The girls couldn't wait to see the Mona Lisa. There they were in Paris at the Louvre! "But we had to wait in a long line first," remembers Kristy Aburida. "And when we finally reached the painting, we had to file quickly past. We were herded around like cattle." The girls - Amira, 11, Sophia, nine, and Kayla, seven - were disappointed that they had not been able to to linger over their viewing of lady with the enigmatic smile.
"I just told them that this was all part of the experience," says Aburida. Since her daughters were little, Aburida has encouraged an active engagement with culture, taking them to see plays and concerts, visiting museums and nurturing their enthusiasm wherever she can. This education began in San Francisco, where the family is from, and is now continuing in Abu Dhabi. "I think getting children excited about the arts starts at a young age," she says.
"It's never too early to start," echoes Marina Zemfir, the director of the city's Elite Music School. "Even when kids say, 'No, I don't want to go,' take them anyway." I was five when my parents took me to see my first ballet in New York City. I remember having to sit on my knees to see over the adults in front of me and that I wore a crinkly, organdy dress for the occasion. Later, I played hide and seek in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art. Bach and Brahms joined us for breakfast every Sunday morning, and EB White, AA Milne and James Barrie, read aloud, put me to sleep every night. We were hardly rich - my father was in college for most of my early years - but there was always a little extra for a museum trip, a book or a musical (they weren't snobs, either: My Fair Lady was considered nearly as good as Mendelssohn).
My oldest daughter was also five when I took her to see her first performance of Swan Lake, 30 years later. ("What do the swans eat for supper?" she'd asked in a very loud voice at a very quiet moment.) How do you thank parents for giving you a lifetime of pleasure, surprise and beauty, a vision of the world so much larger than your own? You pass it on. Growing up in Voronezh, a city 500 kilometres south of Moscow, during the Communist era, Zemfir's mother dreamed of having a piano one day. "She didn't get her piano," says Zemfir as she pours an early-morning coffee on the terrace of her music school. "But when I was six, she managed to save enough money to buy one. She passed her dream on to me." Zemfir went on to serious study - eight years of music school, four of music college, five years in a music academy. "Seventeen years " she recalls, her green eyes lighting up as she casts her mind back to her formative years. Now her 18-year-old son is back at her alma mater, studying guitar and drums.
Most of us don't expect our children to become professional musicians or painters when we take them for violin lessons or drawing classes. But exposure to the arts can enrich a young life and pave the way for a lifetime of enjoyment. "Actually art is something very interesting to children," explains Yamam Sami, an Iraqi painter and education officer for TDIC (Tourism Development and Investment Company), which is running art workshops for kids during the Emirati Expressions exhibition at the Emirates Palace (for more information, call 02 690 8206). "Picking up pencils or a paintbrush is natural for children. It's a gift for everyone. It's something that comes from inside."
What is more, Sami knows about this natural pull from first-hand experience. Her two-year-old daughter is already busy with the crayons and paper. In the workshops, Sami begins with suggestions on how to behave in a museum. "In a friendly way," she adds, with a laugh. "Then I introduce the schools of art. We talk about colour and images, and how they affect the viewer. 'What does green mean to you?' I might ask. 'It's grass,' 'It's a frog,' they might say." From there, Sami moves on to a colouring or collage activity. "I want to give them a hands-on experience," she says. "And I want to make it fun."
However, she does admit that what is fun for a four-year-old is not usually fun for a 10-year-old. "There are stages along the way. As children get older we need to give them the ideas behind the art. The main ingredient in any arts education is dialogue and conversation. If we just give them information, it's not an education. We need to ask kids: 'What do you think of that painting?'" Zemfir also agrees that there are stages in the exposure process. "For each year it's different," she says. "If I put on the Moonlight Sonata for four-year-olds they ask: 'Can we dance? Can we play?' But if you play it for a 10-year-old it's more about feelings. An older child can find himself or herself in the music."
But at any age, Zemfir - whose school employs seven instructors teaching piano, guitar, violin, voice and ballet - strives to make children aware of two critical things when they attend a concert. "First, we need to help them understand the music itself," she says. "We also need to help them understand the performance and the skill of the performer, to appreciate what the musician is doing." Studying an instrument deepens that appreciation. Zemfir believes that every child should have at least five years of music education. "Studying music develops your ear, your sense of rhythm, your imagination. Rhythm gives us a sense of doing things. Melody develops our emotional side." And, she adds, by way of encouragement to kids and parents alike, "an ear for music can be developed at any age".
That should come as reassurance to Aburida, whose middle daughter, Sophia, has just begun to study clarinet. "Some people might say that this is too late," she says. "But my philosophy is that it's never too late." For this mother-of-three it is all about exposing her children to the arts a little bit at a time. It started with Play-Doh at the kitchen table. "I would give them clay, crayons, paper, glue, stamps, paints, and not worry about the mess. Bring it outside if you're worried about destroying your house," she says. "Get down and dirty with them and have your child tell you about their work. Show interest and don't critique or try to fix it."
Now that the girls are a bit older and totally hooked on art - especially sketching, drawing, making yarn dolls and ice-lolly-stick models - she knew that they were ready for this past December's visit to Paris. As well as the Louvre, their trip took in the Musée d'Orsay and Versailles. Despite the disappointment with Leonardo, the girls were hugely entertained by the paintings in the Louvre's massive halls. "They tried to match the famous paintings with the painters they had heard of and they loved the statues," says Aburida.
The day at the Louvre ended earlier than Aburida would have liked, but years of museum trips with kids have taught her one thing: "Once their patience is gone and their feet are tired, go home. Of course I would have loved to stay much longer. But this wasn't about me. It was about them. If you push too hard, they won't want to go back." To feed the desire to return, the family bought art books in the museum bookstore before leaving. Now, back home in Abu Dhabi, the children can look through the pages of paintings and remember their own holiday. The youngest daughter, Kayla, often turns to one of a mother and child that Aburida had pointed out as one of her favourites. "Now I ask them, 'Which is your favourite?' Art is such a beautiful thing. I want it be a part of my children's lives," she says.
Even when children are less than enthusiastic, the effort to weave culture into their lives is always worth it. "You'll thank me when you're older" is the adage. I know I am still thanking my parents. For more information on the TDIC workshops, call 02 690 8206. To contact the Elite Music School, call 02 445 4909.