Getting young children interested in classical music is a challenge, especially with the cutbacks that arts education has suffered in public schools over the years.
Outreach programs help to fill this void, of course, but it is limited in its scope. Getting kids curious about music is the key, and one way to do that is to approach it on their level. That's what Peter Will believes.
Will is the general manager of the German production company Gateway4M and the creator of "Wunderkind Little Amadeus," an animated series featuring a young Mozart who gets out of scrapes and solves problems through his wit and sense of humor. And along the way, children learn about basic musical concepts.
"Children are not only entertained but they also learn about classical music," Will said in a phone interview from his office in Hamburg.
Will got the idea for the show a few years ago when he began mulling over ideas about how to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006.
"I had the idea I wanted to make a television project that had young Amadeus as its hero and which would motivate children to learn about classical music. And television is the best way to reach children because it is such a big part of their lives."
Since its 2006 launch on German TV, "Wunderkind Little Amadeus" has reached millions of children. Its scope is far greater than Will had imagined it would be. The show is designed for a target audience of 4- to 8-year-olds, but statistics have shown that older and younger children also watch it.
"We have had some really exciting results," Will said. "We have had a 14 percent rating over the year," ranging from 10 percent of children between 9 and 11 and 50 percent for youngsters between 3 and 5. "That last statistic is most surprising. We did not expect it. We have five children's channels in Germany and it means that every other child between 3 and 5 watches 'Little Amadeus.' "
Since the series debuted on American television last September, the results have been similarly encouraging, Will said. "We are reaching 57 million TV households. Our most recent report from the States shows that 8 million children in the 2-5 age group and 12 million 6- to 11-year-olds tune in and watch."
Currently, "Wunderkind Little Amadeus" is shown on 216 stations in 22 states. Locally, it's broadcast on KUEN-Ch. 9 on Thursdays at 12:30 p.m., Fridays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 9 a.m. Worldwide it's seen in about 90 countries.
The show is popular because it appeals to youngsters, Will said. "We decided Mozart should be a child because that would make him more acceptable to children. And the fact that Mozart was already performing as a young kid is a big plus in what we want to accomplish with the series."
And rather than using the popular Manga style animation, Will decided on an older look. "We deliberately wanted to have old-style characters and animate it in the old Disney style and give it a hand-colored look. That also makes it more suitable for the classical music in the background."
The stories draw on facts from Mozart's life and also introduce fictional characters. "And Amadeus always overcomes the challenges he faces in the stories through music," Will said.
In Germany, there are also live events, including concerts, that take place in different cities in connection with the series. That's something Will hopes will happen in the United States at some point.
There is also a Web site children and their parents can access that has facts and activities drawn from the series. It can be found at little-amadeus.com.
The "Wunderkind" series is a long-term project, Will said. "We are looking at a 10-15 year worldwide project, that will eventually include 11 other composers.
"My dream for this series has been to put the love of classical music into the hearts of children. There is a movie called 'The Empire Strikes Back.' Now is the time for classical music to strike back and get back some of its old power and importance. And we can do this. We can get our children to appreciate culture and the greatness of this music. This is something I believe in."
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