Welcome to my music-themed trip! Remember how I said that journeys are often like music? You usually have a motif or theme for any given journey (a search for good coffee or saying embarrassing things unintentionally due to lack of sleep– wait, that’s probably just me); movements of preparation, contemplation, activity, and farewell; moments of harmony or dissonance; and so much more. To embark on this trip, let’s welcome you all with Welcome to the Symphony, by Carolyn Sloan, illustrated by James Williamson.
I should mention right up front that I got this at 30% off at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline because some of the physical aspects of the book weren’t working when I got it (the batteries had run out for the music panel you see on the right, and the panel was loose). Well, great for me, because a little Super Glue got the panel firmly in place and new batteries were easy! The book works like a charm now and I frankly feel sort of bad that I got a discount for such easy fixes (I guess I’ll just have to continue to give them my business). But do be aware that they may be working out some teething problems in assembling these books– hopefully they’ll be worked out soon, because this is a truly excellent introduction to how orchestras and music work, and it’s aimed at very young children. The Changeling loves it like crazy, and I’d like to apologize to everyone on our airplane on the way back from South Carolina last month in case they were disturbed by occasional bursts of Beethoven’s 5th.
Let me start by telling you the result. After reading the book through a few times, we asked the Changeling if she’d like to watch an orchestra playing the symphony. She agreed. My husband found a performance on YouTube with a good view of the orchestra. She sat on his lap and watched the first movement (which is the one outlined in the book), and apart from occasionally pointing out trumpets or violins, she just snuggled, watched, and listened. Another day, she proposed watching it again. I won’t say that Beethoven’s 5th is now her favourite piece of music and she’s become a genius musician and I anticipate that she’ll shortly be as famous as Karajan or Oistrakh, depending on which route she takes, but that’s hardly the point– or what I want. What I was looking for was a fun introduction to the types of music she often hears in our house. When she says, “What are you listening to?” I usually tell her, “Mozart,” or “Beethoven,” or whoever it is. She says, “OK!” And that’s it. This book provides a better answer, and that’s what I wanted.
So let’s look at that better answer. In this book, there are three little mice who are going to the symphony, each with varying levels of experience when it comes to orchestral music. This allows them to have little conversations like this:
Mouse 1: “Who’s that guy coming on the stage? Is he late?”
Mouse 2: “He’s not late! He’s the conductor.”
Mouse 3: “The conductor gets to tell everybody else what to do. He’s the director!”
The illustration shows the conductor coming out. The main text then explains more about the conductor, dynamics, and tempo, each in a clear block of text. I love that arrangement, personally: the illustration captures the big picture, the mice discuss the situation, and the blocks of text act as sidebars, giving you the details in easy chunks. The illustrations, created digitally by James Williamson on a tablet, have the look of pen and watercolour: they’re vivid, dynamic, and always excellent at singling out the focus for each page. Now, for us, the Changeling isn’t quite up to dynamics and tempo yet unless she’s in the mood for a really slow and curious read, so I generally skip them. The arrangement of the text makes it very easy to focus along with the visuals and customize your reading to your child’s level.
The next page introduces the symphony itself, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Beethoven, and this is where the real fun starts for the kids. They get to press buttons! Well, technically they already got to press the button for “tuning,” but honestly that one usually seems less intriguing to the Changeling– as it ought, I think! For the rest, you get to hear different aspects of the symphony. First, you hear the first few bars of the symphony played straight. Then, it breaks down: the main theme, different instruments from the orchestra, melody and harmony, a little conversation between instruments, etc. This is what the Changeling loves best. For example: “Can I press ‘Theme’? What’s a ‘Theme’? The theme is the main idea!” And then I feel very proud because she associates the button with the name of the section and the little block of text. Good girl! You’re being indoctrinated properly!
I’m only half joking. There’s a certain element of memorization that goes on with this book. Each page has a quick definition of “Orchestra,” “Strings,” “Melody,” and so on. The music and illustrations bring those definitions to life, and it’s impossible to say at such a young age how much of that really penetrates, and how much is simple association with pressing the button and hearing. Presumably there’s some memorization, and some understanding, just as with adults, really. In other words, I’m not particularly bothered by her understanding of “harmony,” but the fact that she’s curious and enjoys pressing the button ten times to hear what it sounds like is great (sort of).
Either way, she’s getting better answers to her questions than she was getting before: more depth, more definition, and more entertainment along with them, and she’s gaining new sources of enjoyment. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a book’s job: opening new worlds and stretching your mind. She’s being welcomed into the world of symphonic music, and having a lot of fun along the way.