Parenthood comes with a lot of change, and a lot of decisions to be made, including this one: What’s your musical strategy?
Seven years ago, I wrote “Family Matters”, a column dedicated to my then newborn niece including the best music-related wisdom I had to offer at that point. So far, she’s taken some of my advice – mostly about the dancing – though it’s her younger brother who seems to be the most musical in the family, already strumming on a child-size guitar before he was 4.
The two may not be mistaken for Lennon and Maisy Stella, the ridiculously talented kids on the TV show, Nashville, but they can adequately reproduce the important songs from Frozen and The Lego Movie or, with their parents’ prompting, Taio Cruz’s 2010 hit, “Dynamite”. Clearly, they’re on the right path, and I can only assume their youngest, now nine months old, will follow suit.
I’ll continue to mentor them in their musical development, of course, but my attention will also be divided: My wife and I welcome our first child, Lucy, into the world this month.
As any new parent will attest, the time leading up to that first birth is filled with a mix of anticipation, apprehension and indecision. You’re getting advice from multiple directions at once, from the endless blogs and advice sites to the books you get but don’t always read all the way through, from the doctors and nurses and well-meaning friends and relatives and random colleagues and acquaintances who want to tell you their birth stories or explain the real truth about parenthood, the stuff that all the books and blogs supposedly withhold.
There are decisions to be made on everything – birthing, feeding, diapering, sleeping, swaddling, strollering – which means there is an endless list of ways to feel like you’re making the wrong decision that could lead to many sleepless nights or, worse, withering looks from the progressive parents in your neighborhood.
With all that to think about, we haven’t been able to spend a lot of time considering what our musical strategy will be. Our go-to resources have been mostly, and uncharacteristically, hands-off when it comes to this all-important area of child-rearing, beyond a few generalities. A more dedicated search pulls up some other options: Scientific American covered the famed, but not exactly proven “Mozart Effect” in 2007. A Netherlands-based blog called Music Matters shares music cognition studies looking at newborns’ innate sense of rhythm and the glass-half-full question of whether crying is a sign of musical skill.
In 2012, many NPR listeners and commenters shared their picks for what song to play to welcome their babies into the world, and you can find many a forum thread with tips on what to play to help your baby sleep.
But for most advice in this area, I’ve turned to those in my life with personal experience in child-rearing – which, given that I’m in my early 30s, feels like about 95 percent of my social circle. While no one I know really did the headphones-over-the-belly thing with any regularity, at least one friend did take the step of making a birth playlist for her anticipated time in the hospital. It was as much for her own distraction and calming as for her child, though she knew that any of the tracks might be the one to actually welcome her son into the world (Elliott Smith got the honors).
That same friend is determined to avoid “kids’ music” as much as possible, replacing it instead with kid-friendly songs from artists that she could actually listen to without going crazy (I think of this as the “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” theory). While I admire the effort, my sense is that if you’re going to school your kids outside the home, they’re going to learn songs that might not fit with your sense of what’s “good”. One of the only things that gave us pause about our new daycare was the clichéd soundtrack we heard during our visit – though the dancing children didn’t seem to mind.
We have to be ready to compromise, and thankfully, we’re in a good time for kids’ music in general. In addition to the rash of kid-friendly adult artists out there (Belle and Sebastian, The Decemberists), many former adult artists have recently transitioned to focusing on younger audiences. Barenaked Ladies, They Might Be Giants, The Verve Pipe and Jewel are some whose transition won’t be terribly shocking; many other artists have contributed their own versions of classic children’s songs to compilations like the Muppet-themed Muppets: The Green Album. (I can’t wait for my daughter to discover the Muppets.)
Lollapalooza recognized this market several years ago, introducing a special Kidzapalooza section, where parents could bring their young music fans to enjoy performances from Perry Farrell, Lisa Loeb and more age-appropriate role models like Jeff Tweedy’s son, Spencer. Other music festivals, like the new Boston Calling, will let younger kids in for free, and during the latest installment many parents took them up on the offer. Probably the same “cool” parents I wrote about – a little skeptically – back in 2008, “Parents Just Don’t Understand”. Now that I’m in their shoes, I’m not sure how I’ll react.
But I do know that as a new parent, I won’t be able to listen to anything I want, when I want, anymore. Instead of a custom playlist in the car, I might be tuning the radio to static. Once vocabulary comes into play, I imagine I’ll be listening to most of my hip-hop on headphones. When I hear the name “Ella”, I might start to think “Jenkins” before “Fitzgerald”. These are some of the more insignificant among the many changes to my daily life, but I know my relationship to music will change over the coming years.
It’s the relationship with my daughter, though, that matters most. Looking over my list from seven years ago, I think my advice still applies – now I just have a little more control over the situation. Instead of adding to the list of things she should do, then, here are ten things I’m promising Lucy:
- I will sing to you, though you might wish I didn’t once you hear my voice.
- I will dance with you, which will embarrass your mother. This is a gift to me as much as to you.
- I will spoil you with music. I can say this because I can now offer you almost any song in the world for one low monthly price.
- I will take you to all the free musical events I can. Honestly, these are usually the best kind. Later, I will drive you to concerts with your friends and let you blast the songs all the way there.
- I will let you learn any instrument you want, as long as we have the space and it is allowed under the noise statutes in our condo contract.
- I will teach you the words to Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” (though we’ll probably listen to the Kermit the Frog version more). Also “Rapper’s Delight”. And a hundred other songs you don’t know yet.
- I will make you listen to my music, but I will not tell you how much it is better than your music, even if I’m really thinking it.
- I will listen to your music, too, but not in that annoying, trying-too-hard, cool dad kind of way.
- I will try really, really hard not to misuse slang from pop artists in your friends’ presence. No promises at home, though.
- I will respect your musical path, wherever it takes you. As long as it’s nowhere near R. Kelly.
As my nephew is fond of saying, “Welcome to the show.” We’ll push our way to the front together.
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