Can Taste Be Taught? Justin Davidson, a classical music critic for New York Magazine, ponders when, where and how kids learn to have taste in music and art. He talks about his quest to teach his 10-year-old son Milo about the finer things in life.

Can Taste Be Taught?

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A lot of parents watch "SpongeBob" with their kids and go along to the "Hannah Montana" concert, but hesitate to introduce young children to the music they like. Kids would be bored surely by symphonies and learn to hate opera or jazz, or maybe not. Justin Davidson is the classical music critic for New York Magazine and hopes he could teach his son, Milo, good taste. Milo is 10 and comes along with his father to a lot of concerts and well, so far so good. Have you tried your children to have musical, cultural or artistic good taste? How did it go? Did your parents teach you good taste? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our blog at Justin Davidson wrote a piece called Can You Teach Your Kid To Have Taste? for New York Magazine. He joins us from his office in New York and nice to have you today on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. JUSTIN DAVIDSON (Classical Music Critic, New York Magazine): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And I know the article started with your son listening to Bobby McFerrin at a concert and you could see how that would be very appealing.

Mr. DAVIDSON: It was magical. It was really amazing to take him to an event that had absolutely no bells and whistles. I mean, the part that he loved the most was just one guy sitting on a stage in a spotlight on a chair with a microphone and nearly 3,000 people in the audience. It couldn't have been simpler and it was completely riveting to me as well as to him.

CONAN: And that's part of the point. I think part of the reason your son is so interested in a lot of the concerts you go to is you're so interested and at 10 years old, he's pretty interested in you.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's true. But I'm also very deliberate about what I choose take him to. It's not that I pre select things for their kiddie value, but I do try to have a sense of what I think he will enjoy. That used to be a lot more important to me than it is now, because I used to feel like every concert I took him to was a potentially damaging experience. With a negative one he would be turned off to the whole category of cultural life. Now, I feel like he's been to enough stuff. If he doesn't like the concert, he doesn't like that one, so maybe the next one will be better.

CONAN: But you would - might have hesitated in the past for some of the epics by Mahler or Stockhausen or something like that?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I still hesitate to overload him with something that I think he really won't be able to appreciate in the same way we deal we movies or books. Different music is appropriate to different ages or maybe, it would be more accurate to say that there's some music that had something to offer younger children even though it's something that you can continue to appreciate as you get older. Whereas, other music, I don't know. I'm playing this by ear, so to speak. You know, I don't have any rules about it. I just try to evaluate and see what I think he'll like.

CONAN: Well, Bobby McFerrin, he clearly liked. What are some of the other things he's liked and what has come up a little short?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Opera is very successful. I've taken him to things - fairly light fare like "Rossini", the "Cinderella" or "The Barber of Seville." I think we're going to start getting into more dramatic fare soon. The key to opera is that it's really at its best a completely involving dramatic multimedia and visceral experience. But the caveat to that is that that's true if a kid has good seats. Unfortunately, that's a very expensive proposition in opera. But I really can't stress enough that kids who are, you know, up in the nosebleed seats of Metropolitan Opera say, are just going to feel disconnected from what's going on down there on stage. Fortunately, many parts of the country have regional opera houses that are smaller and often at a very high level. And not necessarily all that expensive to attend, and those are perfect for kids.

CONAN: But to get good seats and spend the extra money.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah. As you look at things, I wonder if this is a two-way street. Does your son introduce you to his music?

Mr. DAVIDSON: He does, as a matter of fact - this is - a good example of two-way street is that he demanded because a friend of his has been loving to play guitar, that he got to learn to play guitar too, and I'm a former guitarist. So, I brought out a guitar that hasn't been touched in 20 years and started showing him some stuff which inspired me start going around again and start practicing a little bit.

CONAN: Here's an email from Gary in San Antonio. Aren't you afraid that he's going to grow up, rebel and just want to rock out when he gets older? Maybe if you try to teach him about rock now he will rebel from that and get into classical music.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, I fully expect him to rebel in more ways than that. And I think that's fine, you know. All I can really do is offer him what's important to me, he will, in the long run, pick and choose. I think to some extent this is an investment in the long distance future. I mean, even if he - at some point when he is a teen decides you know, this is absolutely not for him, he never wants to hear it again. I'm hoping that some seeds are planted and when he gets older than that, this is something that he will be able to come back to with some background. But you know, rebellion takes a lot of different forms and the last thing a parent ought to do is try to control it.

CONAN: Absolutely. But at the same time you talk about - I think a lot of parents are like this. They're sort of afraid to introduce their children to what they think as adult music or adult artistic taste.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, to me that's key. You know, I have a rich cultural life being in New York and being a critic, and it's very important to me that I give him the opportunity to share that and to be exposed to that. There is - I feel as if American culture is so child-oriented in a wonderful way but also in a way that encourages parents to participate in that, which I do often, enthusiastically. But it really doesn't necessarily flow in the other direction when we're dealing with adult themes, or with you know, more - sometimes more difficult culture or a culture with a longer history. Then it kind of gets turned into a form of education. You know, it's not that I'm trying to teach my child to have good taste. I'm trying to or only to teach him in the way that parents teach things that aren't necessarily available in school. And that may be - you know, ethics or a values or you know, whatever you want to call it. But I feel strongly that this is an area that school is really not equipped to teach and especially not since there's been such back sliding in terms of arts education in this country.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, our phone number is 800-989-8255. And we're talking with Justin Davidson, the classical music critic for New York Magazine. Erin is on the line. Erin calling us from Cincinnati.

ERIN (Caller): I just want to say, I love your show. It's always fascinating.

CONAN: Thank you.

ERIN: But I was always taken to classical concerts as a child. Actually my family is musical, so I couldn't really get out of it even if I wanted to but I learned to love it. And right now, I'm a student at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and I'm going into my sophomore year.

CONAN: And what instrument are you studying?

ERIN: Viola.

CONAN: And so this is an education that has stood you in good stead?

ERIN: Yeah, I have to say so.

CONAN: And was there ever a moment when you told your - your mom or your dad, you know, a Brahms or Beethoven is incredibly boring?

ERIN: Well, I can say that I didn't pay as much attention when I was a child as I do now.

CONAN: Well, I would hope not. But it worked out for you.

ERIN: Yes.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. Good luck. Let's see if we can go next to Gawen, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. Gawen with us from Vancouver, Washington.

GAWEN (Caller): It's a Gawen with a W.

CONAN: All right. Go ahead.

GAWEN: Yeah, when I was 8, 9, and 10 we lived in Connecticut and my dad was a teacher at a private high school. And he would regularly take field trips to the Harvard Symphony Orchestra and also to the Harvard Opera. And it's odd. I always really, really, enjoyed the trips and really thought of - you know, I always wanted to go so bad, when I'd actually get there, I tend to be bored out my mind about the actual music. The thing I remember best about symphony was having this massive crush on the second violinist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GAWEN: But I think, it really - did actually, sort of, give me that sort of well-rounded thing where even though, I'm not really in to classical music or opera, if anybody just sort of said, hey do you want to go to an opera. I'd definitely be interested in going, just sort of a broader horizon thing.

CONAN: I wonder - do you have children now?

GAWEN: I do. I have a child who's going to be a year old in October. His name is October Jude. His middle name is Jude and we play him the Beatles constantly. We're really hoping he'll fall in love with the Beatles. And "Hey, Jude," the Paul McCartney song, is his lullaby. And we've got another baby due in February. We know that it's going to be a girl, we don't have a first name picked out but the middle name is going to be Prudence, and we're going to have "Dear Prudence" for the lullaby.

CONAN: Good luck with that. I was hoping it wasn't "Sexy Sadie".

GAWEN: Oh, well, that would be awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

GAWEN: Hey, no problem.

CONAN: Bye-bye. As you think about these stories we're hearing, Justin Davidson, a lot of people do appreciate the time with their parents no matter what they're doing even if it's that trip to Disney World to watch - listen to kids music or whether it's to the concert hall to listen to Brahms.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Sure. I mean, sharing anything with your kid is important. But I also think there's this aspect that kids really appreciate of being admitted to what is clearly an adult world. They do so with some ambivalence, at least my son does. He's always worried about being the only kid there and sometimes he is. But at the same time, I think that he's also jazzed by being the only kid there, even it makes him a little nervous.

You know, I should say also that, I think the idea that it's entirely appropriate and good to bring kids to adult classical music events and opera, brings with it a certain responsibility on the part, not only as parent of course, to ensure good behavior but also on the part of the concert organizers and the performers. You know, if they feel as if they are regularly playing for an audience of potential converts and neophytes, people to whom everything they play is going to be this incredible revelation, as oppose to playing for people who have heard this pieces a thousand times before, I think that gives you a really different sensibility in playing. And the most exciting concerts I've heard are those where I just have this feeling of explosiveness of crackle where the performances are clearly geared to revealing something. And you know, who better to reveal something about Beethoven to than to a child?

CONAN: That sense, I guess DiMaggio who always talked about, there might be somebody seeing me for the first time.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking with Justin Davidson, the classical music critic for New York magazine. He wrote a piece called Can You Teach Your Kid To Have Taste? for New York Magazine. You're listening to Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can go to Osvaldo. Osvaldo with us from Lexington, Kentucky.

OSVALDO (Caller): Yes, how are you? Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

OSVALDO: I'm a middle-school orchestra slash music, general music teacher. And it's really interesting to me to find a lot of my eighth graders tend to - well, let me put it this way. In the beginning of the school year I give them a question - what did they want to get out of this music - general music class? Half of them wanted to find out about, you know, classical musicians or composers, I should say. Mozart, Beethoven, you know, all your normal ones. And the other half actually wants to know where - you know, AC/DC came from or a little bit more of the heavy metal. So, I guess my question is how would you as a critic, and you take your son - I mean, I have 29 middle schoolers and it's half and half. How could - how could I get through all of them to enjoy opera a little bit more?

CONAN: Any ideas?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think one thing is not to separate the two categories too much in terms to the way we present it. You know, I have taken at one point some years ago already when he was smaller. I took him to a New York Philharmonic young people's concert. And it was about 20th century music, most of which turned out to be short little excerpts by Bernstein or Debussy. Things that had already entered the standard repertoire, were actually close to soul in some cases. The thing that really turned them on was a brand new piece by a young American composer that used insect sounds - recorded insect sounds and elaborated from there.

That sense of exploration and discovery is something that kids can bring to any kind of music. And it's when we buy into the marketplace's preconceptions about what is good, what isn't, what is one kind of music, what's popular, what isn't. Those kind of Grammy categories that - or record store categories - that are so tempting are really destructive, I think in a way. You know, classic is a part of a very broad landscape of music and kids don't really necessarily have preconceptions about what they're going to hear if they do, you know, they're very blurry and that's something that we can use.

OSVALDO: Right. Right. Well, I just finished a section of "West Side Story" with them. We did a lot of questions and we watched the musical and a lot of them really enjoyed it, especially the ones that tend to be more rock-influenced than, you know, it was a great little section and I hope to reach out to these young minds.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, and that's a really good example because "West Side Story" is such a pivotal piece and you can take it in such different direction with kids, I mean. There's such - you know, mambo and you know, Carribean influence on the score but then Bernstein was also so closely related to Copeland and to Stravinski, and all of this other modernest music. And you can use it to go in a lot of different directions.

OSVALDO: Oh, definitely.

CONAN: Even Desanti(ph). Yes, Osvaldo, good luck with your Sharks and your Jets.

OSVALDO: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And we'll end with this e-mail from Jennifer in Tallahassee, Florida. I've introduced my kids to the music that I love. My father was in a Motown band, now I share that with my two boys ages four and six. We also listen to and love funkadelic and zydeco. They like country and '80's from their father. The car ride is never boring and not a lot of Barney is played. People are always surprised with the variety my boys know and love. And again, I think it matters less the kind of music than if you're willing to share about it.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I would agree with that whole heartedly.

CONAN: Justin Davidson, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Justin Davidson wrote a piece called Can You Teach Your Kid To Have Taste, the classical music critic for New York magazine. There's a link to his article on our blog at He is with us today from his office in New York City. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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