Sunday, November 13, 2005

Classical Music

I'm wondering today about how the classical arts are introduced to children. Please read on and see if your experiences are anything like mine...

When I was a kid in elementary school, we took field trips to hear classical music concerts and see the ballet. I'm not going to lie. I was totally bored by these experiences. It's interesting how these early experiences defined my impression of music because I haven't given classical concertizing (or ballet) much positive thought in the intervening thirty years. Sure, I bought some CDs, but I generally play classical music as the background to other things. Shameless, I know, but probably pretty common.

Fast forward to last night. My friends Barbara Seisel and Keith Torgan invited us to a recital that Barbara was giving in Poughkeepsie, about an hour north of our home in Yorktown, NY. Did I jump up in down saying, "Oh, boy! A chance to reinvestigate the classical world?" No, siree. In fact. I asked the person taking our tickets how long the show was going to be. I did NOT have high expectations.

Ironically, this indifferent state is the ideal way for me to be exposed to something wonderful. I've enjoyed many plays, records or museums when I entered with a feeling of numbness or ho-hummness. Last night was no different. And while I can't say that I left the theater a converted disciple of the classical idiom, I did connect to the experience.

As I've gotten older, I have been attracted to things like quiet time, reading, meditation, yoga and journal writing. I am more reflective, less prone to the quick fix of rock 'n roll and more attracted to the vision of falling leaves or a good historical novel. It should come as no surprise, then, that I'm coming into a life passage where classical music might be more relevent to me. Perhaps I'm ready to recognize and appreciate what I've been too busy to hear. And, I think, this type of music was introduced to me too early as a child. In fact, I was turned off by the stuffiness of the concert hall! Is this true for others like me? You bet.

I know from my conversations with Barbara that she worries about the state of classical music in our culture. She is searching for ways to connect to kids. In fact, Barbara and her wonderfully talented husband, Keith, have begun to do concerts that introduce children to the classical idiom. To hear me enthusiastic about my experience via email today was probably the greatest compliment I could have given her. I hope I can help Barbara in her quest!

I know that many PTAs still insist on taking children to the ballet, opera and the symphony. Perhaps, we should all take a look at what we're taking them to see. Is Beethoven or Bach as appropriate as something more modern, edgy or visually stimulating? I encourage PTA moms to think less of what kids need (like vegetables) and more about what they might enjoy. No, I'm not suggesting junk food music. But I do know this: when I was eight years old my parents and my guitar teacher kept me interested in music by adapting to my likes and dislikes. If they had force-fed me music that did not appeal to me I would not be a musician today.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Home Concerts

Last night, Beth and I invited the neighbors over for an event we're calling "First Saturday". Every month, we're opening up our home to create an evening of singing and good times. By all accounts, this first "First Saturday" was a real hit! Our friends left with big smiles and some could even be heard singing "Kumbaya" as they paraded down the street to their home. Now, that's spreading a little joy, huh?

Although this post is a bit off-topic for "Music for Chidren", it's relevant if anyone out there is interested in hosting these types of events. I find it essential for adults to allow the child inside of them to be let out to play, don't you? Music, and folk rock music in particular, is certainly a way to help make that happen. We, all of us, have a connection to music and I'm very happy to open up our home to allow friends to express that part of themselves. Anyway, on with the story...

We were very nervous - as we always are - about bringing guests into our home. Beth and I don't throw a lot of parties, so we're kind of anxious in those couple of hours leading up to an event. I'm not kidding when I say that I felt like stopping the world for a minute to practice some deep breathing. Geez, do other people get so crazy when people are coming over to their homes? I'm sure that some of my nerves were based upon a desire to make everything work out "perfectly".

Nerves nonwithstanding, the event began and ended well. Guitars, mandolins, trombones and bass guitars were unpacked. Song sheets flowed around the room along with small percussion instruments and, yes, a glass or two of vino. We began with a song by The Band called "The Weight" and I magically felt the weight leave my shoulders as I began doing what I love best: singing, playing and being a pied piper. What fun!

It didn't take long for old friends and new ones to begin harmonizing, laughing and letting go of any inhibitions that they may have brought along with them. Every time I looked up, I saw smiles. It was fun to watch my friend Holly pick up a triangle for the perfect accent to a song, to watch Elliot switch between trombone and keyboards so effortlessly and hear Lenny keep us grounded with his bass. Next door neighbor, Bill, played and sang wonderfully on his beautiful Guild guitars and Beth, Dorit and Jen held down the women's vocal lines. Across the room, I watched Scott close his eyes to enjoy the warmth of the room while his wife Joy and friends Patty and Charles sang (or tapped along in Charles' case). A small and wonderful group, indeed, that I'm quite certain will return as the nucleus of future events.

One of the many blessings for me was the easy way in which people who had never or rarely played and sang together complimented one another so well. I return again to my thoughts of dis-ease that began the night for me and compare that with the way the evening actually played out. It's hard for me to express it in words because I feel so deeply connected to not the words, but to the feelings behind what occured here last night. I guess you just have to be there sometimes. "There" in this case meant being very present, emotinally and spiritually atuned.

To me, it's the best way to live.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

What is NOT arts-in-education or the truth about "Louder, Faster, Funnier"

Soapbox time.

We just returned from a school that had recently been burned by a performer who billed his act incorrectly as arts-in-education. I'm sorry, but that does all of us a diservice. In this case, it hurt the cultrual arts representative the most because she was embarrassed in front of her children's teachers and principal. The artist in question is someone we know, so I want to be purposely vague here. Suffice it to say that most of the cultural arts rep's that we know would not come in to contact with this fellow in their search for artists. He's more of a camp performer and I rarely see him associated with schools.

BEWARE the camp performers! They are talented people who are expert in making kids laugh. We call these folks, "Louder, Faster, Funnier". Many of us kids performers have elements of LFF in our acts, but it's not usually rich enough to have a show of all funny material in the average elementary school assembly program. Yes, family nights are an exception. And most cultural arts rep's know to call for references, see the performance beforehand, etc.

I have to compliment the school's arts rep. She called me before our show and explained that she had recently presented a performer who did not go over well and asked if we could change our show in order to turn 180 degrees away from what this other performer had done (said perfomer did a supposed character education show and we were scheduled to do the same). Together, the cultural arts rep. and I settled on a different program about literacy and I am happy to report that the show went extremely well, the teachers were thrilled and the cultural arts rep's reputation has been restored.

I wish I could report that this is a first for us or the schools we've played for. It ain't! Truth is, lots of schools hire GREAT arts-in-education performers every day, BUT some of them get ambushed when they aren't careful about checking out a performer. It is a life-changing experience for a cultural arts rep. when your teachers complain and your principal looks at you like you failed him. And all of this for a non-paid position! I feel terrible for these women. They are the essence of middle managers (caught between the children, the performers, the teachers and the principal) and they get a lot of grief from all sides. It's a wonder some of them stay with the jobs!

Some don't stay, of course. We have some wonderful relationships with schools where the arts rep. has been there through three children. What a joy! This is a job that definitely gets easier as you do it more often. Plus, one usually develops trust from the administration and the teachers and a relationship with a stable of performers.

I'll get into this more at another time, but it's my opinion that arts reps booking assembly programs should have 50% of their acts be artists who they repeat year after year (or every other year) and 50% new acts. Variety and consistency have to both be served in a successful arts program. For those schools doing lots of grade-level residencies, they can have even a larger percentage of returning artists. It's also worth mentioning that because this position is a voluntary one, it should not be made too difficult. If an artist is successful (90% of the people give it a "5" on a scale of "1-5"), then by all means repeat the success. "If it ain't broke..."

This may sound like a self-serving thing to promote because I benefit from the school's that have me return regularly. This is true. However, they don't have us back ONLY because they feel warm and fuzzy about Beth and Scott. There's something we're doing every song, every performance, year after year that's working. What is that? Well, that's the essence of what arts-in-education IS and that's a subject for a later time.