Children’s Concerts: A Personal Discussion of Goals and Content

April 21, 2013

Increasingly, studies are showing the overwhelmingly positive effect of great music upon the human intellect and spirit. Higher test scores, better discipline, a greater sense of cooperation with peers all seem to result from contact with great art. It is important to realize that these benefits were garnered, not after presenting children with a snappy, high-tech education “product” with defined “objectives,” but simply after untutored exposure to Mozart. In this light we can confidently rethink certain assumptions about the goals and construction of children’s concerts, placing the emphasis back on the music. Perhaps after all, opening up the confining mental and spiritual boundaries of our lives is the crucial concert experience for young audiences, just as it is for adults.

When physicist Neils Bohr dreamed up his quantum theory, he was not thinking about the ideas leading to television, radar, laser surgery, space travel, or any other practical application that has since come from that theory, and could not have come without it. He was, rather, interacting with the universe in a very intense, at times cerebral, and at times intuitive way. He was interacting, observing, and experiencing the phenomena of the world for no apparent purpose but to find out more about it.

Any truly creative thought has this element of the love of discovery at its core. Art functions predominantly in this realm. It is for this reason perhaps that great music has proven to be such a balm for adults and children when we feel limited by the particulars of our own lives.

In selecting music for a children’s program I use criteria similar to programming a subscription concert. Of course, the length of a children’s concert is shorter. In both cases I know I will be leading demonstrations about pieces, which somehow, I hope, interact with each other to form a cohesive program. Here are my children’s concert criteria:

• The piece or pieces should be great music
• I, myself, must have strong feelings for the music
• The piece should be uncut, if possible–at least a complete movement
• The piece should have an immediacy, and some highlightable essence (and what great work of music does not have many?!)
• The piece should be no longer than 25 minutes to accommodate demonstrations, performance, and usually a “hands-on” conducting lesson in a 45-minute program (an external criterion).

Most children’s concerts I have attended have seemed bound by the popular notion that children have short attention spans, and so the format must be loaded with sound bites to resemble television, to which kids are all addicted. This thinking is both fatalistic and, I believe, fatal–for the arts, and for our children. The error may well stem from a misguided lack of faith in the fundamental power of great orchestral music, and for that matter in the perspicacity of our children. The current “remedy” is to over-package, to sell, to dilute.

Like most of my colleagues, I believed this approach to be a necessary evil. However, I have since had the good fortune to see firsthand the possible validity of these assumptions evaporate. This discovery was not based upon personal bravery or conviction, but rather upon an accident of circumstance.

The first children’s concert I performed was with Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, where we did not have the possibility of a double prep–we had to perform the same music for our children’s program as for our subscription concert. The subscription program was one I inherited. The best choice from that program was Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, a 16-minute piece. We were to perform for inner city children in Baltimore, who were not supposed to like music by a dead white Russian male. But that was the hand I was dealt and while the work is certainly “suitable” children’s fare, I had only that material–those 16 minutes of music–to work into a full 45-minute program. I scripted a story to accompany the piece, demonstrated with orchestral cues key points in the story, and played the piece to a thrilled audience. (I will confess to having made a small cut, as it was my first children’s concert and I was nervous about a full 16-minute chunk of uninterrupted music.) Since then I have performed to similar audiences such works as the first movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 7 (12 minutes, without repeat), with no story line and only timpani for percussion! This was coupled with the finale of a contemporary work, Larry Bell’s Symphony No. 2 in its premiere performance. In another instance, I was forced into a date switch and found myself performing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (22 minutes) again to inner city Baltimore children. I was more daring and performed it without cuts, and you could have heard a quark whisper.

My experiences scripting and performing 25 different programs for children has convinced me that the following basic notion is wrong: Play a lot of short pieces with a lot of variety and noise to keep kids’ attention, the more forms of sensory stimulation the better. To the contrary, I have noticed when you perform smorgasbord of pieces, kids, like adults, don’t necessarily remember any one work well, and they lose their focus. More importantly, an orchestra will not compete well with television if it is trying to be television. Television is more colorful, has better special effects, and the actors are likely better looking than orchestra musicians, certainly than the conductor in my case.

However, an orchestra can, on its own terms, work on a child’s (or an adult’s) imagination. A great piece of music can create a world of more active listening, precisely because a 15-20 minute piece of music brings us in gradually as it unfolds. It slows down the heart rate and seduces concentration; by provoking the individual listener’s imagination to co-create, the music and each listener jointly tell a story, or jointly construct a world together. Kids are starved for this kind of experience today. This is why we play children’s concerts, either in the schools or the concert hall: so that our children can learn and be stimulated in a way the classroom cannot provide; so that children’s intuition, their imagination, their hearts, and their minds can be free to experience a connection so compelling that they will want to be drawn in further. And we should let them be drawn in wholly–free from the distraction of being repeatedly yanked out of that world of discovery, free from the intrusion or judgment from adults or peers, free from a preconceived (and therefore, by definition, limiting) application thought up and imposed by the conductor/teacher.

I certainly do not want to minimize the “learned” aspects of composing, performing, or listening to great music. While the excitement of a first encounter with a work of art is what I deeply hope to engender in a young person’s concert, children also need to be gently awakened to the idea of building a long, deepening relationship with a given piece. Actually, they have already experienced this “discipline” all their lives in their repeated and eventually embellished readings of their favorite stories and songs. Consequently, when I discuss a piece, I “take it apart,” perhaps demonstrating orchestration, or even pointing out melodic or rhythmic constructions in hopes of underscoring the magic of the whole work. All the better if I succeed in encouraging the beginnings of a relationship with that piece.

Admittedly, this experiential approach makes it difficult to print up a study guide for a concert. But, I fear too often pieces are used merely as vehicles to demonstrate the conventionalized elements of music, so that we as educators can pat ourselves on the back and point out to grantors what the students have “learned” concretely. The goal of attaining a preformed objective is antithetic to the kind of open-ended discovery where art (and this kind of children’s program) thrives. The preformed objective does not readily live in the realm where the human spirit astonishes itself.

An analogy to the visual arts serves well here. No discussion leader would pass out a close-up detail of one of the graces’ noses in Botticelli’s “Prima Vera” to highlight brush-stroke technique without working toward some enthusiastic portrayal of the effect of the whole work. Certainly the group would at least have the whole painting in reproduction shown to them.

So, as we incorporate ways of listening into an educational program, we should strive to make a work in its entirety strike home as powerfully as possible. In other words, we should strive simply to intensify the listener’s focus. And that focus should be on the featured work of art, not on some educational theme, because that work of art will enrich the listener’s life in ways that we as musicians and educators cannot preconceive, and in ways that are very different from other kinds of enriching experiences students usually have. Put another way, can we really expect an educational theme to whet a child’s appetite to return, with his or her parents, to the concert hall? Would we not rather trust the subtle, immediate, and powerful currents of a great work of art, introduced with imaginative yet subordinated contexts and landmarks? I have never met a musician who remembers what educational theme got him or her hooked as a child, but most every one can tell you which piece it was. (It is therefore critical that performers and administrators approach a children’s concert with as much internal artistic motivation as a subscription concert. Young audiences may not necessarily be able to distinguish between various levels of technical polish, but they can sense commitment in a live performance–or its opposite, boredom and lack of focus in a perfunctory reading.)

Therefore, in scripting and conceptualizing a program, it is my primary “objective” to provide the audience with a doorway into the music, that contextualizes it without limiting its mysteries. If there is more than one work on the program, I do construct a theme for the concert; but it is usually a broad theme, with the intention of merely pointing out a connection among the works rather than becoming the gestalt of the concert. When I compose a story line for children, I work hard to give it enough specificity so that the mind of metaphor is kindled; but I also intend to leave enough room for the individual listener to fuel its flames.

Below is the welcoming text, geared for listeners of all ages, that I distribute for family concerts. (For children’s concerts in the schools, teachers generally recommend not distributing any paper at assemblies.) I hope it loosens up the listener enough to engage actively and intimately in an experience that may just change a life, sustain one, deepen another…

Hello, Everyone! The concert hall is a magical place, because wherever we come together to perform and listen to great music, we enter the world of imagination. What you will hear today will be live. Nothing is recorded. (We don’t even use microphones for the instruments!) Because the concert is live, it is special, different from seeing a movie or watching TV. It’s like the difference between visiting with a friend face to face, instead of just reading his or her letter. Because the music is live, you, the listener, are taking part in something that is being created at this very moment!

Your part as member of the audience is very important. Without you, there can be no sharing of beautiful (or rough, or exciting) sounds, no sharing of impressions or feelings. In order for the concert to be special, all you have to do is listen and let the sounds work on your imagination. Your own imagination will, in turn, unlock feelings from this exciting and rich music.

After the concert, I will look forward to talking to you about what you liked about the pieces, what they sounded like to you. I am often surprised to find out the many different things people hear and feel in music. You can also share your ideas with your family and friends. There are no right or wrong answers, only a magical world that you can enter as far as your imagination will take you!

So perhaps orchestras, conductors, and teachers must take the lead with education boards, tell them that their objectives seem restrictive to us, but not because we are libertines, or flaky. We do not trust “objectifying” music because that very process shackles something which we as musicians instinctively know needs to be as limitless as possible. Most educational philosophers since Pythagoras have emphasized the critical need for music, not just for its own sake, but in the development of mental and social capacities. At last, science is proving that what we have intuited all along is true: Nothing can pave the neural pathways more surely, quickly, and enjoyably for the syntax of language, the proportions of math, the disciplines of critical thinking, creative problem-solving, patience, and cooperation with peers and adults, than experience with great music. And if we allow art just to be, to function as art, and if we keep nurturing that core of our humanity maybe, just maybe the center can hold.