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Lessons in Parenting
Rediscovering Children's Music
Published on February 28, 2012 by guest author: J LeBlanc

One of the things I dreaded about having children was feeling obligated to listen to children’s music. My associations with the genre were of over-enthusiastic, high-pitched voices and melodies drowned out by a cacophony of instrumentation. The very thought of it was enough to make me want to put off having children just a little bit longer.   

I didn’t always feel this way. I listened to a lot of children’s music as a child and loved it. It was the memory of what it sounded like, as recalled by my adult self, that was causing me problems. When my son was around four months old, it finally happened. My mother sent me two albums of “classic” children’s songs. I put them on, grimacing at the thought, but was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed them.   

Don’t get me wrong - if there’s one thing I hate, it is over-produced children’s music. Especially if the perpetrator feels the need to add a “modern beat” or some equally obnoxious flair to the music. But these two albums were surprisingly straightforward in their interpretations of some classic songs that I had forgotten I ever knew.

I began to recall some of my earliest musical memories, in particular a music class I attended in elementary school. The teacher was young, pretty and full of enthusiasm. She taught us some basics about rhythm and songs, many of which were accompanied by motions or even games. It is by far one of my most pleasant memories of elementary school and contributed largely to a love of music that has led to years of playing in instrumental groups.

Another thing that struck me about the albums was how much the songs were indicative of American culture. I remember, as a college student visiting Ireland, seeing a festival with kids out on the street playing traditional Irish music and wishing that I had grown up with that kind of tradition. Yet, here it was right under my very nose: a legacy of tunes, some imported from Britain, but also some born right here in the United States. In my enthusiasm, I sent copies of the albums to my nephew overseas, eager for him to be able to learn what I felt were songs that almost every American child knows.

I also wanted to expose my son to songs from other cultures. When I was young, my mother found some wonderful collections of children’s music from France and Mexico that I listened to often and remembered fondly. The French songs I remembered especially well and loved the renditions: They were sung primarily by a children’s choir with some accompanying adult voices, but what really distinguished them was the instrumentation. It was apparent that lots of orchestral instruments were featured, but in such a way that they never overwhelmed the melody. It was like listening to a cross between really good, but simple, classical music and children’s music.

Unfortunately, the collections were never reprinted past the age of the cassette tape. I searched the Internet high and low, but only found over-priced (considering the risk they wouldn’t work) vinyl and more cassettes, which is what I originally had. I resigned myself to looking for new versions and scoured iTunes for my favorites. I was shocked. The versions I found were worse than my worst memories of children’s music: The tempo was too fast, sung by grating choruses that bordered on the manic, the melody often buried under some blaring “rock” instrumentation. How could a culture produce such lovely children’s songs and then do this to them? I wondered.

Several months passed, my son made the all-too-rapid transition from baby to toddler, and I began looking for new ways to engage his mind. One of the suggestions I found on how to do this was listening to music in a foreign language. I sighed and renewed my search. It took a few hours, but finally I found a couple of albums that had many of the songs I wanted in versions that were neither grating nor saccharine, but simple and with clearly pronounced lyrics.

Now, music time is a regular part of our schedule. We listen to it during playtime and sing along (well, I do - he does a sort of cooing noise he’s been doing since early babyhood) and do hand motions. When he is cranky or overly tired, sometimes my husband and I put on music and dance while holding him, which always seems to calm him down. I would love to see music enrich his life as much as it has my husband’s and, and this feels like a good start.

J LeBlanc is a former high school teacher who resides in Lebanon, N.H. She is currently taking a break from teaching to stay home with her 8-month-old son.

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User Comments
J LeBlanc | February 29, 2012 07:22

If your interested, the American songs were on two Disney albums of "classic" children's tunes- volumes one and two.
The out-of-print music was called Sing Children Songs of France and Sing Children Sing Songs of Mexico.
The new French music I found was Chansons and Comptines vols 1 & 2 by Charlotte Grenat.

Eric | February 29, 2012 21:40

Have you listened to any of Woody Guthrie's children's albums, such as "Nursery Days"? Incredible. I loved listening to them as a kid and I enjoy listening to them with my kids now.

Germany also has some great music for children. If you can find any albums by Fredrik Vahle, I highly recommend him. Sometimes I listen to his music in the car even when the kids aren't with me!

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