Show For Children
Scoring High in Music Via Sports
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
How do you introduce children to the joy and beauty of classical music at
a time when their near-universal refrain is “I want my MTV”?
At a few Los Angeles schools, it’s being done with a baseball bat, a
tennis racket and two adventuresome musicians with the Los Angeles
That’s violinist Paul Stein’s idea of how you get kids to listen to
chamber music these days. In his “What’s the Score-Music as Art and
Sport” programs, the musician demonstrates how the same principles that
create outstanding sports performances-rhythm, relaxation and
imagination-also contribute to the best musical performances, not to
mention the most enjoyable lives.
Elementary School Show
Last Friday afternoon, for instance, Stein and accompanist Gloria Cheng
presented one of their sports-and-music shows for an auditorium full of
students at Glassell Park Elementary School.
To get the attention of these kindergarten through third-graders, Stein
quickly asked how many of them had played baseball (everybody). Then, how
many had ever played the piano or the violin (only a few).
As Stein believes that people are frequently more intimidated by the small
movements involved in playing an instrument than they are by the large
movements in playing a sport, he demonstrated a variety of ways in which
the two fields are essentially the same.
“You know how all those baseball players become great? By watching other
baseball players,” he told the children. “It’s always important when you
watch baseball players that you imagine that it’s you that’s playing.
That helps you feel more confident. It’s the same thing in music.”
So they could watch him play (and start imagining that it was possible for
them to do it too), Stein launched into Paul Nero’s pop classic, “The Hot
Canary” (about the loudest, funniest canary”). Without being told to,
many in the audience were not only imagining themselves playing along with
him, they were actually plucking and bowing their make-believe violins.
Then Stein decided to hit them with a piece by Charles Ives, the American
composer whose penchant for dissonance has been known to send even adults
back to the Top 40.
“This is not a piece you might hear at Disneyland. It’s not, ‘It’s a
Small World.’ It’s supposed to sound pretty crazy,” Stein warned his
listeners, introducing an Ives’ sonata titled “Children’s Day at the Camp
Having been primed that the piece was about a confrontation between an old
woman playing the organ in the church and young choir boys who would
rather play outside than sing inside the church, this audience had no
trouble with Ives. In fact, they seemed to love it.
The children likewise had no trouble comprehending the notion of rhythm in
a Ravel sonata after Stein showed them what differences in their own
rhythms might look like: going-to-the-dentist rhythms versus
To demonstrate the importance of relaxation, Stein showed them how the
violin sounded when his fingers were tight and when they were loose on
Leroy Anderson’s “Plink, Plank, Plunk.” And he pointed out that playing
the music was not unlike dancing around in a game of hopscotch. It just
takes a while to use your fingers like you would your feet.
About halfway through the 40-minute show, Stein pulled out some of his
props: a baseball bat and a huge, oversize tennis racket.
“Have you ever seen somebody who tries to hit a ball, but they don’t swing
the bat back first,” he said, demonstrating a limited swing. “If they’re
lucky enough to hit the ball, it doesn’t go very far. In music, there’s
the same thing…(swinging the bat back) called a pick-up.
Then he picked up a giant tennis racket nearly half his size, held it near
his face and explained that he really understood how little kids must feel
when they hold a violin.
It wasn’t real clear what any of this had to do with the excerpts Stein
and Cheng played from Scott Joplin’s “Pleasant Moments” or Beethoven’s
“Sonata in C Minor,” but it didn’t seem to matter. Stein captured the
attention of his audience-along with considerable applause, a few shouts
of “Bravo!” and a standing ovation orchestrated by Glassell Park principal
After the program, Stein took a few moments to explain that the principles
of rhythm, relaxation and imagination are the same ideas that have helped
him to improve his own performance as an adult-both in music and sports.
A second violinist with the Philharmonic for the last three years, Stein
said that when he was a violinist with the Denver Symphony, he took up
tennis and noticed his music substantially improved as well. He read Tim
Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Tennis,” (which, according to Cheng, is now
considered a “bible” by many musicians.)
“I became aware that the less hard I tried and the more relaxed I became,
the better I was able to think and perform,” Stein noted, adding that much
of what he learned to do in tennis and music was to get out of his own way
and let his natural abilities come forth.
In his sports-and-music presentations, which are funded by the Musician’s
Union’s Music Performance Trust Fund, Stein takes a similar approach with
“If kids can relax during a classical music program, and enjoy both
listening to the music and hearing us talk about it, then we may see them
at out Philharmonic concerts when they’re adults. “The kids already love
music. I don’t want to mess that up.”