Monday, June 25, 2012

Children and the Arts

So here's a post that was meant to go up Thursday night (June 21, 2012) BUT my poor computer went kaput.  So, here it is now, by way of the library computer lab...

This week Interlochen hosted their High School Institutes and this evening the Bassoon and Cello Institutes wrapped up their runs with a little night music.  Since today was my day off, I was able to attend both concerts as a regular audience member and am so thankful I did because they were the perfect happy ending to a kind of up and down day.  Both concerts were full of children, campers and their usually much younger siblings, and both reminded me (on a day I needed reminding) why I want to work in the arts and why it's so important to get our children involved in the arts.  Now, it doesn't take much more than a performer to smile at the tone of a note or furrow their brow in concentration for my heart to swell and be reminded of how much I'm looking forward to getting to work with artists in the future so I'm not going to talk about that today.

What I want to talk about is why children should be exposed to the arts as early and as often as possible...even if it means bringing them to a concert you're not sure they can sit through.  This evening at the bassoon concert I sat in front of a father and his little two year old boy who were there to see the little boy's sister play.  The little boy was very excited and so, naturally, he was squirmy and talkative.  I love children very much, to the point that even a screaming baby on an airplane doesn't bother me, so I may be an exception here, but I absolutely adored having this little chatterbox behind me.  He came to that concert with the kind of energy producers and administrators want every audience member to have.  This little boy was so thrilled to get to hear music (especially since it was his sister playing it) that I don't think he wanted to be anywhere else in the world for those forty-five minutes.  Bassoons have a unique, gorgeous, and often hilarious sound and throughout the concert (which featured pieces that played up the humor of the instrument) this little boy laughed and laughed and laughed and exclaimed "Funny!" whenever the adults in the audience joined him.  He sat in his seat and buzzed his lips together to imitate the sounds when he liked them and would crawl and dance along the pew as well, much to his father's chagrin.

I don't know about the rest of the audience but for me and I think for the older couple in front of me as well, this little addition to the program was a touching experience.  Children have the purest, most visceral reactions to life.  We see it in the way they play, the way they eat their food (and turn it away), and in the way they engage with art.  A child is not afraid to laugh when something is funny and let me tell you, every time this particular little boy broke out his belly laugh, I was right there with him.  Looking over my shoulder at this child I had never met and who was nearly two decades younger than me, making eye contact, and laughing together at the contra bassoon that sounded like a grouchy bear was one of the most meaningful concert-going experiences I've ever had.  By being unafraid to express his honest reaction to a performance, a child of two facilitated the kind of inter-audience connection that artists and administrators strive to create and energized the space in a way that clearly made the young performers feel more at home on the stage.  No one but a child could do that.

But what about children who are more distracted and bored at concerts than this little one?  Of course they shouldn't be excluded from concerts but for some, especially their parents, they can be disruptive and embarrassing.  On countless occasions I've seen mortified parents leave a concert with their child in tow and wondered why they looked so humiliated.  Were they embarrassed that their child couldn't sit still?  Ashamed that their little one wasn't riveted to the spot by the performance?  I understand that there are certain ways we're expected to behave at concerts, part of my job at Interlochen is to enforce those protocols, but I just don't get why a child acting like a child at a concert or any other performance seems so taboo.  If a child is bored at a concert, isn't it likely that their boredom says more about the performance and the way it's presented than whether or not their mom and dad are capable parents?  After all, even those of us who love going to concerts or the theater have, on at least one occasion, and probably many more, been bored to tears by our experience.  It happens.  So what if, instead of making performance spaces into a kind of hallowed ground that will only accept children capable of behaving like adults, we alter the experience to be more inclusive?

This evening I also experienced one of these more distracted children, this time at the cello concert.  I was sitting a little behind and to the left of a family and midway through the concert noticed that their eleven year old son kept craning his neck and turning around to look up at the lights, architecture, and people rather than at the stage.  He'd look at the stage occasionally but it would never hold his attention for very long.  He had a pattern to the way he'd watch and after watching him for a while I realized that for whatever reason, these areas in the venue were the places he was interested in and curious about and I wondered if this was his brain's way of refocusing on the music.  Was his short attention span for the action on stage similar to the way our brains stop focusing on study materials after fifteen minutes?  If his taking a break from watching the stage was allowing him to process the music more effectively then shouldn't that be something we incorporate into the program and performance?  We take intermissions because they're a time for both the artists and audience to rest and refocus but what if we were to incorporate, particularly in orchestral concerts, a piece based on this natural spatial curiosity?

Those of you who have been to the Putnam Museum's IMAX Theater in Davenport, Iowa may remember that before each feature they would do a showcase of the Dolby Digital Surround Sound speaker system.  The screen would be lit from behind to show the speakers and a spotlight would highlight the speaker in question as the narrator would name them, describe their function, and then play a snippet of music demonstrating their sound quality.  As a child this always fascinated me often if a picture wasn't all that interesting, I would sit and listen to the sounds of the film, trying to connect them to their appropriate speaker, and in the end would have absorbed much more of the film than if my mind had just wandered off.  A similar, more low tech method of engaging students could easily be applied successfully to a live performing arts venue.

Imagine sitting in the audience after the lights have dimmed, knowing you're there to hear a concert, but seeing an empty stage.  Suddenly the music starts, a timpani roll from the back of the house, naturally you turn to find the source of the sound.  Then a trumpet blares and you turn quickly to see the trumpeter in one of the private boxes on house right.  The piece continues like this, music coming from all sides, and finishes in full orchestra which, because it's surrounding you, sounds like nothing you've heard before.  Although it might not work for every piece of music, when applied to a composition like Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" which was specifically created to break down the parts of the orchestra for young listeners, this technique would create a riveting, memorable performance.  You can listen to "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," accompanied by illustrations, on this brilliant site to see what I mean.  Britten's composition is memorable to begin with, it's been fifteen years and I still remember the first time I heard it and that was through the speakers of an aging boombox so just imagine how astounding the experience of sitting in a hall, surrounded by music on all sides, not knowing where it would come from next, would be for children.  (Ed. After reading this post, a friend pointed out that this performance of "The Eye of Providence"by the Dallas Wind Symphony Brass and The Hellcats from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is almost exactly what I'm talking about.  Even on a video recording, doesn't it just give you chills?)

Adaptations like this can make the concert and theater going experience more enjoyable and accessible for children of all ages.  Some might argue that making these sort of changes is a dumbing down of culture, that if you can't sit through a concert you shouldn't be there.  If my grandmother didn't read this blog I would probably use a choicer word, but she does so instead I'll just say, "That's baloney."  We never truly outgrow our childhood tendencies, our uninhibited awe, our squirminess, we just get better at hiding it.  To sit in a concert hall or theater with children who behave like children is a rewarding and revealing experience but too often children are excluded from the adult arts world.  We need to see more children in our audiences so for those of you with kids and grand kids at home, I challenge you to take them to a concert or a play and let them laugh and dance and sing along.  Unless the rest of the audience is full of Scrooge's, your child will brighten everyone's day by acting out what everyone else is feeling.  For those of you without little ones, the next time you're at a performance and see a child behaving like a child, let yourself enjoy them and take a moment to reflect on what you can learn from their honesty and joy.  Children and the arts are two of the greatest gifts in life.  When we bring them together, the results are often incredible and inspiring.


  1. Wow!!! You said it well Elizabeth!

  2. We used to be your Grandma Collin's neighbors on Oxford Dr.

    I have to tell you that I so enjoyed reading this Blog post Elizabeth!! You write extremely well - and I believe are 'right on' about children being exposed to the Arts. In my opinion it should happen as young as possible - and with all types of art/music/ plays etc. Who cares if they squirm a little. We all get squirmy at times.

    It's also important (and fun) to talk with children after a play or concert about what they heard and saw- as their perceptions can be so different from an adult's.

    I was on Davenport's Junior Theater board for 25 years. During that time I found it really inspiring to watch former actors & actresses from the program, introduce theater to THEIR children--- our future performers/audience members & supporters of the Arts. It always gave me that "Circle of Life" feeling.... awesome, really! :-) Best Wishes to You! Becky G.

    1. Hello! Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. You are absolutely right about talking to children after an arts outing, it's incredible how different their perceptions can be from ours and how much they can teach us. Also, "Circle of Life" is a great way to describe that arts connection. Children won't forget the people who took them to concerts and plays and galleries and even if they can't remember the name of the person who took them, they'll still remember the experience and want to pass it on. I've never met someone involved in the arts who didn't want to "pay it forward" in some way. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Best, Elizabeth