Composers' Stories Pique Children's Imaginations

'Classical Kids' recordings introduce Mozart, Vivaldi, and others

When Johann Sebastian Bach knocked on Susan Hammond's door, she opened it.

Back in 1989, Ms. Hammond, a music teacher, made a demo tape titled ''Mr. Bach Comes to Call'' geared to children. Weaving fact and fiction, she had a hunch that children would hook into classical music if it were presented with storytelling.

Now, six years later, Hammond has produced six critically acclaimed audio releases and one Emmy Award-winning video (''Beethoven Lives Upstairs'') as well as live symphony performances.

The project -- in all its incarnations -- is called ''Classical Kids.''

''It's the little project that ate my life,'' Hammond says with a laugh.

In addition to ''Mr. Bach,'' the audio series includes ''Beethoven Lives Upstairs,'' ''Mozart's Magic Fantasy,'' ''Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery,'' ''Daydreams and Lullabies,'' and the newest, ''Tchaikovsky Discovers America.''

''It's a wonderful world, classical music,'' says Hammond, speaking by phone from her home in Toronto. ''It's been an adventure and a journey for me as much as for children.''

The applause is long for the series: three Juno Awards (Canadian version of the Grammy), numerous Parents' Choice awards, recognition from the American Library Association and the Film Advisory Board.

About 1.5 million audio versions have been sold and more than 50 orchestras in the United States and Canada have performed the works for 300,000 kids and their families. More videos -- and now books and a CD-ROM -- are coming out to accompany the recordings.

Hammond's success at involving children in classical music, rather than just feeding it to them, stems from her experience as a music teacher and a mother of two girls, Sarah, 12, and Katie, 15.

The goal is to excite the imaginations and curiosity of children and have them progress from passive listening to active listening, says Hammond, who is currently working on Handel. Kids need to be challenged, not given sound bites, she says.

In ''Classical Kids,'' she adds, ''the level of language is fairly complicated; I like to call it rich. Children don't hear that much language that is rich enough to bear rehearing. That's very unfortunate.''

Hammond says she tries to make specific visual and emotional references for children to hear in the music. ''Sometimes we forget that our own learning process involved feeling and imagination.''

In ''Beethoven Lives Upstairs,'' young Christoph must put up with the mumblings and piano-banging of the eccentric composer who is renting a room above him. In the end, their mutual resentment turns into friendship.

''The ache of Beethoven's deafness can be honestly felt by a child. If we wrap his music around that, they'll really feel that intensity,'' Hammond says.

The other element of the series that draws a child in is the historical aspect, Hammond says.

Each era has a particular sound to it, she notes. Handel and Bach were writing music that is very kingly and religious; Beethoven was about making statements. ''Children are wonderful time travelers. If you put them in a believable past, they can meet these wonderful heroes.''

Hammond's personal favorite is ''Daydreams and Lullabies,'' which features poetry by children set to classical music. ''You find that [children] are tremendously poetic and honest -- that's part of the very unsuperficial soul of a child. And it's quite something to stand in awe of.''

Hammond says she fears that families don't have enough activities they do together. Shared activities let children know they have value to parents as well as to them. While parents and children listen to classical music on different levels, they can still all relate to the music, she says.

In ''Beethoven Lives Upstairs,'' for example, very young children will pick up on the sound effects and identify with the voices of the children, Hammond says; eight- to 10-year-olds will hear it all in stereo; and adults will ponder how Beethoven's individualism changed the world.

''Classical Kids'' also has some ''closet'' listeners among adults.

Just last summer, Hammond says, she was bicycling down the road and heard her ''Beethoven Lives Upstairs'' drifting out of a parked car. A man and a woman got out. And she came to find, Hammond says, that they didn't even have children.

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