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Adults Only!
Educational activities shouldn't be directed exclusively toward children.

by Holly Mulcahy
October 1, 2007

Along with the beginning of their regular performance series, many orchestras are launching their educational activities. Among the most common educational efforts are having the orchestra travel to local schools to perform what are commonly referred to as in-school concerts. This is something I have experienced on both ends. When I was in second or third grade, my school took a trip to see the Denver Symphony in Boettcher Concert Hall.

Sadly, the concert was barely memorable for me. I do remember the permission slips being handed out by our general music teacher as well as thinking, "Oh great! We're going to get an afternoon of magic!" I thought we were going to go see a magic show because I misunderstood the teacher; so when she said "musicians" I heard "magicians." Darn! So when I sat down in my seat and watched the orchestra filter on stage, I was disappointed.

At home later that evening while gobbling up my snack at our kitchen counter, my mom asked, "How was the symphony?" Um, what should I say? Should I admit I misunderstood the point of the field trip and embarrass myself? Or just tell the other part of the truth which was that I spaced out for the whole thing and was bored. I decided I'd tell her a little of both: "It was okay, I would have rather watched a magician pull rabbits from a hat than a bunch of violinists playing slow stuff." Then my mom said this, "Well, did you at least learn anything?" The vapid look in my eyes probably answered it for me.

As the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young and now that I'm on the other side of the fence during in-school concerts I often wonder what kids are thinking during the school performances. Do these kids really learn anything during these concerts? I try to find the answers by watching them and here's what I observe:

  • Whenever the teachers are out of sight, most of the students talk among themselves.
  • A number fidget with their hands or hair, some even spin on the floor if chair aren't provided.
  • A precious few seem to enjoy the concert

Although I've been at this game for well over a decade, I never see what happens with any of these kids. More to the point, I never know if those few who seem to be paying attention ever turn into patrons.

As I look back to when I was a kid, I emulated much of what my parents did. My dad was interested in sailing, so was I. My mom liked to cross country ski, I wanted to do that too. They never really went to symphony concerts until my brother and I started playing instruments in school ensembles. It wasn't that they didn't like classical music, it was that they were never really invited into the world of the orchestras the way that many orchestras invite children into their world.

Of course there are some efforts out there such 4th of July concerts, parks concerts, lunch concerts, and coffee series concerts but what would happen if the same energy and resources were put into bringing parents into the educational concerts as there are toward school children? I think orchestras could benefit from offering free educational concert for adults only while the kids are at school. Think of it as a concert where information about the instruments in an orchestra, the composers, the rhythms and meter could be shared as well as dispelling concert-going myths to make the experience less anxious. This would be a fabulous way to introduce the symphony and hopefully offer parents a new way to share something with their children and, even better, a way for children to see their parents enjoying something.

Often, my symphony proclaims that they are serving the community by brining music ten thousand school children a year. This is most often followed up by mentioning that these are the new patrons of tomorrow. Really? Show me the proof. They never deliver any proof although these educational activities have been going on for decades before I arrived. Still, the orchestra keeps bringing up the education card because of the grant money it brings in. Fine, I don't have a problem with them finding more money for the organization; but I have to wonder what good it does for most orchestras that continue to design mild variations on a very tired educational theme.

Ultimately, I would love to see some different ways to develop "future patrons" beyond the drive-by elementary school concerts that are all too common such as focusing more attention toward parents. I developed my own love for skiing, hiking, and sailing today strictly because I entered into those activities by emulating my parents. Learning to love what they love has created hobbies and appreciations that will last my life time. Having an opportunity for parents to learn about and enjoy classical music might help breed the same love of classical music for today's kids as I developed watching my parents hike and ski when I was a kid.

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