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May 2013 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family

Introducing classical music to children with apps

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Like most New York City moms, piano teacher and Apple developer Donna Weng Friedman will be celebrating and enjoying Mother’s Day with her family.

“We have a tradition in the morning. My husband prepares me breakfast in bed, and the kids present me with cards and gifts — no flowers, I have terrible allergies during the spring!”

The energetic, creative Upper West Sider has come up with two new kid’s apps, and says this Mother’s Day may turn out to be an extra special one. Friedman says she has been watching some of her piano students play beautifully during auditions for an upcoming competition.

“The winners will perform at Carnegie Hall on May 12. In the past, I have had students win this competition, and of course, I go to the winner’s concert to support them.”

During the writing of this article, one of her students may have already been chosen to perform, and Friedman said she will be attending the afternoon concert on Mother’s Day, and then meet her family for dinner at a restaurant of her choosing, on the Upper West Side.

Like many multitasking moms, Friedman says she’s busy going to the baseball games of her 14-year-old son Scotty on Randall’s Island and keeping up with her active teenage daughter, Mickey.

Her inspiration

Friedman’s love of classical music informs her new app designs and fuels the creative power behind her innovative ideas.

“As a classical pianist I have always loved classical music, and I hope that my apps will teach children how to listen to and understand the storyline that is inherent in classical music, via a platform that kids today are familiar with. I am also grateful to my many piano students who have enjoyed playing with my apps.”

Friedman teaches piano privately, but is also on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music, Preparatory Division, in Manhattan.

The app revolution

A decade ago, most parents could never imagine that one day preschoolers would be using an electronic device called an iPad and learning about the world around them with apps, turning screen pages and interacting with make-believe characters — their chubby little fingers nimbly touching, dragging, and moving images around.

These days, apps are widely used as educational tools by parents and teachers to stimulate kids’ imagination and introduce children of all ages to new concepts, as they get ready for a wonderful, challenging, and complicated technology-driven world.

For today’s tech-savvy kids, a cute, self-directed and interactive iPad app, loaded with bright, colorful cartoons means hours of learning fun and a chance for parents to unwind.

There have been studies done supporting the fact that music is like manna for a developing brain, and essential for a well-rounded education. For instance, did you know that a nightly dose of good old Mozart tunes can help your child develop a strong mathematical ability?

It seems what’s lacking is that all-important fun factor to win ’em over. So Creative Apple developer Donna Friedman decided to feature a wise, charismatic bumble bee as the main character in her first new app called “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” and discovered that even kids ages 4 to 6, as well as third and fourth graders, were riveted by the music, and couldn’t get enough of the whole fun-filled experience.

Friedman’s imaginative, out-of-the-box approach equals an experience that feels less like learning and more like just having fun for fun’s sake.

“What a great way to bring great music performed by world-class musicians to children, their families and schools.”

A family affair

Creating apps and becoming a registered Apple developer isn’t an easy feat, so Friedman called upon her family for support.

“My son, Scotty is into video games and was the one who suggested that I have a ‘game’ option in my bee app. He thought that the app was improved with the maze game, and was helpful in testing the app for bugs. Thanks to Scotty’s eagle eye, we discovered early on that the timer was not accurate and had it fixed immediately.”

The concept for Friedman’s bumble bee app was jump-started by her and her hubby Craig’s addiction to Looney Tunes cartoons on TV.

“The cartoons in the good ol’ days had Bugs Bunny and friends frolicking to music by Wagner and Mendelssohn, to mention just a few. I don’t think the kids today have that, so in a way my apps are inspired by those cartoons of yesteryear.”

Four years ago daughter Mickey, 16, who loved to draw for fun, teamed up with her mom and designed the spider web maze for the bee app, where the little bumble bee is stuck in the center and the user has to help get the bee out of the web back to the beehive.

“She used to play the piano, so she feels the music and could also understand how the stories unfolded,” Friedman recalled. “She and I discussed how the spider in the story should not look too scary, or little kids would be afraid. It was her idea to make the bumble bee drawings cartoony, with exaggerated eyes and big head to fit the fast-paced music.”

Mickey was also involved in creating her mom’s second app, “The Swan.”

Friedman says Mickey was into fashion design for a while, and went to Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design for summer courses.

“She also loves to write poetry; with her musical ear, her writing is almost lyrical — she writes for the sound of words, as well as their meaning. She won a Scholastic Gold key for her poems in eighth grade, and has co-authored one of the stories with me, which we will produce next year.”

The music bee club apps

The bee club is a unique, interactive musical concept featuring the world’s most beloved short classical compositions — with a twist. Each piece of music is accompanied by an actor’s rendition of an engaging and original story, whose characters are brilliantly illustrated and come alive when tapped or touched. The stories themselves are designed both to reflect the inspiration behind each piece and to fit in perfectly with its musical twists and turns.

Designed for children between the ages of 2 and 8, these apps are the perfect way to introduce any child to the beauty and brilliance of great classical music, combining the appeal of a favorite bedtime story with the enjoyment and thrill of an exciting musical performance.

Promoting creative, open-style play that stimulates imagination and gets your child ready for computers and a tech-filled world, your children will love listening to these spirited, imaginative tales of impatient bees, lonely little moons, and self-important swans — and at the same time, they’ll be learning some of the most beautiful musical compositions in the classical canon, played by some of America’s finest musicians — all while having a lot of fun!

Grown-ups, don’t be surprised if you find that these stories set to music give you a whole new perspective on classical music, too!


“Giving app workshops at schools has been an incredible experience for me; connecting with so many children and hearing their joyfully enthusiastic responses to my apps is like winning the lottery for me,” says Friedman. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

In March, Friedman led a workshop on her bee app, at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence.

“The kids loved listening to the music; they made up their own stories, and cheered while playing with the bumble bee maze. They loved creating their own animations and paintings to go with the piece,” she said.

Experts in child growth and development agree that learning to appreciate and understand the “language of music” helps children flourish, intellectually and emotionally.

• A recent study at Brigham Young University found that children as young as 5 months old could distinguish “sad” songs from “happy” ones.

• A University of Toronto study found that 6-year-olds who studied piano for six months raised their IQs by several points, on average. Another study of Los Angeles preschoolers found that lessons in singing, rhythm, and keyboard playing boosted their spatial reasoning significantly.

• Other studies have found that music activates the parts of the brain that are essential to emotion and memory, and that it also promotes communication between the right and left hemispheres.

“It has been a long road — researching, learning and making mistakes along the way. But I have enjoyed every minute of this process. At 53, I am exploring an exciting new world of technology and setting a good example for my children: that you are never too old to learn and accomplish new things. Most importantly, I’m sharing my love of classical music,” says Friedman.

“I have known so many talented people in my life, from my college days to the present — friends, students, colleagues, and of course, my family — but to have so many of them working with me, or cheering me on, makes me feel like the luckiest person on the Upper West Side.”

Friedman says she will be advertising her apps on YouTube clips, and on various blogs. Her daughter is designing her website.

The back story

Friedman, 53, grew up in Forest Hills in Queens, but has been living on the Upper West Side since 1981.

“When I was very little, I would make up stories to the piano pieces I was playing. When my kids were little, I would play classical music to them before bedtime; make up stories to the music, and they would fall asleep listening to classical music,” says Friedman, who decided to make CDs of her stories set to music about four years ago. “I asked a Princeton classmate of mine, Royce Flippin, a talented writer, to help me put down on paper the stories that I had in my head.”

So, she narrated stories to the music she played on the piano and made a sample recording.

“Then I called a Juilliard colleague, David Frost, the Grammy award-winning producer. He listened to the recording and thought the stories-to-music concept was quite good. So we recorded the music with top-tier musicians — the first step to making a professional CD of my stories to music.”

Around that time, Friedman says her daughter, who was about 12, started drawing pictures of the characters in “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” app.

“They were so cute that I decided to make a picture book to go with the CD. Mickey drew the father bee with glasses and a goofy face, to resemble her own dad when he makes his goofy face,” she says. “My husband Craig, who is a mathematician and reads about technology, suggested I look into the app world, which at that time was still relatively new.”

So with his help, Friedman started in a new direction, studying apps and learning about what was out there, and the process of making apps. Next, she was able to find a digital artist to make her daughter’s hand-drawn pictures into digital cartoons.

Friedman says she has plans to create two or three more apps this year.

“I really enjoy collaborating with my daughter. She has now co-authored one of my stories to music, and I look forward to creating that app with her next year,” she says.

“The Flight of the Bumble Bee” may already be available on iTunes for iPad and iPad mini at the App Store (approx. $1.99). “The Swan” will be available in June. For best sound quality, headphones or ear buds are recommended. Both apps are for iPad and iPad mini. iPad users can go to the App Store and look for “The Flight of the Bumble Bee,” and download it straight to their iPad.

‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’ app

“The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Piano and flute)

Elizabeth Mann, Principal Flutist, Orchestra of St. Lukes, Orpheus

Donna Weng Friedman, pianist

This follows an exciting adventure of a young bumble bee who craves independence and tries to fly to the other side of the garden, alone — only to find out that he isn’t quite ready. Narrated to the composer’s music.

There are five levels — easy to difficult — and a timer to gauge how fast the player gets through the maze each time.

The main character, the little bumble bee, can “fly” when you drag it.

All other interactions include:

• Tap the bee dad and mom and they fly around

• Tap the eyes and they blink

• Tap flowers and they bloom — butterflies fly out

• Tap robin and spider and they jump

• Tap spider web and web changes colors

And there are no rules, or time limits — play any way you want. The app is like an interactive cartoon. There are six options:

• The story narrated to the music, with animation

• The story narrated to the music, with animation and text for young readers

• The story narrated to the music in Korean, with animation (kids love this — it’s interesting to hear the story in another language, with so many syllables!)

• Music and animation only, for kids to use their own words and create their own story

• Paint to the music — create unique designs using the painting feature

• Maze game — help the little bee get out of the spider web and back to the beehive!

Ready for launch in early May for the iPad and iPad mini, Friedman says more than 75 children have played with the app, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The apps are intended for children ages 2 to 9, but I was pleasantly surprised when I gave a workshop to 10 to 13 year olds and they all loved the apps.”

‘The Swan’ app

You’ll hear the story of a young moon who longed to play with real children, and read to the timeless notes of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” movement from his “Suite bergamasque” for piano.” Almost completed, Friedman says this app is already quite beautiful.

“The Swan,” by Camille Saint-Saëns (Piano and cello)

“Claire de Lune,” by Debussy (Piano)

Carter Brey, principal cellist, New York Philharmonic

Donna Weng Friedman, pianist

Audio producer, 11-time Grammy Award winner David Frost

A beautiful swan is too vain and haughty to play with the “ugly” ducks on the far side of the lake, until it learns that beauty isn’t everything. Set to “The Swan” movement from Camille Saint-Saens’ orchestral work, “The Carnival of the Animals,” Friedman’s second app creation is the tale of a swan who had to learn what true beauty was.

The little new moon is tired of only being out at night with her moon family. She tries joining the other young children during the daytime, but discovers that she’s not really suited for the daytime — and that true happiness comes from being where you’re meant to be.

“‘The Swan’ app was much easier to create since I had already developed the Bee app. For instance, in the bee app, we created a spider web maze game with five levels, where the user has to help get the bee out of the web and to its home, the bee-hive. The coding for the custom-made maze was a huge job, but now, I can use it for the maze in the Swan, even though it will be entirely different,” Friedman explains.

“The artwork goes with the beautiful, soothing music, and the changing colors of the lake and scenery are quite magical,” she says, adding, “The bee app is more exciting, like the music — fast and a little ‘scary’ at certain parts, and the characters are more cartoony, with larger features, like big eyes that blink.”

Updated 11:52 am, May 28, 2013
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