When I was a little girl, growing up in Moscow before the fall of the iron curtain, there really wasn’t much for the Russian children to see and do. So my grandmother and my parents started taking me to the Bolshoi Theater when I was very young. While many of my early memories have blurred together overtime, I will never forget the magic of those outings and the anticipation leading up to the big day. I remember getting dressed up and joining the excited crowds of theater-goers that streamed into the grand square outside the theater building. I remember the regal interiors, the gravity-defying chandeliers and how the diamonds sparkled on the ballerinas’ tutus as they floated across the stage to breath-taking orchestra music. These outings at a young age had a tremendous impact on my interest and appreciation for all things art and music and I wanted to share this magic with Valentina.
I first started taking Valentina to ballet performances around the time she turned 2. While we usually had to leave during the intermission and rely heavily on rewards in the form of chocolate (!), she still got a lot out of it and it nurtured her interest and appreciation for classical music, theater and dance. Last week, we saw a children’s play – Ms. Nelson is Missing and a boundary bending Boston Ballet Company performance of the The Artifact. This was the first time that Valentina sat through both performances in their entire duration, completely mesmerized and without any signs of restlessness and or a need to go home.
In this week’s post I wanted to share my tips for how to nurture your child’s interest in music, theater, dance and how make to make the most of your trip to see a live performance with a rich cultural content.
- Before you buy your tickets:
- Don’t be afraid to start early: I recommend starting ballet at 2, then progressing to children’s musicals at 3, followed by opera , children’s plays and symphony at 4. Taking ballet, theater and/or music classes at an early age, certainly helps prepare the children to enjoy sage based art. However, as you will see from the next section it is not a necessary prerequisite. The key for us parents is to prepare the children for the big day and then be patient and have low expectations. It is more likely than not that you won’t be able to enjoy the show in its full length and in comfort…but the more you take your child with you, the sooner they will be able to sit through and appreciate that arts together with you – something that might become one of their favorite activities for years to come.
- At the Nutcracker Age 2
- At the Nutcracker Age 3
- At the Nutcracker Age 4
- Look for child friendly content: It is important to be selective as far as the content goes. Keep in mind that the audience is going to be quiet and in the dark thus amplifying everything that your child will see on the bright ,loud stage. I recommend starting with more child friendly performances (e.g. The Nutcracker, Children’s Books Plays/Musicals like Marry Poppins, Curious George, Caps for Sale, Miss Nelson is Missing etc. ) and working your way up to more complex material (e.g. Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, The Artifact, Marriage of Figaro, Symphony/Orchestra performances).
- Don’t spend too much on your tickets: Don’t worry about taking them to see the most famous dance company or professional actors. Staring out, taking your child to see a local high school play or a children’s theater company could prove more successful due to a more relaxed atmosphere in the audience. Certainly don’t worry about the best seats because you won’t quite know how long your child will last! In fact, I recommend picking seats that are the nearest to the exit so you can make a swift escape if the mood sours. Most child friendly performances offer booster seats for the little ones and of course there is always your lap, which they might prefer anyway.
- Invite family members and friends to join you: It takes a village, right? I find that inviting the grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents and friends highlights the importance of the outing to your child, makes it more memorable and special for them and encourages good behavior. Not to mention, how special it is for the rest of the family to share this experience together. My grandmother took me to most of the Bolshoi performances. Those beautiful and truly special memories are a big part of they way I remember my her.
- Pick a time that works with your child’s sleep schedule: We’ve had the most success with the matinee shows. However, when she was younger, the mid day shows overlapped with her nap, so we went to the evening shows instead, which often meant we had to leave during the intermission as it was time for her bedtime. I recommend picking your show time strategically.
- Before the show:
- Read the story: I found that reading the story on which the performance is based really helps Valentina get ready and excited for the show. There are many children’s books that contain the story lines from the famous ballet performances. If you cannot find the one book specific to the show, I recommend getting a general children’s book about the performance type (ballet, opera, play etc.). I have some of these books listed here and I will be adding more in the coming weeks.
- Play the music: Do you notice that sometimes you may not like the song the first time you hear it on the radio but the more often its played to more it grows on you and suddenly becomes your favorite jam? I deploy a similar strategy with classical music at home not because it is difficult to like (far from it!) but because it is complex for a young listener’s ear that requires more time to train and recalibrate (Tschaikovsky a big step-up from Wheels On The Bus!). We’ve been listening to the Nutcracker soundtrack on and off since Valentina was two and now she even asks for me to occasionally play it in the car. Being able to recognize the music at the show, will keep the child excited and interested throughout the performance.
- Talk about costumes: Most children enjoy playing dress up. I recommend incorporating the themes from the upcoming show into the dress up play. For example, if you are going to see the Nutcracker, you can talk about what ballerinas wear, mouse costumes, prop swords and candy canes etc.
- Play pretend Theater: Take it a step further and incorporate Theater play allowing your child’s imagination be inspired by the books you’ve read to get ready.
- Talk about the rules: This is also a good time to tell your child about the Theater etiquette (being quiet, sitting still, no running etc.). I recommend promising an award for good behavior (especially for the two year olds!).
- On the big day:
- Dress to Impress: Getting dressed up makes any occasion more special and memorable! It also differentiates this activity from the regular routine and reminds your child that it is a special occasion, which certainly helps them get more excited and potentially be better behaved. Also, children do enjoy seeing their parents dressed up for a fancy outing, except this time they get to come with you and not stay at home with a sitter. You might even get some great family pictures out of this outing!
- Bring Rewards: You have to be prepared for anything. I find that bringing a special delicious treat (i.e. not celery sticks) helps Valentina relax, find her good mood and stay focused throughout the show. If food is not permitted, I make a promise to get her a special small souvenir at the gift shop after the show if she behaves. When she was younger I would also bring her comfort blanket and a pacifier (not a good look, I know, but it meant that the parents got to enjoy the show too!)
- Narrate Your Experience: Before the show starts, we go over the playbill – I show her the pictures of the actors/dancers/musicians in the show and we talk about the story line. During the show, I occasionally whisper in her ear during the important points in the story to help her stay on track with the plot. I highlight interesting details about the music, costumes, stage props etc.
- Don’t get there too early: We typically aim arriving 30-20 minutes before the curtain, with just enough time to check our coats and use the restroom. Getting there too early, could prove exhausting for your child and will quickly wear out their enthusiasm about the show replacing it with impatience. Remember that we are asking a lot of them by making them sit still during the show.
- Leave when your child has had enough: I cannot stress this enough. This outing is supposed to be fun. If your child is no longer enjoying it and is feeling cranky, restless and ready to go, I strongly recommend leaving at the first open window. Putting pressure on your child to “suffer” through the rest of the show, will only have the opposite effect for what we are hoping to achieve here. We don’t want to create any negative memories
- Take pictures: You will be are dressed up and in a beautiful setting – I can’t think of a better time to snap some pictures. Even if they don’t turn out perfect, you will enjoy looking at them together when you relive the memories from the big outing at home.
- Your child might surprise you! Finally, while it might sound like I am preparing you for the worst, in reality your child might not need any rewards or any preparation. They might simply fall in love with the music, the beautiful setting, the costumes, the dance, the theater and the magic of it all!
- After the show: There are many ways to bring some of this magic home.
- Discuss: I like to ask my daughter lots of questions about how she experienced the show. I start simply by asking her if she liked it; followed by her favorite, least favorite parts. Then, I try to see if she can connect it to the books that we’ve been reading and so on. Every experience is different and your child might turn the tables and ask you about your opinion of the show.
- Complement: Going to a fancy show as one of the youngest viewers is a huge accomplishment (no matter the outcome) and I recommend complimenting your child on the best parts of the night (the highlights of their behavior) as a recognition for being able to hang in there and enjoy something that is more complex than Sesame Street : )
- Imitate: I recommend listening to the music from the show and encouraging costume making and theater play at home. This is a great way to solidify the memories while stimulating their imagination and getting them excited for the next big outing. I also recommend encouraging your child to share their experience and memories form the show with friends and relatives.
- Re-watch: Try substituting their cartoon hour, with an hour of ballet/theater/opera performance, preferably the one that they saw performed live. There is a a lot of high quality content available online and on demand. It is also a great way to feel better about allowing your child watch some TV : )
- Book your next ticket!
Upcoming Shows On Our Spring Calendar:
- Curious George and the Golden Meatball, Boston Children’s Theater: March 4th-March 19th
- Japanese Tamagawa Taiko Drum & Dance Performance, MIT, April 2nd
- Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras (BYSO), BYSO on Parade, March 12th
- Sleeping Beauty, Boston Ballet: April 28-May 27
- The Marriage of Figaro, Boston Lyric Opera: April 28th – May 7th
- Annie, Wang Theater, Boston: May 9 – May 21