Children from one of Houston Symphony’s partners, Lewis Elementary in HISD, playing at a family concert at Jones Hall in the Hall last month.
Photo: Melissa Taylor Photography
When Houston Symphony musicians step off stage, they often step into one of their less heralded but perhaps equally crucial tasks: introducing school-aged children to the joys of music.
Because the pandemic has complicated many of the traditional ways the orchestra does — the Saturday afternoon family concert series, school concerts, and classroom-level interactions between musicians and students, for example. – its Department of Education and Community Engagement produced a series of brief videos last fall titled “Meet the Instruments”.
So far, nine videos have been released; the orchestra plans to do another batch once it sifts through the results of this one. Musicians usually play a bespoke selection or two to show off their instruments—lead tuba Dave Kirk picks “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”—in between explaining how their instruments work and why they love playing them. (On the symphony’s website, the videos are posted under the “Community” tab at the “Students and Teachers” link, then both “Elementary Programming” and “Middle School Programming.”)
In his video, cellist Maki Kubota says, “I love this instrument because of its beautiful, rich tone and the huge range we have. Kirk recounts how he started playing the sousaphone in the school band, although “I was a little scared of it at first”, before encouraging viewers to do the same.
“Our mission is to get kids playing an instrument, not to create the best performers on stage, or even Houston Symphony performers on stage,” says Allison Conlan, the orchestra’s director of education. “That’s not our goal. Our goal is to put instruments in their hands, (so) that they learn all the skills of life and everything that goes into learning an instrument.
Do the glissando
Musicians’ voices invariably brighten when it comes to interacting with children. Harpist Megan Conley says even something as simple as a glissando, in which the player’s fingers run all over the strings, can leave them speechless.
“I just did a children’s concert in New York this summer, and at the end all the kids crowded around the harp and wanted to play a glissando because they can do it,” she says. “Kids want to be able to do things on their own, and they should, and they can’t.”
Speaking of his own teaching efforts, “you play low strings and the whole box vibrates like a subwoofer over your legs and against your chest – it’s always great fun for them,” says Kubota. “They’re shocked at the amount of growl they can get from the bottom of the cello, and it’s really kid friendly most of the time.”
Beyond just enjoying music, learning an instrument can also help children develop what are known as SEL skills – social and emotional learning – such as self-awareness, empathy and responsible decision making. When students in higher grades begin to join school-sponsored sets, a number of additional benefits also come into play.
“It’s like sports: there’s a very important social aspect to being in an orchestra or music program, where you have the same teacher and the same friends and colleagues for four years in a row,” says Kubota. “There’s a really strong network of dedication, fun (and) camaraderie that you get that really stands apart from any other class you might have or even any lunch group you have.”
Find a community
To play music with others is to join “a community based on something really honest and empowering,” says Kirk.
A student playing a familiar tune like Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” at a school winter concert, he explains, can become something that students, their families, and the wider community can all benefit.
“If your friends come to hear you play this, some of them will be in tears, because you’re here on stage and you’re playing this piece that they’re very familiar with, and they’re just thrilled,” says Kirk. “And then you get that too, with all that patience and perseverance, you were able to do something that really transported people in that moment.”
The educational activities of musicians are not limited to students either. By introducing her to different cultures, Conley says she and her son developed a taste for listening to African drumming and Indian tabla music together.
“There’s such a wide variety of music to choose from, and it all brings something… (it) just enriches our lives,” she says. “And it’s fun to play some really crazy stuff for kids and see what they like.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.