Listen with Mahler

Introducing children to Beethoven or Brahms can be an uphill struggle. But Ann Rachlin has been making it fun for more than 30 years.
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The Independent Culture

When I was eight years old my parents took me to see Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Opera-going for me then entailed leaning back on the seat, my mouth hanging open, in a coma of boredom. My stillness would pass for good behaviour: "Wasn't she good?" "So quiet!"

When I was eight years old my parents took me to see Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Opera-going for me then entailed leaning back on the seat, my mouth hanging open, in a coma of boredom. My stillness would pass for good behaviour: "Wasn't she good?" "So quiet!"

I had hoped The Queen of Spades would be different because I'd been promised a ghost. "When's it coming?" I breathed every five minutes. After a tortuous two-hour wait, a thin wisp of vapour curled up from under a side door. "The ghost!" whispered my father. I sat up in my seat, gaping at it in incredulous disappointment: "Was that it?"

Second only to this outrage was the evening, during Die Fledermaus, when there was no ice-cream in the interval. "The queues are awfully long," observed my mother breezily. "I don't think we'll bother this time." I was speechless.

Despite these unpromising beginnings, I did grow to love classical music. Indeed, like my parents, I determined that my children should love it too. But I resolved to manage it differently. I decided that the main problem with most childhood trips to operas was the unfamiliarity with the music. After all, it's the recognition of passages that fills us with joy or sorrow. Without that, music is a very bald affair.

Thus on car journeys, when my children were very small, we listened to Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel . I kept them listening with the rather weak promise that at any moment they might hear the witch's cackling laughter. I played an album of The Nutcracker over and over again - almost ad nauseam, even for me - before seeing the ballet.

When they were four and six I discovered an easier method: Ann Rachlin's Fun with Music. Had I moved in more illustrious circles I might have discovered her sooner. Since setting up Fun with Music in 1965, Ann Rachlin has taught Princes William and Harry as well as the children of Peter O'Toole, Barry Humphries and Edward Fox.

The main thrust of Fun With Music is "Tea and Stories with Ann" which takes place three evenings a week in a church hall in St John's Wood. Otherwise there are trips on the Thames to listen to Handel's Water Music and country picnics to listen to Beethoven's "Pastoral". Ann Rachlin has also recorded a set of cassettes, now discontinued and, more recently, CDs.

Rachlin, now in her sixties, relates the plots of ballets or operas - The Nutcracker, Prokofiev's Cinderella and Puccini's Madame Butterfly - to the accompaniment of music. She also relates the stories of composers' lives including such choice details as Beethoven's love of noodles and Haydn's expulsion from the choir for snipping off the pony-tail of the boy in front.

Her narration is delivered in a soothing, Listen with Mother voice. She is evidently very keen to enlist the children's sympathy for the composers: poo-er Ludwig who went deaf, poo-er Wolfgang who died penniless, poo-er Gustav (Holst) whose fingers were so crippled by malnutrition that he couldn't hold a pencil. She tends to talk through the music, occasionally doing what she calls "rhythm speak", where she talks in time to the music. During Handel's Water Music - which was composed as a peace offering for George II - she repeats the words "Will the king be pleased?" to a particularly fitting musical phrase.

I met Ann Rachlin at her house in St John's Wood, London. Knowing her only through her cassettes, I was surprised to find her all together crisper than I imagined; out of the studio her voice loses some of its throaty gush and betrays echoes of a Northern childhood. The most fluffy thing about her is her blonde candy-floss hair.

Rachlin grew up in Leeds, the daughter of a tailor. Her parents were Russian and Welsh in origin. She had the idea for Fun with Music after finding herself obliged to take her own children to classical concerts. "For 11 years I had been married to a man who didn't like classical music," she says. "When we were divorced I was determined to go to concerts. I had no child-minder so the children came too.

"The first was Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony. To keep the children entertained I made up ridiculous stories about roses growing in different colours on trees. They liked those so much that I thought I might as well be more enterprising and tell them about the lives of the composers."

She started teaching at her son's school and was so successful that she started running her own classes in the church hall. "There's no writing - they've been at school all day, poor things. Besides, by the time I'd have taught them how to spell Rimsky-Korsakov it would be the end of the lesson!"

She has never advertised: "It's all word of mouth," she enthuses. On the top of the piano are pictures of her late musician husband Ezra alongside a picture of Diana, Princess of Wales with William and Harry and a picture of Prince Edward signed "with best wishes". Prince Edward, it turns out, did a narration of Peter and the Wolf with the LSO. "He came here to rehearse. Do you know, he just sat on the floor cross-legged with a mug!"

I first heard of Ann Rachlin's Fun with Music when I happened to come upon Mandy and the Magic Butterfly - a compilation which included "The Humming Chorus" from Madame Butterfly - in a music shop in Aldeburgh. I was so impressed by it that I went on to buy the whole series.

After two years of car journeys with Ann Rachlin, the children sang along with Handel's Hallelujah Chorus ("Once Upon The Thames") and were attempting to reach the high notes of Allegri's Miserere. They did their own enactment of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel ("The King Who Broke His Promise"). This year they saw their first two operas, The Magic Flute and L'Elisir d'Amore; during both, they were given an opportunity to leave. They then chose to stay.

I do wonder sometimes, however, whether they will be able to hear any of the pieces in the Fun with Music series in the future without forever hearing Ann Rachlin's voice. If they ever see Fidelio - which Beethoven tried to conduct while deaf - will they hear Rachlin's sonorous admonishment "Go home unhappy man"? Rachlin is at her most reassuring: "I don't think children hear my voice when they see Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije," she says. "If they remember me, then they'll remember that they were little. It was my way of tempting them into a delicious corner."

She is also reassuring when I tell her that my daughter, aged 11, has refused for about a year to have any of the tapes played in the car. Indeed, she views Rachlin and me as "the enemy", a force united against the Corrs. "They do grow out of it - but they do come back," she soothes, her head tilted in sympathy.

Before meeting Rachlin I braced myself to listen to my least favourite piece on the Fun with Music cassettes: Rachlin doing her "rhythm speak" to the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh: "Eyes are to see with/ Ears are to hear with/ Never to listen to music I make". I dislike her talking because I particularly like the music.

My son, who is now eight, was half-listening; he obviously recognised the tune from Ann Rachlin's Beethoven's Birthday Party. That night he forced me to teach him the sequence of chords on the piano. He was soon in raptures over it: "It's really neat!"

Some Young Person's Guides

Blue Peter's Konnie Huq has joined the BBC Philharmonic in a series of programmes for Radio 3 which build up to a performance of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Huq listens to the orchestra playing well-known themes, talks to conductors Yan Pascal Tortelier and Rumon Gamba and asks players about life behind the scenes. The nine-part series is currently being broadcast every evening, until Friday, at 5.40pm, Radio 3, and then continues between 27 and 30 Dec.

Following the success of the annual Blue Peter Prom, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are holding a Blue Peter Millennium Concert. It will take place at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 3 Jan at 2.30 and 6.30pm. Tickets: £5-£9, children and £8-£14, adults. Box office: 0161-907 9000

There are 10 Ann Rachlin CDs available at £5.99 each. For information call Freefone 0800 7317896. For details of Fun with Music classes, call 020-7722 9828