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Adults Only!

Educational activities shouldn't be directed exclusively toward children.

by Holly Mulcahy
October 1, 2007

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Adults Only!

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.

Comments (2)

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Ron Spigelman from Springfield MO writes:
October 8, 2007
This is not an ambush but maybe a first? This semester I am teaching my audience connections class at Drury University in Springfield MO (Drew knows all about the class) and I was getting ready to post a comment when I thought it would be a good idea for the class to post one! There are four in the class and they represent Music, Dance, Music Theater and even Architecture! I don’t know if this has been done in the past, it does make for a rather long comment! I will add something later, it is a great subject to bring up as it is such an Achilles heel for so many arts groups. Ron Spigelman
Here goes:

Dan: Children's musical education should not just be developing future patrons. I believe that there should be equal opportunity for adults and children to become educated musically. I agree to some extent that children learn from emulating their parents, however, certain things do not translate. If a child does not like classical music, even if their parents do, they may not like classical music. And that is ok. Not everyone enjoys the same things. Some people would prefer to go sailing, some would prefer a trip to the movies, some would prefer hearing Rachmaninoff on stage. No amount of education can force someone to enjoy something they do not like. People can appreciate the talent, skill and fortitude needed to perform music professionally (or sail for that matter), but that does not mean that they have to love every second of it. I also agree that adult music education could be beneficial. I believe many adults would be willing to pay to learn. But more importantly that adding an extra source of revenue, adult education could bring about appreciation of music, and in turn, cultivate a love for it. However, this is subjective to the person. Education in any form should not have the primary goal to make money, build audiences, or develop patrons. Education should be to educate those who do not know. What happens after that is up to the individual.

Katie: Interesting idea, Holly. However, I feel presenting an “educational” program for parents is even more berating and elitist than doing a show for children. It seems to say, “Since you don’t know jack about music and good parents do know about music, we’ll teach you something at our just-for-parents day.” Boo! I would be insulted if my child came home with a note in her backpack telling me to attend this.

I do think you make a good point that education should involve all ages. Keeping with your idea of children and parents, I feel a better idea would be to offer such a free concert to entire families. In my family, the arts were always a way to connect – a common vocabulary to use. Some families have nothing to bind the ties. We can change that. In a society where the idea of spending quality time together is foreign, let us use art to create a consuming learning experience as well as something with which a family can engage and interact.

Maybe patrons will come of these free concerts, and maybe they won’t. But who really cares? Sure, we all want to touch a life – and hopefully one day that life will come back and buy a ticket. But in the end, I think that is a shallow goal for any group that cashes in on “educating” or “enriching” the community.

Amy: I remember those educational activities and field trips, and often times I would have preferred a magic show, too! However, I think the “precious few” who enjoy the concerts are the key. I can specifically remember being fascinated by a gospel choir that visited my elementary school. Then in middle school, a trip to a local art museum stands out in my mind as the first time I recognized the wide variety of artistic creations. Vocal music and fine arts are now two things that I study. I agree that many children will not find value in such events, but they give children the opportunity to observe the arts. These observations could allow kids to appreciate something new, and maybe even influence their future.
Ellie: While I might agree that the arts have created a "very tired educational theme", I don't think it is an irrelevant theme. I think it simply needs to be woken up, expanded on, and explored more in depth... that is, we need to find out what would make a kid as excited about a symphony performance as they might be about a magician. I.e. make the performance interactive or add visual elements to the performance rather than just the usual audio... Or -go crazy- get the kids to play the come participate in the performance- maybe play an instrument???? I'm sure there are many more creative ideas to be acted upon than the previously listed, but the point I'm getting to is that gearing the arts towards students is not a lost cause. I can tell you, as a child who grew up in a home with parents in the medical profession whose passions were science and history, camping, and football, that the argument that a child will grow to enjoy only the things their parents enjoy is simply untrue. While I do enjoy similar things as my parents I also can still remember my first school trip to see a ballet at a local theater and how inspired I was at the age of 6... Ever since then, my love of art has only grown. Now, while pursuing my undergraduate degree in arts administration and design arts, I also teach and choreograph ballet for the local ballet company, working closely with the town's arts council...I would say I'm a patron for the arts. On that note- it is my opinion that it is absurd for the arts' goal in these educational themes to simply be creating future patrons. Future patrons WILL be created if the focus of the arts is, instead of finding patrons, touching people's lives and inspiring them the way I was inspired the first time I saw Swan Lake or heard the Clair de Lune performed live or when I watch Michelle Kwan ice skate on t.v. While I don't think targeting adults more as an audience is an unwise decision for any arts group, I do think that children can be inspired just as easily if not more so. Even if they are not captivated in the way I was as I watched my first ballet, there is at least a seed planted that can continue to be grown, whether by their parents or other arts groups, teachers, friends, etc.

Holly Mulcahy writes:
October 10, 2007
Thanks to all the students that voiced opinions! Getting idea out there is a great way to improve the concert experience for generations. There is more covered on Drew's site, I have a lengthy comment posted for Oct. 11th.

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