IT'S HARD to believe an auditorium full of squirming pre-schoolers could fall almost silent. But fill their minds with imagination and their ears with music, and such miracles can indeed occur.
The Tiny Tots concert this past week in the spacious yet intimate confines on Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium was one of 40 youth concerts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs each year, reaching some 80,000 children.
This 45-minute program consisted of musical portraits of animals, including such selections as Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumblebee," Rossini's "Cat Duet" and Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," the latter charmingly pantomimed by Bob Brown Puppets.
Several hundred children, teachers and chaperones left with smiles on their faces and tunes in their hearts.
It doesn't take a genius to know that children instinctively respond to music. Neither should it come as a surprise that when schools neglect arts education, treasured institutions like museums, regional theaters and symphony orchestras will eventually pay the price in dwindling audiences.
Like many orchestras and community arts groups, the BSO is making heroic efforts to stem the tide. Too bad the same can't be said for much of the rest of society.
Too bad not just for the BSO, but for the welfare of us all. Music is no frill.
At long last, researchers are beginning to document what some cultures know in their bones: that musical training not only improves mental acuities, but also nourishes the skills of cooperation and sensitivity to others that can benefit any society.
Last week, National Public Radio reported from Budapest that Hungary's venerable tradition of singing schools may be in jeopardy as the national government lets local areas make decisions about school funding.
The schools, which attract children who want to sing in school every day rather than only a couple of times a week, are not expected to turn all their students into professional singers. The goal is simply to give them a good grounding in music.
Hungary's music education system bears the imprint of composer Zoltan Kodaly, whose theories about training children in music have been influential in many countries.
After World War II, Kodaly was concerned about preserving the rich traditions of folk music so important to Hungarian culture. He initiated an ambitious education program to teach this music to each new generation, beginning with children as young as 3.
But Hungarians recognize that these efforts are more than educational "enrichment," and that they do more than simply preserve national culture.
NPR interviewed a teacher in a singing school who took pains to emphasize that music training develops other valuable skills as well.
It sharpens the power of memory, as children memorize many pieces. As for basic skills, understanding the structure of music boosts a child's ability to comprehend math. Equally important, by learning to sing in parts, children learn self-discipline and how to work as a group.
Music also helps them learn to express themselves, and performing before an admiring audience surely does far more to boost a child's confidence than discussions of self-esteem ever could.
Hungary's music education system has done more than preserve a folk tradition during a difficult era in that country's history. It also helped equip its citizens with the emotional strength to survive the long era of Soviet dominance.
The uncertainty facing Hungary's singing schools is painfully familiar to music educators in this country, who know from long experience that their programs are among the first to go when money gets tight.
But you only have to visit a vibrant oasis like Baltimore's School for the Arts to see how the power of the arts can transform a young person's life.
Or marvel at the magical spell good music can cast on a crowd of kids.
Sara Engram is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/14/97