Courtesy of the Palm Desert Library
The winners of the Palm Desert Library's "Musical Jeopardy!" competition. Credit: Courtesy of the Palm Desert Library

Summer is whizzing by, and many (most?) parents are ready for it to end. Parts of our area are often referred to as “retirement communities” based on the higher average age of residents, but there are lots of families who need educational activities for the energy their kids never seem to lack.

“Go read a book!” my mother used to tell me. And read, I did. I remember the summer of World War II (Battle Cry, From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead), the summer of religious understanding (The Robe, The Silver Chalice, The Education of Hyman Kaplan) and the summer of family drama (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Children’s Hour).

Today, toddlers still enjoy picture books, while youngsters read stories about small animals and relatable kids with smelly pants. Older ones begin to get interested in futuristic fiction, or fantasy characters, or learning about things they enjoy, like anime or avatar creation. Alas, some young people don’t like to read at all, or live in homes where books are a luxury, or a public library is too far away, or there is no Internet access.

For local kids who are able to get to a library, our local libraries have special activities for kids of all ages. However, I’ve been most intrigued by the music-themed Summer Reading Program for teens being offered by the Palm Desert Library

I dropped in on the weekly program meeting last Thursday, July 9. The “Musical Jeopardy!” event was held in the community room under the guidance of Lisa Branch, head city librarian, and emceed by Natalie Bernhardt, youth services assistant, and Sean Corbin, teen services associate. The take-off on the Jeopardy! television show, complete with categories and prizes (mini golf tickets, caramel apples, movie passes, etc.) engaged those attending with visual and audio clues of increasing difficulty. The room was equipped with a big screen on which the questions were shown, coordinated with soundtracks and scorekeeping controlled by a computer.

Some attendees were siblings; others had wandered in alone. They were split into three teams and called up to the contestant seats one at a time. Each seat had a different “buzzer” (actually, squeaky dog chew toys), each making a distinctive silly sound.

I sat in the back with the mother of two of the nine participating teens, who appeared to range in age from about 10 to 16, and who represented the diversity of races and cultures in our area. The group evenly split between boys and girls.

Although initially somewhat shy, the students quickly warmed to the teamwork necessary to compete, including the rule that allowed them two chances to confer with teammates if an answer eluded them. There were lots of laughs and high-fives when a team scored.

Categories in the first round included Name the Movie Theme, Name the Instrument, Album Covers, Disney Songs, and Human Shazam (which featured audio clues; answer was either the name of the song or the artist). The second round had Know Your Dead Composer’s Birthday (the clues mostly stumped me), Dance, Tattoo/Artist, Instrument/Genre, and Cover Songs (with the answer the name of the artist who did the original of each song).

The song and album questions were easily answered by the teens, if the music was popular within the last five to 10 years, but they were stumped by things like the covered song that was originally a big hit by The Jackson 5, or the group whose album featured its four musicians striding across a street (Abbey Road—they didn’t know The Beatles!).

Some missed questions were understandable. Teens today have little reason to know what castanets are (those clacky hand instruments usually associated with flamenco dancers), or how to distinguish a mandolin from a guitar or banjo. They recognized bagpipes, the triangle and even the kalimba (or thumb piano)—because it turned out the program featured a Build an Instrument event the week before.

They had trouble with where the tango originated (Argentina) or what country gave us the Viennese waltz (Austria—one answered Vietnam!). They didn’t know that the composer of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, born in 1840, was Tchaikovsky, or that the composer born in 1756 and known for flamboyant behavior, who died at 35, was Mozart.

These young people knew the Pink Panther and Indiana Jones movie themes, but didn’t recognize the theme from Superman. They had no trouble with the theme from Harry Potter movies, but were stumped by many of the Disney questions (Disneyland didn’t seem to figure much in their experience). However, they easily got the 34-letter Disney song title “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

One of the toughest categories was Instrument/Genre. One clue asked what instrument was featured in both polka and zydeco (accordion). Another asked what metal instrument is featured in both reggae and calypso music (steel drum). The students were mostly unaware of music genres other than pop rock.

The competition also featured extra-point questions for which the team that got closest to an actual number without going over won the point. None of the teams knew, for example, that a standard piano has 88 keys, but the guess of 64 came closest and got the points.

I couldn’t stay to see which team won the day, but I was so glad I had been exposed to what is being offered to our kids by our local libraries. We too often take for granted that exposure to the art and music of previous generations is being passed on. However, with budget cuts and a need to “teach to the tests,” it is difficult for schools to incorporate music and art appreciation classes. You can volunteer and make a difference in the life of a child—call your local school and ask how you can help.

Our history as a people is inextricably intertwined with the arts and music of each historical era, and exposure to this history expands our ability to appreciate what we see and hear today. Students need this education—and it shouldn’t be relegated only to summer programs run by libraries.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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Anita Rufus

Anita Rufus is an award-winning columnist and talk radio host, known as “The Lovable Liberal.” She has a law degree, a master’s in education, and was a business executive before committing herself...