Music To Their Ears

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

It is a few minutes before a Philadelphia Orchestra concert one crisp November morning at the Academy of Music.

Here inside this elegant hall, recently featured in Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, you can easily imagine yourself transported back to the 19th century, sitting in the hall's red-plush seats and admiring its gold-leaf adorned balconies, ready to enjoy an hour or two of exquisite classical music.

But this moment of reverie is quickly interrupted by the clamor of young voices. The cacophony of excited chatter 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 most of the audience screams.

A Critical Crossroads

This lively performance is one element in a broad effort by the Philadelphia Orchestra to reach out to students in the nation's sixth-largest school district. Other components include classroom instruction, a visiting-musician program, a student music competition, 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 1960's. General-music classes are available in just 35 percent of small secondary schools and 20 percent of large secondary schools, according to a report released last summer by a task force of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

If they are to survive and thrive in the 21st century, orchestras must address recent demographic shifts and the increased competition for public and private funds, concludes the report, "Americanizing the American Orchestra.''

"Without significant change,'' the report warns, "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 on stage.

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 B. 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 two microphones in the aisles.

"How much practice do you have [to do] to play in an orchestra?'' one child asks. "What are those pipes for?'' inquires another, pointing to the hall's organ.

Not a 'One-Shot Deal'

Local educators praise the orchestra's thorough approach.

"One of the things we like about it the most is it's not a one-shot-deal type of concert,'' says Carol Shiffrin, the reading specialist at Guion S. 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 three 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 year's first concert 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 disciplines.

One piece on the program is Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for violin, viola, and orchestra (K. 364), featuring Rachel Segal and Burchard Tang, two teenage winners of the orchestra's annual student competition.

A week earlier, the 5th-grade students had discussed the pros and cons of being a child prodigy. Now, the day before the performance, Shiffrin reads from a biography of Mozart and encourages the youngsters to consider the different layers of influence in his work.

"What made a difference in Mozart's life?'' she asks, urging the students to think in terms of people, places, and events. Later, she teaches 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 is learning about the polyphonic counterpoint featured in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

Teacher David Woods tries to help the students comprehend the layers of a fugue by having them sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat'' as a round. He also divides them into four groups and tells each to repeat a letter of the alphabet in various pitches.

"W,w,w,w,'' intones one group in deep tones. "X,x,x,x,'' shrieks another in high, shrill pitches.

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

Erin Patrick, one of the students, says at the concert the next day that she "wants to hear one instrument by itself, to hear what it really sounds like.''

"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,'' Nick Fox, a classmate, adds.

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.

Harold Klein, a violinist who is a 23-year veteran of the orchestra, says his main hope is that the children who attend the concerts "come away with some feeling of personal enrichment, that there is some form of small awakening to the world of the arts.''

Seeking Diversity

Elsewhere around the country, symphony orchestras are employing similar approaches to establish connections with schoolchildren in their communities.

Like Susen in Philadelphia, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's education and outreach director, Mary Wayne Fritzsche, believes that orchestras need to cultivate students both as listeners of and participants in music.

Hence, the M.S.O. 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--ranging from boards to buckets to bottles--and put on a performance for orchestra musicians.

And during a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert this 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.

Another key concern noted in the orchestra-league report is the racial and ethnic makeup of both orchestras and their audiences.

The vast majority of symphony orchestra musicians today--about 93.3 percent--are white, according to a 1991 orchestra-league survey of 146 of the nation's 640 orchestras. About half of the members coming from minority groups are Asian, but they still only represent 3.4 percent of orchestra members. About 1.6 percent of symphony musicians are African-American, 1.5 percent are Hispanic, and 0.2 percent are Native American.

In an effort to address the lack of diversity, since 1990 the Milwaukee orchestra has offered free weekly private lessons for middle and high school students who are members of minority groups. This year, 20 students will study with orchestra members who volunteer their time.

Beyond Pearl Jam

Donald Thulean, the vice president for orchestra services at the American Symphony Orchestra League, views this wide range of outreach efforts as critical to the future of all orchestras.

"Orchestras' product is serious art music, and art music needs a certain threshold of awareness and introduction in order for one to become interested in it,'' Thulean asserts. "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,'' agrees Doug Bauer, a program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, referring to the popular 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?''

Vol. 13, Issue 15, Pages 30-31

Published in Print: December 15, 1993, as Music To Their Ears
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories