Teaching & Learning: Music To Their Ears

February 01, 1994 6 min read

Sitting in the hall’s red plush seats and admiring its gold-leaf adorned balconies, one can easily imagine being back in the 19th century. But this moment of reverie is quickly interrupted by the clamor of young voices, which drowns out the sound of the musicians warming up, save for the booming timpani.

“Hey, I know that kid!’'

“Get out of the way, dummy.’'

The thud, thud, thud of children tromping down the aisle adds to the commotion.


The lights dim, and the audience screams.

The concert is part of a broad effort by the Philadelphia Orchestra to reach out to students in the city’s metropolitan area. Other components include classroom instruction, a visiting-musician program, a student music com- petition, weekend children’s concerts, and a newsletter.

Such efforts here and in other cities to nurture future aficionados of great music have become an increasingly critical mission for the nation’s symphony orchestras as they grapple with the issues of aging audiences, declining subscriptions, and rising budget deficits.

Meanwhile, the number of public schools offering music education has been declining steadily since the 1960s. General music classes are available in just 35 percent of small secondary schools and in 20 percent of large ones, according to a report released last summer by a task force of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

The report, Americanizing the American Orchestra, warns that if orchestras are to survive and thrive in the 21st century, they must address recent demograph- ic shifts and the increased competition for public and private funds. “Without significant change,’' the report asserts, “orchestras could easily become both culturally and socially irrelevant, and the orchestra field would have missed an opportunity to evolve into a revitalized musical and cultural force in this country.’'

While many symphony orchestras have long offered children’s concerts, what makes this performance in Philadelphia different is that, both before and after the concert, the students spend time in the classroom learning about the music on the program, the composers, and the instruments used onstage. In an effort to encourage an interdisciplinary, thematic approach, the orchestra distributes a lesson guide developed by area teachers who serve on an advisory council. Exhibits with a complementary theme are also on display at the Franklin Institute of Science and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In addition, the format of the concert itself is animated and interactive. As students begin arriving about an hour before the performance, Phyllis Susen, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s education director, takes the stage to explain several musical concepts.

Then, Charlotte Blake Alston, a storyteller, energetically recounts a folk tale with an audience-participation segment in which students shout, “Oh yeah!’' when cued.

Later, the children are encouraged to ask questions from microphones in the aisles. “How much do you have to practice to play in an orchestra?’' one child asks. “What are those pipes for?’' inquires another, pointing to the hall’s organ.

Local educators praise the orchestra’s thorough approach. “One of the things we like about it the most is it’s not a oneshot-deal type of concert,’' says Carol Shiffrin, the reading specialist at Guion Bluford Jr. Elementary School, a public K-5 school in West Philadelphia with a largely African-American enrollment. Shiffrin, who also serves on the orchestra’s advisory council, prepares three pre- and post-concert lessons for the classes attending the event. The students will also devote about six regular music classes to concert material.

The theme of this concert, the first of the school year, is “Tiers of Sound,’' and the orchestra manual encourages instructors to compare the layers of sound in music with related concepts in science, art, literature, and other subjects.

One piece on the program, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for violin, viola, and orchestra, features teenagers Rachel Segal and Burchard Tang, two winners of the orchestra’s annual student competition.

A week earlier, 5th graders at Bluford Elementary had discussed the pros and cons of being a child prodigy. And on the day before the performance, Shiffrin read from a biography of Mozart and encouraged the youngsters to consider the different layers of influence in his work. “What made a difference in Mozart’s life?’' she asked, urging the students to think in terms of people, places, and events. Later, she taught them to dance the minuet.

Not far away at Indian Lane Elementary School, a brand-new school in Media, Pa., with a largely white enrollment, another 5th grade class was learning about the polyphonic counterpoint featured in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Teacher David Woods tried to help the students comprehend the layers of a fugue by having them sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat’’ as a round. He also divided them into four groups and told each to repeat a letter of the alphabet in various pitches.

Later, Woods played recordings of “Fugue for Tin Horns,’' from Guys and Dolls, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D, encouraging his students to listen for the different parts to enter.

At the concert the next day, student Erin Patrick says she “wants to hear one instrument by itself, to hear what it really sounds like.’' Nick Fox, a classmate, adds: “I think it’s very interesting for a 5th grade class like us to see music played by one of the greatest orchestras in the world.’'

So far, the student-concert series seems to be a hit. Since Susen arrived in 1988, ticket sales for the series have risen from 68 percent of the house’s capacity to 94 percent last year. And two of this season’s three concerts are already sold out.

Elsewhere around the country, symphony orchestras are employing similar approaches to establish connections with schoolchildren in their communities. Mary Wayne Fritzsche, education and outreach director for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, believes that orchestras need to cultivate students both as listeners of and participants in music. As a result, the MSO program encourages students to “get inside the process from start to finish’’ by reading about, writing, performing, and listening to music. One group of 2nd through 5th graders even created its own instruments from found objects--such as boards, buckets, and bottles-- and put on a performance for orchestra musicians.

And during a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert this past fall on the theme “Courage,’' slides of art that students created while listening to Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia’’ were projected when the piece was played. Several high school students also served as narrators and vocalists for the performance.

Donald Thulean, vice president for orchestra services at the American Symphony Orchestra League, views the wide-ranging outreach efforts as critical to the future of all orchestras. “Orchestras’ product is serious art music,’' he says, “and art music needs a certain threshold of awareness and introduction in order for one to become interested in it. We need to make sure we have a wide spectrum of people for whom both the institution and the literature are important.’'

“Man does not live on Pearl Jam alone,’' adds Doug Bauer, a program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, referring to the Seattle rock band. The foundation provides funding for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But Bauer observes that there is “a real concern among many cultural leaders and artistic leaders as to who their audiences are going to be...when music education is constantly on the chopping block because of budget concerns.’'

“If [the interest] is not instilled in them as children,’' Bauer wonders, “what’s going to happen when they’re adults?’'--Meg Sommerfeld

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Teaching & Learning: Music To Their Ears