When it comes to great music, you’re never too young to start. Samantha Laurie on a scheme to get babies tuning into the classics
In a church hall in Wimbledon, concert pianist Miaomiao Yu is midway through the flamboyant opening of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, when a member of the audience lurches onto stage and steadies himself on her piano stool. Another feels the music so intensely she is dancing in the aisle. Two more charge around the hall in a tussle over a plastic container of raisins.
This is Bach to Baby, a rather unusual concert group that stages classical music events for parents and babies. It is about as far removed from the reverential silence of a conventional concert as could be: toddlers shriek, babies are crawling on the stage, parents are up and down with beakers of juice and changing bags.
Yet throughout, award-winning soloist Miaomiao maintains a ferocious level of calmness and concentration, as she delivers five beautiful short pieces from Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Chopin and Bach.
“I see it as the perfect mix of chaos and beauty,” she grins.
Miaomiao began the concerts two and a half years ago, when it became too hard to continue attending classical events with her two young sons. The noise and hubbub, she contends, is far closer to the social carousing and chatter that accompanied the original live performances of composers such as Mozart than is the hushed silence of today.
The babies are clearly enjoying it – particularly the nursery rhymes at the end – but is it having a positive effect?
Playing classical music to babies has long been held to boost IQ. Studies show that all complex music – be it jazz, classical or pop – increases brain activity in the very young. However, the largest long-term gains come from music instruction – learning to play music, identify different instruments, movements and composers. Active listening at a live performance – as against putting on a classical CD while a baby sleeps – is thus surely the next best thing.
“What I love most is seeing the babies react emotionally,” says Nadine Andre. ‘The visual impact of a live performance is so intense, it really makes them feel the music.”
Nadine, also a professional pianist, helps to run another concert series, Classical Babies, at venues including Teddington. With musicians from harpists to classical guitarists and bassoonists, she puts together a programme of short, lively pieces designed to appeal to babies, as well as to parents who may be new to classical music.
For parents, a dash of culture on a midweek morning is proving extremely popular: audiences regularly exceed 50 adults, each with one or more babies. It’s the quality of performers that is key, says Miaomiao.
“Why shouldn’t children hear the best? Moments of epiphany may come when you suddenly experience extreme beauty. If we give children mediocre music, it may not touch them in the same way.”
Cold parquet flooring, a full coating of dust and a big jar of Nescafe. Is that not what baby and toddler groups are about?
It certainly used to be for Weybridge mum, Laura Lord. Then she came up with a plan for a family members’ club that would keep all the quirkiness of shared baby stories and Wiggly Worm gyrations, but relocate them from dusty church halls to snazzy venues with free parking, proper coffee and big deep sofas from which to enjoy the mayhem.
Dotty and Jack’s embraces over 20 different classes a week – from baby signing and musical babies to pregnancy yoga and buggy fit – at such locations as Weybridge Health Club and the Medicine Garden, Cobham. Members pay a fee (£40 a month for a mum-to-be; £50 for a parent and up to two kids) to participate in classes and join in with speaker events and coffee mornings.
It’s the latest in a wave of baby clubs, such as Maggie and Rose in Kensington and Chiswick, that are revamping the maternity experience with dollops of comfort. Flexible booking, great guest speakers (watch out for a workshop on photographing children this month) and tasty patisserie to restore flagging spirits make it a rather welcome addition.
Have we forgotten how to sing to babies? Thula Mama is an a capella singing group for new parents and babes-in-arms in Wimbledon and (from next month) Walton which aims to increase singing in family life, with lullabies, chants and folk songs from around the world. Visit: thulamama.co.uk; surreymusic.org