Helping children appreciate classical music

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I found myself today at Atlanta Symphony Hall watching an event where the Atlanta
Symphony Orchestra was attempting to instill a love for classical music in
children.  Sadly, they did not succeed.  The closest they came to making a connection occurred when they attempted to play the pop song “Don’t Stop Believing” (currently popular because of Glee).

Don’t get me wrong.  I wanted them to succeed.  Our children should know the truth: much classical music is great music and humans have never created a better system for making music than a orchestra (and maybe never will).  Everybody knows that in the music business.  That is why even a trashy, cartoon show like Family Guy uses a full orchestra for their soundtracks.  Most popular music performed by a band consisting of a few drummers and guitars is pitiful in comparison to a symphony, and yet, that is the extent of what many of those children are familiar with.

In my (non-expert) estimation, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is fabulous.  They are a well-oiled machine where every note is silky smooth.  You really appreciate their sound on simple songs where there are a lot of unisons.  They had some timing issues today, but overall, they were great.  I have heard from many musicians in those circles that Atlanta has one of the best symphony orchestras in the United States (depending of course on whom you ask).  They failed on the pop tune because orchestras are just not good at every kind of music even though they will gamely try to play every type of music.

As I sat watching the show, it seemed easy to identify why they were failing to connect with children.  First of all, they incorporated a cheesey skit that was supposed to illustrate how symphony music is used in every day life, but it fell flat.  Secondly, they made no real attempt to package the music to appeal to children.  For example, they used two video screens that displayed various things during the music, and it resembled something my eight year old daughter might put together in Powerpoint, complete with grainy images and amateurish backgrounds.

I found myself calculating how much the concert was costing in musician pay and then wondering why they wouldn’t spend a few thousand dollars on decent actors and multimedia.  Are they under the impression that kids will be impressed just because there a lot of musicians playing music?

Actually, in my opinion, great music would indeed impress the kids; but first, they would have to do great music.  The pieces they played today were nice but hardly impressive.  Probably the most difficult and interesting piece was “Country Band March” by Ives but children do not understand that the randomness and perceived “wrongness” of that piece is exactly what makes it difficult. 

I might be naive, but I actually think that great music would connect with kids.  Maybe not immediately, but eventually.  That does not mean that they would have to run the show like a typical symphony performance where the musicians sit there like statutes.  They could, for example, take some time to explain how things work and the purposes of different instruments.  They could incorporate a little humor to break things up.  But they could make the performance about the great music rather than corny skits.

So, my opinion is that the ASO needs to decide which way they want to go.  Either they can dumb down the music and step up the packaging or they can step up with the music and let it stand on its own.  But, the mediocre music and the mediocre packaging of the music is what is causing their mission to fail.

What do you think?