Snobbery, Projection, Resentment « PREV | NEXT »: A spoiler for Bernard-Henri Levy

March 24, 2010

Opera, baby

Every now and then, I read something about a brilliant new idea and the warning bells go off before I get to the end of the first sentence. Here's the latest example from the London Times. It seems the education director of the Scottish Opera has come up with a marketing scheme "groundbreaking" program to introduce children to the opera. We're not talking about walking, talking tots who might be able to sit through, say, "Peter and the Wolf,''  but rather the creeping, crawling set. The opera is staging a piece called "Baby O" for children age six- to eighteen months, and it sounds like an ordeal for parents and performers alike. No lyrics, no plot, and apparently no orchestra. Just this:

Classically trained singers will create baby-friendly noises, such as Wellington boots splashing in puddles, buzzing bees, quacking ducks and the fluttering of feathers.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

(That was the alarm bell.)
As someone who actually survived having three children in seventeen months (kids survived, too), I happen to know that children this age are entirely unpredictable. The soprano may very well be performing a perfect rendition of a buzzing bee, but one child might scream in terror while another resourceful young fellow busies himself trying to figure out how to destroy the "tactile garden set." I'm not saying this couldn't be fun and enjoyable for some, but it's silly to think of this effort as anything but a playground with noise. 

But that's not how the director of education is billing it. Jane Anderson, Scottish Opera's director of education, risks "sounding pompous" by insinuating that such performances can actually boost IQ scores. From the Times:

Recent research into the so-called Mozart Effect has claimed that exposing babies to music can boost IQ, improve health and strengthen family ties.

"My goal was to create a performance piece, but, at the risk of sounding pompous, I wanted to contribute to the body of academic research about when tiny infants actually start to listen" [Anderson] said. 


The "recent research into the so-called Mozart Effect" first became prominent in 1993, which, if I do the math correctly, was 17 years ago. That year, researchers published a study of the effects of listening to Mozart on spatial reasoning. The study examined the effect on undergraduates, not babies. But the mainstream media picked up on the report, and headlines appeared claiming that "Mozart boosts IQ!" 

And an entire industry was born.

Books, CDs, tapes, and other "educational" materials flooded the market, and would-be alpha parents rushed to get the latest tools to ensure that little Johnny (still in utero) would be thinking like a rocket scientist before he was potty trained. In 1998, Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia, proposed allocating $105,000 a year in the state budget to provide a classical CD or tape to every baby born in Georgia. He even had legislators listen to a recording of "Ode to Joy" and then asked, "Now, don't you feel smarter already?" 

Natch, the "Mozart Effect" was subsequently put through the academic ringer, and researchers published counter-study after counter-study, some debunking the theory entirely, others trying to replicate it. Frances Rauscher, one of the original researchers, explicitly said that her study never claimed that listening to Mozart would boost IQ. In fact, here's what she had to say to the New York Times in 1999: ''I'm all for exposing children to wonderful cultural experiences. But I do think the money could be better spent on music education programs.'' 

But the genie was already out of the hypothetical baby bottle at that point, and alpha parents were willing to spend any amount of money to give their kids an intellectual edge. Bring on Brainy Baby, Baby Genius, and the motherlode of them all, Baby Einstein. 

This second generation of products went beyond just listening to music. It featured DVDs, flashcards, books and other assorted "educational" tools that promised to help you build a better baby. I confess, I was pressured into buying a copy of "Baby Mozart" after a brief encounter with a woman who said her husband was a famous concert pianist. This was at a toy store in my old neighborhood (02138), where such chance meetings were not entirely unusual. If I remember correctly, I had two screaming infants in tow, and I was sleep-deprived and ragged, and this woman promised me that the DVD was the most brilliant thing ever produced. Out came the credit card. In went the DVD. "Waaah!" went the babies. 

Never mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two should not be exposed to the small screen. Never mind that the "Mozart Effect" was never meant to suggest that music tames the savage baby. Parents went bonkers for the stuff, and the baby industry just grew and grew, much to the alarm of researchers in early childhood. 

The folks at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood recently took on the Baby Einstein operation, which now belongs to Disney. They challenged the company's claims that their products were "educational," and last year, Baby Einstein offered no-questions-asked refunds for all Baby Einstein electronic babysitters videos. 

Honestly, I really don't get worked up about anyone who uses these products judiciously. Every parent needs a break, and if parking the babes in front of the tube for a half hour makes for a saner parent, go crazy. But it is infuriating that this long-questioned theory is making its way into a marketing effort of a cultural institution. "Baby O" may very well be a lovely production, what with the sounds of all those Wellington boots and quacking ducks. But the notion that it might contribute to advances in cognitive science is, well, sheer quackery.

Bring in the babies, if you will, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that this is anything but a lighthearted entertainment for the wee ones, no more, no less.

March 24, 2010 6:15 AM | | Comments (2)


Here we have yet another way to relate culture to the masses. I am sure it was hoped that the "Mozart Effect" would help to fill concert halls and integrate music with mainstream school education. However, today people talk about it but nobody much cares. Then, "Baby Einstein" created a new generation of television addicts that simply watched but did nothing because after all, the program did not require the observer's overt participation or immediate response. The children became mesmerized because everything was being done for them. Now, we have "Baby O" with chuckles, burps, the sound of passing gas, and whatever "baby friendly noises" are needed to fill the vacant time on a concert stage. I suppose that this form of artistic license is better in that it might tend to make the young audience more comfortable sitting with others in a venue that many people later go on to fear.

A better solution: look at the way the Finns approach music. Musical education in Finland begins at a very early age with children participating in hands-on curriculum that relates music to everything else. Highly qualified and inspired educators relate individually to children who go on to later to contribute to a country that already demonstrates the cultural and educational model for this entire planet.

I am a quasi expert in using music for children, having no children. But I am sole caregiver for a 90-year-old mother with level 6-7 Alzheimer's.

When mom was hospitalized and a more temporary dementia binge, I used the Baby Einstein videos to help enchant her back to life. After that, I discovered the Classical Baby series, each DVD a short illustrated music video featuring ten or so classical music selections, shortened...but NOT dumbed down. You can see the videos on YouTube and you can see parents' videos of their kids (most still in diapers) reacting to the programs. We have both watched these videos dozens of times each. Mom often conducts along.

I just wouldn't label Baby O as classical music. It probably has benefits as a multi-sensory stimuli. Why not do a show with real singers and real arias? Why not a real flute or clarinet? What would be interesting is to have the aria be videoed and fed to a high def TV...then have the singer come out and perform, live.

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