BEIRUT: The mini-musicians of Mozart Chahine’s Little Maestros class may not be composing symphonies anytime soon, but their parents hope they will at least emerge with a grasp of the basic elements of tempo and pitch, and more importantly, a sense of self-confidence and joy associated with music. The class, which caters to children between 7 months old and 6 years, uses games and playful exercises to introduce simple musical concepts. The classroom is filled with bright colors and sound, with audiovisual equipment set up on the far wall and shelves of instruments and toys. A large drum sits on the floor in the center of the room.
Sophia, 3, is feeling shy, and spends most of the class clinging to her mother. Several mothers are in attendance to offer encouragement until the young ones become independent enough to be left alone. Meanwhile, Chris and Robin are learning to prance in time with the music using wooden clappers. When the music slows, they tiptoe, keeping their clappers silent.
By the end of class, Sophia is banging drums and triangles enthusiastically along with the others. Her favorite part? “The drums!”
In addition to improving listening skills and body awareness, the goal of Little Maestros is to prepare the children to pick their own instruments when they reach the age of 6, according to the school’s director, Rita Eid.
“It’s very important that the child not start before 6 years old, because his fingers – the bones – are still soft, so they won’t be able to play any instrument,” she said, adding that the school also accommodates special needs children.
Studies have shown the cognitive and emotional benefits of music education, but music lessons have long been considered a hallmark of a privileged childhood.
In Lebanon, music was added to the national curriculum fairly recently, yet more and more parents are seeking out one-on-one lessons for their children, fueling competition for the limited slots in the renowned Lebanese National Higher Conservatory.
While many still consider the conservatory to be the most prestigious institution, the increasing number of private music schools have the added advantage of flexibility, accepting students from 6 months old to 60 and offering instruction for a variety of classical and modern instruments.
Some even organize bands or choirs according to demand. Mozart Chahine, for example, is just one of several schools that offers early music education for toddlers and young children.
Ghassan Yammine founded one of the first private arts academies, the Ecole des Arts Ghassan Yammine, which offers percussion classes for young children in addition to private lessons for older students.
He told The Daily Star he saw a shift in the attitude of parents as the public became more aware of the value of music in childhood development.
“All children who have music culture from an early age, they become more intelligent, their idea or concept of a group is more developed, and they become more disciplined,” he said.
“When I founded my school in 1995 it was totally different. Even the quality of people who were coming were financially elite, a certain class let’s say, but now, it’s different. All people think about arts education.”
All of the music instructors who spoke to The Daily Star emphasized that parents should never force their children to take music lessons or pressure them to take up one instrument over another. In many cases, they said, parents who were denied piano lessons when they were young insist on pushing their offspring into making up for this loss, even if the child would rather play the drums or join a football team.
In fact, many parents who pressure their children into lessons end up signing up themselves, and often continue long after the child quits.
But the parents who encourage their children to pursue music as a hobby are not always eager to see them turn it into a profession, even if the child or adolescent shows rare talent.
“The large majority think of music education as just an after-school activity,” said Yammine. “When they discover their daughter or son is talented and can go further, they are afraid and they don’t encourage them, because for them you can’t make a living in Lebanon as a musician or actor.”
Andre Hajj, the conductor of the Lebanese Oriental Orchestra, agreed, noting that most parents prefer to see their children become engineers or lawyers.
He also pointed to what he described as a cultural view that associates female performers with promiscuity, a stereotype that has not been improved by today’s popular music scene, where sex appeal is often privileged over talent.
In Hajj’s view, the prevailing attitude toward music education and musicians as professionals is linked to the public’s lack of engagement with live music. Having the opportunity to attend an orchestral performance can be a life-changing event in a child’s life, he said.
“When the [oriental] orchestra was founded in 2000, it really affected people who had only seen such things on television,” he said.
“It had the greatest affect the children, and this is one of the goals of the orchestra, to allow children to see the soloists, and to see not just the Arab instruments but all of them.”
Since the founding of the national orchestra in 2000, he said, students began asking for instruments that were all but unknown in Lebanon before, such as the viola and the tuba, while others expressed interest in traditional instruments like the buzuq, which is in danger of disappearing.
When Hajj opened his own music school, La Do Music and Art in Antelias less than a year ago, he was surprised by its success.
“Every area of Lebanon has a music school now,” Hajj joked, adding that within a few months the school was already full.
Although the vast majority of students do not go on to become professional musicians, music can still become an important outlet and a lifelong passion.
“Even if they go into engineering, music will stay with them their whole life,” said Eid, who studied music and plays several instruments herself.
“When they are tense about something, they have problems, or their other studies are weighing on them, they can go out and start a band with their friends to relieve some stress.”
When choosing a music school, instructors advised parents to pay special attention to the school’s facilities and make sure the rooms are soundproof and each child has the space and attention to concentrate.
They should also research the teacher and speak to former and current students to ensure he or she has a child-friendly approach.
Of course, getting small children to practice anything diligently can be a challenge, even for kids with natural talent and inclination.
Eid said performing, whether in school recitals or at family gatherings, creates an opportunity for positive reinforcement and encourages the child to practice and become better.
“When the child feels this responsibility, when he knows he will get on stage and play, he will think ‘oof’ and begin to practice every day so that he will be ready.”
Mozart Chahine has several branches and accepts students year round. Call 04-414-649 for more information.
Ecole des Arts Ghassan Yammine has multiple branches and can be reached at 01-202-820.
Do La Music and Art can be reached at 76-115-568 or 71-027-031
For more information on the Lebanese Music School in Zalka call 01-902-686.
The Lebanese National Higher Conservatory holds annual auditions in June and can be reached at 01-489-530.
The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra performs every Friday at 8:30 p.m. at St. Joseph Church on Monnot Street.
The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental-Arabic Music performs every three weeks at the Pierre Aboukhater Amphitheater at St. Joseph University.