Liz Forgan: Children need to be thrown into the musical deep end

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People seem to be worried about how to get the young interested in classical music. On the basis of my own experience, I want to suggest that success may lie in exposing them to what might appear to be entirely unsuitable masterpieces at an early age.

My very first introduction to music, at the age of six, was equivalent to loading a baby's bottle with Napoleon Brandy: Tristan Und Isolde, The Liebestod. My luck continued at primary school. A rookie music teacher opened our very first singing class with "Mirth Admit Me Of Thy Crew" from Handel's L'Allegro.

This chronicle of unsuitability went on through adolescence. There was a British Council call to the colours for Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, and – nothing daunted – the Evangelist in The St Matthew Passion in a school performance scored for female voices. I was 15. We shall say no more. Why am I telling you this?

First, I guess it is to suggest that throwing children into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all, provided the person doing the throwing is passionate about it and capable of communicating that passion. Second, if no one tells you Bach is difficult you can save a lot of otherwise wasted time. Third, children don't understand that if they like Gilbert and Sullivan they automatically shouldn't like Wagner. Fourth I still know all those pieces like the back of my hand.

I am not really advocating such a bizarre grounding for the entire national curriculum. Nor am I dismissing the devoted work of teachers who set about luring an unprepared generation into classical music by gentler means. And yet, and yet...

If I had been forced to start with clapping games, or tootling "Frère Jacques" on the recorder, I fear I might have turned to crime or even netball as a more exciting alternative. As it is, music has been an enduring passion throughout my life.

Give them Birtwistle, Buxtehude, Ligeti, Ockeghem and Beethoven as soon as possible, I say. Give them the best of contemporary music of all sorts. Live if you can. Give them the classics of world music. And, if possible, teach them to sing and play them, too. Above all don't apologise. And start soon.

Taken from a speech by the chairman of the Arts Council at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards this week

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