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Milo’s Musical Education

Can you teach your kid to have taste?


Photographed at Carnegie Hall; opera glasses courtesy of New York City Opera.  

A skinny man with dreadlocks sits alone in a circle of light on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Bobby McFerrin decants a soft falsetto into a microphone, and in the seat next to mine, my 10-year-old son, Milo, tenses with delight. McFerrin’s voice jumps and twirls over four octaves, spinning a filament of notes into rich polyphony. I first heard that liquid sound strewn with percussive nuggets twenty years ago in a Village club; now I enjoy Milo’s fresh amazement. The kid has taste.

But how, exactly, did he form it? I observe his blissful quiver, and wonder: What nerve center has this voice touched to trigger such a visceral reaction? I can’t be sure that my son will continue to love McFerrin’s quiet virtuosity, or even that he’ll always remember the concert. But somehow, I’m sure, the experience has impressed itself in the warm wax of his consciousness. Afterward, I quiz him on what he liked best, expecting him to opt for the ten-minute Wizard of Oz, in which McFerrin took the roles of Munchkins, twister, flying monkeys, and all the principal characters. But no: Milo loved the solo simplicity of the improvisations—as he put it, that McFerrin “can do things with his voice that no one else can.”

The classical-music world desperately needs Milo. He belongs to a generation of kids who look at a violin and see a strange, archaic object, who think of opera as a faintly embarrassing pastime of the upper crust, rather like riding to hounds. The good people at Carnegie Hall have erected a costly and wonderful educational apparatus to nurture audiences of the future. But bequeathing musical taste—like cultivating a penchant for good food, or ethical behavior—is a parent’s job, and it can only be done with conviction.

To steer a child’s taste in music feels vaguely countercultural. Each generation is supposed to discover its own primal sounds and reject its parents’ loves—although these days, parents rush to follow their kids’ tastemaking. American adults will blow a fortune at Walt Disney World, affect a fondness for SpongeBob SquarePants, and frantically Google “Miley Cyrus” to stay abreast of the news. I have a memory from another era of Frank Zappa scoffing at Tipper Gore’s suggestion that parents screen their children’s enthusiasms for wholesomeness. The idea of families gathered around the hearth to listen to Devo struck him (and me) as funny. Yet here I am, a generation later, sitting on my son’s bed, tapping my foot to the Christian-rock diva turned pop star Natasha Bedingfield’s relentlessly upbeat “Pocketful of Sunshine.”

If we want to be part of our children’s aesthetic world, then why do we equivocate about bringing them into ours? We wall off grown-up culture behind a barrier of ratings, warning labels, and vigilant software. We leave it to educators to filter the arts for consumption by the allegedly innocent. We are terrified of exposing children to material they might not understand, whether because it’s too crude or too complex. In the process, we shortchange the kids we are trying to protect.

As a music critic, I go to concerts for a living, and for a long time I questioned whether taking Milo with me too often would wind up turning him off. I feared a symphony would strike him as a tedious expanse of orchestral sludge, or that he would think of opera as a murky rite in which large people bump bellies and shriek. But these are my preconceptions about him, not his about music. I have come to feel there’s no point in waiting until he’s ready, because by that time it will be too late. For now, he is curious about live classical music because he knows it makes his father tick. At some point, he may reject it for the same reason. I place my faith in the thought that taste implanted in childhood may go dormant for years and then revive.

So, for the past year, Milo has become my semi-regular escort. Before each outing he worries that he will be the only child in attendance, and sometimes he is. He has heard the Berlin Philharmonic open the Carnegie Hall season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; Gustavo Dudamel make his electrifying New York debut with Beethoven’s Fifth; and tenor Juan Diego Flórez nail his nine high C’s in the Met’s new production of La fille du régiment. He suffered through an amateurish evening of Renaissance dance music in a church, and was baffled by a live orchestration of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” by the group Alarm Will Sound. He loved South Pacific enough that he could sing most of it from memory after one performance. He will wait a year or two for the full-throated tragedies of love and fate. He has heard me remark how much his beloved J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed from Wagner’s four-opera excursion into Norse mythology, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and he’s expressed interest in seeing it. Not yet, I think. In the meantime, the Met has plenty to offer a 10-year-old: the creepy, saccharine horrors of Hansel and Gretel, the over-the-top wizardry of Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute, and the antics in The Barber of Seville. Whether all this stimulation will coalesce into affection or merge in an undifferentiated memory of sitting silently among rows of old people in red velvet chairs, I have no idea.

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