Musical enjoyment: start when they're still infants!

During the Chantiers d'Europe Festival, the Théâtre de la Ville invited Paulo Lameiro, Portuguese musician and teacher, and his concert for babies. What does he think about musical training in infants?

Musical enjoyment: start when they're still infants!
Concerto para bebes

“The ear is one of the first organs to form in the womb. And the last one to shut off with our last breath. If we expose an infant to music for the first time at the age of 6, it is too late: we missed the years during which their ability to absorb sound experiences was most intense”.

With Paulo Lameiro, there's no getting around it. We are in a Parisian nursery. The place is crawling with babies, and no one is crying. The Portuguese musician and teacher welcomes us dressed as an elf, with a baby in his hands. Everywhere there is colour, shapes, fluidity and proximity. As part of the festival Chantiers d’Europe, the Théâtre de la Ville invited him to present his project, Concerto para bebés, through musical workshops; his project was acclaimed and awarded many prizes around the world.

CONCERTOS PARA BEBÉS from Musicalmente on Vimeo.

Everyone’s sitting on the floor, there are childcare workers and some moms holding their babies, waiting for the musicians: a clarinet player, an accordion player, a dancer, and Paulo Lameiro arrive and start playing the overture of Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo. In a treasure chest, there are small Tibetan percussion instruments, egg maracas, rainsticks, coloured bells and other wonders, progressively pulled out by Paulo. Very quickly, something happens: the babies stretch their hands towards the musicians, they start swinging or hopping, they move forward, they want to touch the instruments, their eyes shift and follow those mysterious sounds. 45 minutes? And yet, it just fades like in a dream, in the blink of an eye. It is a very exciting moment for both the parents and their babies.

“It is essential that the concert experience be pleasant for both the adult holding the baby and the baby. They're like sponges: if the mother holds her breath because of the intense emotions caused by music, the infant on her lap will experience the same thrill”.

The concerto for babies was born 25 years ago. Since then, Paulo Lameiro has set up an arts education centre with workshops, training sessions and multiple projects around the impact of music on development and health. His initial idea was simple: introducing young children to so-called "classical" music in an environment meant for them: they can move, they can make noise, they can hop, they can touch... everything is possible, and spontaneity is the most important thing:

“Even if the performance is meticulously thought-through, I constantly keep an eye on the babies' reactions: sometimes we must improvise a change faster than expected, maybe go a little softer or give more energy… today, I train both the teachers and the musicians who wish to specialise in musical enjoyment for infants. It is a difficult exercise, it is both rigour and softness. It is about keeping babies entertained without scaring them, calming them down, deflecting attention or capturing it… and on top of that, you have to play, that is a very complicated task”.

Taking advantage of the sensitive period

Neuroscience supports musical training from a very young age:

« Entre la naissance et 18 mois, la vitesse de traiter une information chez un enfant est 300 000 “Between birth and 18 months of age, our information processing speed is 300,000 times higher. Thus, that is the most favourable period to give our baby all the elements of a structure that is going to allow him to understand and possibly to make music in the future”. During the performances, musical motives and vocalisations alternate with the sound of bells, whistles, rattles, percussion instruments; the musicians and the dancer move around, they try to make eye-contact, every infant is involved.

Les enfants et les parents sont invités à interagir avec les musiciens/ Photo : Marta Vidanes
Les enfants et les parents sont invités à interagir avec les musiciens/ Photo : Marta Vidanes

“Even more important than musical intervention is the awareness of the sound environment and its richness. Music comes after that. Each concert for babies is designed according to a very specific pattern. We work on three parameters:timbre,dynamicsandrhythm. As fortimbre, we have a “classical” repertoire;classical music is at the heart of our approach, ranging from Monteverdi to Messiaen, but also (Portuguese) traditional music for the richness it brings in terms of timbre, and jazz. We choose a piece and we take its most emblematic moment or musical fragment, then we adapt it to our ensemble. We don’t use vocal or sung pieces, because vocal music conveys a message. The infant tends to decode the message and considers it as a priority, which distracts him or her from the music.

Rhythmis addressed through spoken syllabic elements, sometimes we play with syllables: “ba-ba-brrr” can even become something more complex, and it’s very, very funny!”

For a concert, the musicians can even link together 30 different excerpts: Mozart, Stravinsky, Bach, Vivaldi and Messiaen meet all together in sometimes unexpected arrangements.

“The choice of the instruments is sometimes influenced by their ability to cause communicating resonance in the person listening. I wouldn’t say that low-pitched sounds work better with babies than high-pitched sounds, but I did notice that they prefer brass instruments over wind instruments, for example. They are very sensitive to the richness of harmonics. After that, to catch their attention and let them focus on the sounds, we play with lights, colour, sound objects, bells, rattles, whistles, funny sounds. We even turn off all the lights, sometimes. Imagine the magic of listening to Messiaen, while our dancer draws figures using a small lamp”. Total blackout with Messiaen in the background? That must be something…

“No infant has been traumatized, it's mostly parents who fear this kind of music experience in the dark…”

Concerto para bebés is a musical project where babies aged 0-3 are invited to listen.