By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

When it comes to getting children interested in classical music, is a soft touch or a firm hand best?

Violinist Nicola Benedetti spurred that debate in United Kingdom classical circles earlier this month when she told the Scotsman newspaper that children should be exposed to classical music whether they want to be or not, saying we wouldn't ask for a child's approval for them to take a math lesson and we should think about classical music the same way.

“Needing the child’s approval for what they do in school is just such an alien concept when you’re talking about maths, science, history or English, but, suddenly, when you bring music into the mix, it’s: ‘Oh no, we can’t show them anything that they don’t instantly love because that would be like forcing children into something that they don’t want to do,’” Benedetti told the paper. “It just bemuses me.”

The Scottish Benedetti began playing the violin at age four and secured a lucrative recording contract at only 17. She has been a long advocate for the classical music “Tiger Mom.” In 2013, the virtuoso told The Guardian newspaper that parents shouldn’t be afraid to lay down the law and not allow their children to change instruments, which was something her parents did with her.

"There is a worrying general tendency at home and in schools,” Benedetti said. “It is a fear of discipline, a fear of enforced concentration and a slight hysteria about the nature of fun."

At first glance, there is something about imposing an appreciation for music that is disconcerting. If you love classical music, you want to have your children share that love. But if their interest is elsewhere, where is the line between good parenting and the stereotypical movie jock father who forces his son to play football so he can live vicariously?

Benedetti’s stance has drawn detractors who see forcing a child to listen to Beethoven with the same sternness as eating your broccoli as something that does more harm than good, but Benedetti also has her supporters including The Independent’s Arts Editor David Lister.

“If we love an art form and believe it can change lives, no matter how ‘difficult” it is perceived to be, then it is not a burden to “force” it upon children,” Lister wrote. “It is doing them an enormous favor.”

Playing an instrument is unlikely to be as immediately gratifying for a child as say — to quote an example Benedetti focused on — playing a video game. Performing music at any level is a blend of work and eventual reward, and often parents can provide a steadying hand to their child in reaching that reward.

It’s not hard to find an older musician who would thank their parents for telling them to stick with those piano lessons they didn’t always appreciate, but musician and piano teacher Melanie Spanswick warns that too heavy a hand doesn’t make a better musician and might backfire and turn a child off music for good.

“Timing is key, [but] more important is the delicacy of approach,” Spanswick wrote in The Telegraph, responding to Benedetti. “If we get it right, we could save a lot of heartache, halt the notion of ‘forced’ lessons, and put an end to the prevailing boredom of the dreaded practice sessions.”

Early exposure to classical music is key to the more delicate approach. That might include music played in the car or children’s classical concerts that feature pieces like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, which might seem more approachable in the same way Looney Tunes provided an entry path for a generation of modern concertgoers.

For Spanswick, classical music was something she was led to discover by having it available to her, and she writes she was eventually desperate to take lessons.

For children who are aren’t given a decision on what to eat, wear or when they go to bed, feeling like they are discovering this music and have a hand in creating it can foster a life-long passion. But just how delicate or heavy handed a role parents need to take in creating an environment for that discovery is hard to say. Like everything with parenting, there will be lots of advice, but no one correct answer that works for every child.