If you read the Sunday paper early, it might be a good idea to pack the kids into the car and drive to Ogunquit’s Dunaway Center in time for today’s free 12:30 p.m. concert by the world-renowned Cassatt String Quartet. If no kids are available, the program, like all good music for children, will appeal to adults as well.

The quartet, on its way to the Salt Bay Chamberfest in Vinalhaven, will present a one-hour program with guest artist pianist Adrienne Kim titled “A World of Pure Imagination.”

It will begin with “Nature in Music,” which includes bird calls and music inspired by the New England countryside.

The second segment,  “Imagination in Music,” describes how ideas generate feelings that can be translated into drawings and music. Noted composer Laura Kaminsky will talk about the way painting and music can relate to one another, with examples from her string quartet “Cadmium Yellow” (2010).

The final episode is called “Dance Partners,” showing how instruments fit together: “Do you have to stay with the same partner the whole time? Can you be by yourself? How do we stay together without stepping on each other’s toes?”

To me, this is one of the best ways to get children interested in classical music: by involving their curiosity and enabling them to connect it to their own experience, without dumbing it down. Children can detect condescension a mile away.

They also love to be involved. The most popular spot in our house is the music room, where they can blow on recorders or slide whistles, beat the drum, try to get a sound out of  a didgeridoo or bang on the piano. If it doesn’t break strings to play Bartok, a child can’t do too much damage, although my piano tuner disagrees. 

Bartok is always a hit, although children will stand still for Debussy too, if it’s a live performance and not too long. Bartok’s loud tone clusters and dissonances make them jump for joy and shout, “Let me try it!” Mozart’s five-octave stretch (use your nose) is also popular, like instantly learning “Joy to the World,” a descending C-major scale.

The point is that children cannot be mere listeners unless there is something exciting going on, like a march to the gallows or Papageno playing the magic flute. Come to think of it, opera, in small doses, might also be a good introduction to the classics. But probably not — too much soupy love stuff.

The best predictor of musical enjoyment at a young age is musical parents, especially those who play an instrument. Exposure is all. Children tend to imitate the grown-ups they’re around and to consider what they are brought up with the natural order of things.

It doesn’t take much. My mother’s only piano piece was one she had learned as a child: “Where the Shy Little Violets Grow,” with a ragtime beat. We all loved it and would pester her to play it every time she got near a piano. It was my ambition to play anything that well.

Later, when I got a little better, she wanted me to play “Stardust,” the “St. Louis Blues” and a Tchaikovsky Romance, when I wanted to play “Malaguena” like a kid I had heard on the radio. (I don’t think he was very good, but it sounded miraculous to me.) My sister and I auditioned for a radio talent show because we knew all the songs in “Oklahoma!” forward and backward and could imitate all the voices. The judges thought the material was inappropriate for preteens. Then I was a boy soprano, an Irish tenor and finally a piano player.

It doesn’t matter how “serious” the music is, as long as it is a constant presence and paid real attention to, something that seems impossible nowadays with the multitude of easy and inconsequential  choices available to every kid with an iPod. When music is “background,” it isn’t music. The real danger is that it will be diluted out of existence.

I have been thinking for a long time about introducing children to the classics, especially because readers often lament the prevalence of white hair in the audience. Well, even rappers will eventually have white hair.

Classical music will always be there, and there will always be a select audience for it, even if it’s only in the palace of an oligarch. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

classbeat@netscape.net