Kathy Kucsan, Education Director
When I was in sixth grade, they piled us into school buses and we drove all the way to New York City.
We were going to hear “the symphony,” which we only knew was an orchestra led by a “maestro” and that they would be playing a concert especially for kids. Most of us, including me, had no real idea of what an orchestra was or what a conductor did, but our school thought it was important for us to have this experience.
The hall was enormous and filled with kids just like us, their teachers looking stern and keeping everyone in line. We had our instructions about how to behave (no talking), when and when not to clap, and that we were to listen very carefully to the conductor because he would explain everything to us before the orchestra played the music.
Well… That conductor turned out to be Leonard Bernstein. That orchestra was the New York Philharmonic. The sound they made was huge, beautiful, and pure magic. I don’t remember what they played. Maestro Bernstein’s voice was compelling and he talked to us like we were regular people, not just kids. It was over too soon. I thought about that concert for months. I still think about it. And the experience of being in a concert hall, hearing an orchestra for the first time set my life on a musical trajectory at a very young age.
Now, many decades later, we’ve invented and made obsolete several forms of recorded music (cassette tapes, 8-tracks – bonus prize for anyone who knows what those are – CDs, DVDs, vinyl records) and now we can stream pretty much anything we want to hear into our earbuds. Though live music settings have changed in many ways, our interest in hearing live music hasn’t waned.
The question is: now that you can access virtually any recorded music digitally, why bother going to live concerts?
Why take the trouble to go to an in-person concert nowadays? Why bother taking kids out of school for a concert?
Since the early days of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, we’ve collected a body of evidence demonstrating that live musical performance is good for children. A 2021 National Institutes of Health study concludes that live orchestral music fosters a “growth mindset” in children. (What is a growth mindset? It’s the idea that students, or anyone, tends toward growth and change in the face of challenges and obstacles.) The study points out that children given equal opportunity to engage in activities like live concerts tend to gain the extramusical benefits of hearing live music. “Children who possess a growth mindset believe that the harder they work at something, the better they will be at it.” Simply put, children who are in the presence of a professional orchestra intrinsically understand that the harder they work at something, the better they will be at it. In other words, the very environment of music inspires students.
This study and others, including a Ford Foundation study undertaken back in the 1960s, discuss and demonstrate the value of music education, including attendance at concerts. We know that music is “good for” kids and we use this information to support public school instrumental programs that arrive at the chopping block every so often. We know about the benefits of music education and we’re starting to learn, demonstrably, that music levels the playing field for students in terms of low income circumstances, different abilities, and most dramatically, fighting racism. All of these things are reasons to get those tickets. The Chicago Symphony now provides free tickets to their school concerts for every public school student, and they’re also paying transportation costs to get kids to Orchestra Hall. That’s a big commitment to access, a fundamental value that is central to the Center for Musical Arts’ programs.
Fostering a lifelong appreciation of music and even a growth mindset for kids is what it’s all about.
But one more thing: the magic that my classmates and I felt as sixth graders also factors into the equation. Most of us, decades later, are still active in music (community bands, choruses, church choirs, jazz bands, frequent concert-goers). I attribute this to the opportunities we were given to experience the magic of the New York Phil and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This intangible magic is another reason it’s a good idea to introduce our students to live performances. They’re taking lessons, playing scales, practicing etudes and repertoire. Their process is mostly self-contained with lessons, practicing, and maybe playing for friends and family now and then. When a student goes to a concert for the first time, the music becomes something more, something bigger. There are adults onstage, professional musicians playing instruments that look just like the ones that the students play. The sounds they’re creating are amazing! And the music that pours out is huge, alive and sounds nothing like what comes through earbuds. It’s tremendous, it’s captivating, it’s mesmerizing, and it’s full of potential and mystery. “I remember being engaged, and feeling music doing something to me that I couldn’t even control,” says John Hagstrom (trumpet, Chicago Symphony). “I just loved it so much. It made me smile; it gave me goosebumps, and I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t even know I could feel that way.” With his colleagues, Mr. Hagstrom now makes that experience possible for thousands of Chicago students.
How can students (of any age) get started?
Join the Colorado Music Festival for our Family Concert (July 2, 10:30am at Chautauqua). Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is on the program, a piece that has introduced generations of kids to the sounds of the orchestra.
Just down the road, the Colorado Symphony has robust educational offerings >
Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts are all available to watch on YouTube. I’d especially recommend the very first concert, What Does Music Mean? “No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them. So when we ask, ‘What does it mean; what does this piece of music mean?’ we’re asking a hard question. Let’s do our best to answer it.”
Additional reading about introducing kids to music:
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “Children’s concerts help to spark a lifelong appreciation of music” >
NPR, “How Do You Introduce Classical Music to Kids?” >
WCVB Boston, “New England Conservatory musicians introducing kids to symphony orchestra >
And for those intrepid few, the NIH article I referred to, “Planting the Seeds: Orchestral Music Education as a Context for Fostering Growth Mindsets >
Did you know that Center for Musical Arts students receive discounts on tickets to concerts at the Colorado Music Festival (the performance arm of our organization), and that tickets to the Family Concert are only $10? The 2023 season runs June 29-August 6; explore the full season below.