Chamber Babies Concert Series Continues

Belfast Music Society aim live performances at parents and toddlers at the Crescent Arts Centre

Bach for Babies. Lullaby Classics. Baby Dance: A Toddler’s Jump on the Classics. Just three of countless CD titles currently available, extolling the beneficial effects of exposing infants early to the allegedly soothing, civilising influence of classical music.

Play them Mozart, the research promises, and you could magically find your offspring’s IQ rising. Too much Prokofiev, however, and you might easily have a budding psychotic to deal with. Repertoire is everything, apparently – you’re unlikely to turn out a mellow, culturally receptive little human being by blasting Schoenberg or Stravinsky at them in the cradle.

It’s a point that Pam Smith, concerts manager of the Belfast Music Society, agrees with. Smith has been instrumental in developing Chamber Babies, the society’s latest initiative. It takes the ‘baby CD’ idea a step further, in a series of concerts for parents and young children, at which classical music is played by live musicians.

You need, Smith says, ‘a good selection of some vigorous and lively numbers, with some gentler numbers. Recognisable melodies that listeners would be familiar with, because we’re trying to appeal to people who are not necessarily classical music lovers already, but are interested in coming to a quality event with their baby.

‘So we wanted the music to be accessible, with really good professional musicians, playing what we would call proper music, not arrangements of TV tunes or anything like that, but the classical music with which BMS is normally associated.’

Ciara Burnell, chair of Belfast Music Society, points out that much depends on the musicians who actually deliver the Chamber Babies performances. ‘It’s very important,' she argues. 'They have to be comfortable with a very informal and maybe at times slightly noisy audience.’

The environment that the concerts take place in, Smith comments, is also crucial. ‘It was important for us to get the feel of the event right. So we spent a good bit of time discussing it with Keith Acheson, director of the Crescent Arts Centre, who was very keen to come on board straight away.

‘He knew that one of the spaces at the Crescent would lend itself very well to an informal set-up, with bean-bags and relaxed seating, and lighting that would be conducive to a very relaxed feel. We had no trouble in selling the tickets immediately.’

Burnell had the original idea of staging the baby/parent concerts in the first place. Being a new parent herself, she was keen to provide some sort of classical experience that she could enjoy with her newborn.

‘I had a young baby, and there was very little to bring a baby to at that age. I really wanted Emma to experience proper classical music played on live instruments, not dumbed down in any way. A space came up at our International Festival of Chamber Music this year, so we said, "What about doing this, for the 0-18 months age group?"'

That particular choice of unlikely demographic was, Burnell observes, no accident. ‘The 0-18 months will tend to be just getting mobile, maybe not quite ready for a fully interactive experience, but getting there. And we had a nice mix at the concerts. Quite a lot of the babies were still just sitting in their mother’s arms having a little snooze, whereas a few of them were getting up and having a closer look.’

Burnell’s own daughter, Emma, was one of the latter. So too was Aaron, the 14-month-old son of Ciara Bardgett, a classical music fan and follower of the BMS output. Aaron was also already a fan of classical music from his home environment.

‘I just thought if he likes it at home, it would be nice to have him in the middle of it,’ Bardgett comments. 'To see something real and to enjoy the music. When the music started he was just focused on where it was coming from, and then he relaxed a bit more, and played about on the bean-bags. And he enjoyed the applause, he thought it was for him.’

David Robb, who took his son Finn to a Chamber Babies session, also rated the experience highly. ‘It was really good. It was a very open kind of setting, with toys to play with. Finn was wandering around there in between the musicians and the public as well, almost interacting with them.’

Both Robb and Bardgett highlight the informality of the Chamber Babies format as a key factor in making the concerts enjoyable for parents as well as their offspring. ‘Because it was so relaxed,’ Bardgett explains, ‘you didn’t feel like you had to try and keep the babies quiet. You didn’t feel too uncomfortable if they did make noise or tried to sing, or shouted. You didn’t feel restricted.’

Burnell’s daughter responded in a similar fashion. ‘Emma, like all the babies, held back for the first little bit. Once they got more confident with their surroundings, they felt comfortable going up to have a good look at the performers. Emma swayed and danced, bounced up and down a little bit with the livelier pieces, then sat back for the more chilled-out ones.’

Watching the Chamber Babies concerts has convinced Burnell that the element of live performance is a key factor in shaping the babies’ reactions, and making the events a valuable learning experience. ‘I think it’s so important to see an instrument being played in its original way, as so much baby music is MIDI or electronic versions of tunes.’

Bardgett agrees strongly. ‘It’s all very well having music on the radio or CD. But it’s just kind of there, around you, as opposed to something that Aaron can look at, and maybe connect that these instruments or these people create the sound, it’s not just coming from speakers.’

That sense of something special happening at the point of live performance is, claims Pam Smith, picked up on intuitively by even the youngest babies. ‘When the music was playing, they were quiet. As soon as the music stopped, and there was a little bit of chat, the noise level rose a little bit.

‘There was definitely a connection as soon as the instruments started to sound. You did notice that they were fascinated by what was happening in that little area in front of them. It did really do what we expected it to, which was to engage some of the older, more alert babies, and soothe some of the really, really young ones. And we had new-borns there, tiny, tiny babies.’

The Chamber Babies initiative is, it seems, very much set to continue. Two further concerts, this time featuring violin and piano, are scheduled on Saturday, May 24 at the Crescent Arts Centre. More will follow in November, and at the next BMS International Festival of Chamber Music in February 2014.

And though demand is high for tickets, Smith is adamant the concerts will retain the special intimacy which characterises chamber music, the physical proximity to performers that gives an added frisson of realism and immediacy.

‘We want the children to be able to see and feel the music as closely as possible,’ she says. ‘So expansion in numbers of events, without necessarily expanding the capacity of each event is, I think, the key.’

Chamber Babies takes place at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on May 24.