Making classical music come alive for kids

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The Assistant Principal of Farnsworth Elementary introduces conductor Jay Fishman and the Minnesota Sinfonia to a group of kindergarten, first and second graders.

This past week I was treated to a delightful concert of Beethoven, Mozart and Smetana. The audience was so excited they absolutely squirmed in their seats, and the musicians, dressed in their finest professional threads, gave their all.

Where was I, you ask? Orchestra Hall? The Ordway Center for Performing Arts?

I was at Farnsworth Elementary School in East Saint Paul.

Minnesota Sinfonia offers solid proof that today’s kids only need to be introduced to classical music in the right way in order to fall in love with it.

The Sinfonia is a professional chamber orchestra (made up primarily of musicians who also perform with the Minnesota Opera) whose mission is to bring music education to Minnesotans, with a special emphasis on families with children, inner-city youth, seniors and those living in poverty.

Since it’s inception in 1989, the Sinfonia has reached well over 150,000 kids, now performing for up to 12,500 children each year.

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Bassoonist Laurie Merz visits a classroom at Farnsworth Elementary.

On the afternoon of the Sinfonia’s visit to Farnsworth Elementary, per their routine, the musicians took on additional duties above and beyond their musical performance. I followed bassoonist Laurie Merz as a second grader directed her to a classroom. There Merz talked about the bassoon, and quizzed the kids on the different parts of the instrument. When she blew into it and no sound came out (because she had yet to add the reed), one kid suggested “it’s not turned on.”

Over the next half hour Merz sampled some of the famous parts the bassoon is known for (the broom in The Sorceror’s Apprentice and Peter’s grandfather in Peter and the Wolf). The kids bombarded her with questions: “Why did you start playing?” “Where are bassoons made?” “Where do you practice?” “Do you play other instruments?” When she said she only had time to take one more question before getting back to the school gym for the concert, the entire group groaned in unison. Merz told them to look for her in the orchestra, and she’d give them a special wave.

Conductor Jay Fishman says it’s these sorts of interactions that have him convinced classical music still has a vital role to play with today’s youth.

The incredibly enthusiastic reactions that we get from the children – and their teachers and parents – in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools when we play music by Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Smetana, etc, proves the point. It is all about exposure, education and on our part, enthusiasm for the music and performances.

It is no accident that when I ask the kids (300 at each performance) how many like the music, every, and I mean every hand goes up. And, when we play music that they have studied in their classrooms, they are already excited before we even begin to play. At one of our previous programs, “Music Tells a Story,” we played some of Tchaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The children had been studying the story and listening to the music in class, and when I announced that we were going to play this music, they literally squealed with delight. I think this says it all.

Making her way back to the gym, Merz said she gets as much as the kids do out of these concerts. And she also makes a union wage doing it. The cost of its “Music in the Schools” program is $5,200 per school, per year, and is supported entirely by donations from corporations, foundations and individuals. That allows the Sinfonia to offer its concerts for free, while still paying its musicians a professional wage.

Jay Fishman says the Minnesota Sinfonia’s long-term goal is to work with 40 inner-city Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools every year. Currently it’s about halfway there.

Speaking of music in schools, have you heard about Classical MPR’s “Play It Forward” instrument drive?

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