Presenting music for children

I am not often convinced by orchestral concerts for children. It’s not that I think they don’t engage – they are often highly engaging and fun – it is more that I am not sure they provide a lasting impact on the children. Often, these concerts are designed – at least in part – to introduce children to instruments of the orchestra, or to focus their listening on aspects of music that is possibly completely unfamiliar to them. I’m not convinced that this outcome of knowledge or familiarity/recognition is retained by the children. I am more interested in interactive, participatory environments where children make their own discoveries and feel a sense of agency and input over what takes place in the musical space.

When I sat down with the student representatives from the Academy of Music (where I am directing the Community and Outreach program this year) I was a little dismayed to find them clinging so steadfastly to the idea of presenting a concert to children. I’d hoped we might move a little beyond that format in this program. However, their argument was strong: they are engaged in music-making and concerts as their principal activity at the Academy, so that is where their attentions and energies are being placed. Quite a number of them already have prior experience in presenting music to children in different formats, and they felt this was something they’d like to do as part of their community and outreach commitments this year.

So we set about planning a concert. We talked about repertoire (it needed to be based on music the students had already performed this year in the public concerts, due to limited rehearsal time), audience size (60 was deemed a good number to aim for, not too large, not too small), and options for staging the concert (we had a large, fairly flexible space to perform in, and the musicians liked the idea of performing in the round, with children quite close to them).

Establishing a dialogue

The concerts are going to be preceded by classroom visits, with the musicians going into the participating school in groups of 2 or 3 to meet the students and engage them in some kind of dialogue. The might play to them, they might lead them in some music-based games or activities, and they can also give them a heads-up about the concert and some of the music that will be performed. In this way, every child attending the concert will have met up to 12 of the musicians they see performing that day. They will know their names, will know about their instrument, and will have shared some kind of exchange with them.

Playing with the space

This project, of school visits followed by a concert, is taking place this week, and I am feeling very excited by what we have planned. The concert program starts with solo music, moving through duets, trios, quartets etc, until there is a full chamber orchestra performing. The music being performed is not typical ‘children’s concert’ music – there is quite a lot of contemporary music being performed, including a piece for amplified solo flute, interspersed with pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Academy’s slogan this year is “Music is everywhere”, and we are creating a very flexible performance space with the help of 16 ‘baffles’ (large space-dividers on wheels) that will start in the shape of a closed octagon, but with individual baffles being wheeled open to reveal different performers so that the music is indeed coming from every direction, and in unexpected ways. The children will be sitting on pillows and cushions (which they’ll bring with them) inside the baffles.

Participation and inclusion

Between each set, the children in the audience will be led by one of the musicians to create a soundscape that will flow into the opening of the next piece. These will be simple (such as asking everyone to lightly one finger onto the palm of the hand) and will relate in sound to the number of players they are about to hear (eg. quiet sounds prior to the solo instruments, slightly louder for the duos, etc).

I’m really looking forward to working on this project with the students this week. I feel like a lot of the misgivings I usually have about concerts for children have been addressed in this project plan, and I am keen to see how the children respond to the experience. Will they enjoy making soundscapes and hearing their sounds get taken up by the musicians? Will they go along with the flow of the concert that is designed not to need any speaking or instruction for the children? Will they be able to fall into the music, and be carried along by it? Will they be excited and engaged by the musicians’ visits to their classrooms and have lots of questions? What will the musicians take from the experience that is different to what they take from the standard performance program?

We’re documenting it. I’ll put a link up to any photos that get posted after the event.

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