New Music for New Ears
Our bows hovered in stillness for as long as the ethereal, haunting feeling of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra lingered in the air. Slowly lowering our arms, the audience began to applaud, and then—the moment of truth—we broke down that fourth wall that formalizes the relationship between listeners and performers and asked the audience what they heard in Balter’s piece. At first, no one spoke. My body tensed as I thought, Oh no, they didn’t get it. And then, with a confident air of nonchalance, a three year old in the second row raised her hand. “Bumblebees!” she announced. “Yes!!” we agreed. We had joked in rehearsal about how the piece, with its pianissimo tremolos, did indeed resemble some sort of insect mating call. A few seconds later, a parent in the back tentatively spoke up. “Yellowstone,” she volunteered, explaining that her family had gone on vacation there a few years ago and the sounds in the piece reminded her of the beauty of the national park. Now that the ice was broken, kids and parents alike became more and more eager to share what they heard. “Wind chimes!” offered a nine year old. All the adults in the room oohed and aahed in agreement. After the concert, we asked several kids what their favorite piece was. Out of Haydn, Borodin, and Balter, all chose Balter. Note to self, we all thought, we should always program new music on kiddie concerts…
I have often noticed that kids have a greater attention span and much more curiosity about classical music than adults give them credit for. Performing this outreach concert at the Music Institute of Chicago not only confirmed my hunch, it also convinced me that children are incredibly open-minded and receptive to challenging music, not just the fluff on the “Mozart for Kids” CDs (What’s that? It will raise my child’s IQ?? I must buy it!). Furthermore, a child’s interest in a particular kind of music can influence their parents’ perspective. If that three year old, sitting on her papa’s lap, hadn’t made it known that she knew exactly what kinds of sounds Marcos Balter had been envisioning in his piece, the other adults in the room may not have thought up their own imaginative responses. In this case, the children inspired their parents to look at the concert experience in a more creative way, as opposed to the stiff and formal way adults have been programmed to think of classical concerts.
It’s exactly these thoughts that the City of Chicago’s recently appointed deputy commissioner for arts programming also seems to share. Angel Ysaguirre, formerly the director of Boeing’s global community investing, joined the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events just about a year ago, and is the driving force behind a new series at the Chicago Cultural Center. The Cultural Center already presents a multitude of free concerts for the public several days a week. Come February, they will begin offering a new series with a somewhat unprecedented concept. Its target audience is—wait for it—toddlers. And the gist of the so-called Juicebox series is to present high-quality avant-garde arts programming of all kinds—new music (both contemporary classical and jazz), theater and puppetry, and modern dance. Starting February 1, and continuing every two weeks at 10 a.m. on Fridays, the performance space under the Cultural Center’s beautiful Tiffany Dome will be transformed into, well, something that probably will resemble a preschool classroom. Kids will be invited to sit, lay on the floor, or, according to the folks from the Cultural Center, “roaming around the room is totally cool with us.” With snacks and juiceboxes on hand, they will have the opportunity to experience an art form that most parents would never think to introduce their kids to because they assume it’s just too difficult to understand. Parents and grandparents will be encouraged to bring their toddlers, and preschools will be invited to bring in entire classrooms. Lucky for me, I’ll have the honor of observing the small listeners from a very special perspective when my quartet performs on the series next month.
The way Ysaguirre sees it, children don’t really develop their own preferences for art and music until after they turn 8 or 9, and at that point, their tastes are shaped by their surroundings and social environment. For instance, if eight-year-old Mary’s older sister is always blasting the Jonas Brothers from her room and their parents think classical music is boring, Mary will probably develop a taste for pop music and have no interest in ever going to a symphony concert. This concept is reflected in several research studies, all based on David Hargreaves’s “open-earedness” theory. Hargreaves’s hypothesis—and the conclusions of most of these studies—states that the younger a child is, the more open-minded she is to unfamiliar music. Furthermore, if children are not exposed to unfamiliar music early in life, they are significantly less likely to respond positively to it the older they become. The age that their open-earedness disappears seems to be, at latest, nine years old. Ysaguirre’s hope is that by offering the Juicebox concerts, he can help shape kids’ preferences and give them a taste for new music, a taste that they will not lose because they were exposed to it during a crucial time in their development. Ysaguirre has witnessed for himself that, contrary to popular belief, kids actually enjoy listening to highly complex music just as much as simple music. Besides, avant-garde music, theater, and dance are adventurous, just like kids are. And unlike adults, kids are content to let the experience of a piece of music or dance wash over them, thinking about how it makes them feel, rather than searching for narrative or meaning within the work.
This idea that young children enjoy complex music is something I also heard from Germany-based clarinetist Sacha Rattle, who performed in an avant-garde production of Little Red Riding Hood set to music by Georges Aphergis through National Theater Mannheim’s Children’s Opera. When four and five year olds were asked what they thought of the production, their reactions were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, they didn’t even seem to notice the fact that the music was microtonal; they were mostly just psyched about how loud it was. One child even likened the production to The Magic Flute, which he had seen the week before and had enjoyed just as much. The difference in open-mindedness was huge, however, when older kids came to the theater. The fifteen year olds, in particular, couldn’t stand the production. According to Rattle, the story was too childish for them but the humor was too complex, and they despised Aphergis’s music. One group even jeered that the musicians must not know how to play their instruments. Rattle said that, more than anything, the whole experience taught him about people’s perception of new music, and more importantly, “how it should be, and could be perceived.”
As music and arts programs continually seem to be cut from school curriculums, it becomes ever more important to make sure that kids are exposed to the arts so that they remain as open-minded at fifteen as they were at five. While the Tubby the Tuba CD is certainly one tool when it comes to teaching kids about classical music, could it be that we’re underestimating children? When we assume they wouldn’t like or understand a challenging piece of music, we don’t even give them a chance. As Angel Ysaguirre told me, investing in the contemporary version of an art form is what keeps the arts exciting and relevant. Likewise, investing in new music is a way of perpetuating classical music in general. This being the case, why on earth wouldn’t we want to expose kids to new, exciting, adventurous forms of art, while they’re just starting to develop their own tastes and perceptions?
When Ysaguirre shared with me a bit about his own introduction to classical music, I learned that it wasn’t Brahms or Beethoven that first drew his attention, it was a performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. He is well aware that for him, new music was an introduction to classical music as a whole, and it is this experience that he is hoping to invoke in the young children that attend a Juicebox performance. One of his main priorities is to provide the highest quality programming by bringing in the best artists in Chicago. The lineup this spring will include free performances by the Spektral Quartet, Chicago Q Ensemble, RE|Dance, Jim Gailloretto’s Jazz String Quintet, Jeff Parker, and Jason Adasiewicz with Frank Rosaly, among others. And beginning in April, Juicebox will expand from the Cultural Center to partner with the Chicago Park District in providing additional avant-garde performances in unlikely locations around many Chicago neighborhoods.
Just as I was thrilled by the realization that the kids at my outreach concert had fallen for the sounds of Marcos Balter, I can hardly wait to see the reactions of the toddlers who come to the Juicebox Series at the Chicago Cultural Center. At the very least, the series will expose children and their parents to some crazy and exciting performances in a uniquely kid-friendly setting. At most, the Juicebox series has the potential to turn a few of today’s toddlers into tomorrow’s contemporary art patrons. Who knows, this might just be the first step towards creating a generation of young people who recognize the importance of keeping the arts alive and relevant, and who will one day grow up to become the new music advocates of the future.
Sara Sitzer is a freelance cellist in Chicago. A member of string quartet Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she also performs regularly with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami. Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis.
She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.