My husband and I shared a sideways glance and silently mouthed a name that was loaded with low-class geekiness. We were listening to a live opera performance in the home of Vivaldi and Rossini, no less, and the name we whispered was “Bugs Bunny.” You can force the kids to grow up and let them roam around the world, but our American musical heritage will stay with us forever. Even if it was delivered by Saturday morning cartoons.
With genius like “The Rabbit of Seville” (“Welcome to my shop, let me cut your mop”), The Pink Panther, and my favorite Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, is it any wonder we found our classical and jazz music roots in childhood TV?
Jazz didn’t get any better than the live music from Johnny Costa in Mr. Rogers’ living room. We didn’t realize there was a grand piano just off camera where the famous Pittsburgh pianist would improvise. Critics predicted the style would be too advanced for children, yet the smooth background somehow fit the show perfectly. We loved Mr. Rogers’ music and found it compatible with the rolling fun of Vince Guaraldi’s work on Peanuts. Charlie Brown may have been awkward, but his life’s soundtrack was pure elegance.
We didn’t realize we were scampering out of bed on Saturday mornings to listen to one of the greatest composers in the world, Henry Mancini. But that panther—man, he was so cool. (The aardvark spoiled it all.)
It’s no wonder that as grown-up parents, we cringed at a singing purple dinosaur. Our soundtrack of childhood was far more sophisticated than we realized, and something was not quite right with this new generation of repetitive whining.
Our friend Mr. Rogers not only provided great music but also introduced us to superstars like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, and Tony Bennett. I remember watching an episode where he interviewed a harpist, which convinced me I was destined to play the harp. My parents explained it wouldn’t fit into our Volkswagen, so they quickly bought me a flute instead.
By the time my children were born, TV shows had devolved into 30 minutes of flashy squeaks and squawks, so I carefully monitored their shows. I even nixed a show that most parents felt was the only possible way for children to learn the alphabet. It was too flashy and had terrible music, so the green guy and the garbage can got canned at our house. But when it was nap time, I’d pop in a classical CD and tell them the name of the piece and composer. I wasn’t sure if they were understanding me or not until my son told me, “No Pro-kef! (Prokofiev) Peter and Wolf—scary!” And while sitting at the circus, he excitedly announced, “Hey! That’s Carmen, by Bizet!”
Little brains are sponges. If we provide anxiety-producing computerized junk, that’s what will fill their brains. If we offer them beauty, tranquility, and substance, they’ll give it back to us with overflowing ingenuity and imagination.
Children need exposure to quality music, not just for their creative process but also for developing their language, social and math skills. And let’s face it: familiarity with a few famous operas and symphonies also comes in handy when you want to impress your husband with your Looney Tunes repertoire.