.

To help us all out, I’ve created a Spotify playlist of 30 pieces that I think are important to know. Since many of these have multiple parts or movements, I made two playlists for you to choose from, depending on how much listening you think you can manage: one is a short version, with only one or two tracks from each work (ranging from 3-12 minutes per track). The second is an extended play version, for a more complete look at each piece (for example, all the movements from a symphony, instead of just one track). 

Usually, the way music listening goes for us is that I say something like, “Hey, Sam! Do you want to hear the Marriage of Figaro Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?” in a ridiculous voice (this part is key, because it’s also building his familiarity with these dead people from the past and the weird titles they picked for their songs). He cocks his head and gives a half-grin and looks at me like I’m a little nuts, and I make a big production of pressing the power button on our little stereo and plugging my computer into it. And then he usually carries on with whatever he’s doing, or he goes over to his little toy piano and bangs away on it (which is cool, and cute, and eventually annoying). But his ears perk up just a little, and I know that he’ll always remember this, and meanwhile, I’m getting a refresher in all the good stuff…or learning it for the first time myself.

From the comfort of your own home or car, will you come on this adventure with us?

30 Days of Listening Playlist (short and sweet)
30 Days of Listening Playlist (extended play)

Track List:
Mozart: Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro”
Smetena: The Moldau
Elgar: Nimrod (from Enigma Variations)
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Suite
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite
Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite
Holst: The Planets (Jupiter and Mars)
Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2

Faure: Apres un reve (Afternoon of the Faun)
Bach: Double Concerto for Two Violins
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp
Corelli: Concerto Grosso in G Minor
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Paganini: Caprice No. 24
Wagner: Die Meistersinger
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks (OR Largo from Xerxes OR Water Music)
Copeland: Rodeo (Hoe Down) and Fanfare for the Common Man
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (“New World”)
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G Minor
Debussy: Claire de Lune
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G Major, “Surprise”

Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Sibelius: Finlandia
Strauss: Don Juan
Bartok: Six Romanian Folk Dances
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

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