Tag: young audiences

Let’s Take Young Audiences Seriously

John Liberatore sitting at a piano with an overlay of the NewMusicBox Tool Box logo

Who doesn’t love Frog and Toad?  One of my favorites is a story where both of the title characters sneak over to the other’s house to rake leaves, hoping to surprise their friend with the kind gesture. On the way home, unbeknownst to either of them, a gust of wind scatters the leaf piles back across both lawns.  When each character gets home, they resolve to rake their own leaves the next day, and both Frog and Toad go to sleep that night feeling happy about their act of kindness. Adrianne Lobel, daughter of Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel, suggests that her father’s famous amphibian duo was the beginning of his own coming out.  Toad is such a curmudgeon, but Frog treats him with loving kindness, and together they bring out the best in each other. At its core, the Frog and Toad series is about what it means to love someone—a complicated message, distilled to the vocabulary of a first-grader.

Lobel has been on my mind lately because, for the past few months, I’ve been touring with the American Wild Ensemble, presenting an all-ages program we’re calling “Wild Imagination.” My contribution to this program is a 30-minute monodramatic adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home, a beautifully imaginative, but lesser-known entry in the Lobel treasury.  In my piece, called Owl in Five Stories, a narrator recites an animated rendition of the book, acting out Owl’s whimsical adventures with an original musical score.

Children sit and musicians perform as John Liberatore narrates in a performance of his Owl in Five Stories

From a performance of John Liberatore’s Owl in Five Stories. From left to right: Emlyn Johnson, Daniel Ketter, Tiffany Valvo, John Liberatore.
Photo credit: Jeff Burkhead. Photo used with parental permission.

Many times after a performance, an audience member has said to me some variation of the following: “You’re reaching the audience of tomorrow.”  I appreciate this sentiment, but internally I push back. I’m reaching the audience of today.  “The audience of tomorrow” suggests that, someday, the kids in the audience will grow up and go to a concert, and then they will be real listeners, not just kids. I hope the kids go to another concert someday. I hope the adults do too. But they came today, and that should count.

A room full of five-year-olds, the wisdom goes, can’t distinguish a Jessye Norman from a Florence Foster Jenkins. Their approval doesn’t count for your tenure dossier because no credible record attests that you performed at a high level, outshining your peers. A stigma forms around family programming as a result, as if it’s not worth the attention of someone with serious musical aspirations. But if we want to make our practice more inclusive and reach a broader audience, we need to perform and write music for spaces and people that don’t offer validation in the form of prestige.

Many artists, organizations, and institutions respond to this charge with excellent and innovative family programming. But this stigma still materializes in a certain brand of “family programming,” which I believe still dominates the forum. It leads to lukewarm afternoon programs of unrehearsed Classical Clichés with an itinerant, underpaid assistant conductor. It’s treated more like community service than serious programming, hardly a forum for innovation or real musical expression. It’s like Puffin Rock—it keeps kids busy, and it’s tolerable. This mindset comes to characterize family programming for a lot of us, so we don’t think much about it, or at least I didn’t until recently.

Since at least the 1960s, when children’s literature was just starting to gain recognition as a commercial market, some publishers have enforced a controlled vocabulary[1] on their authors.  Today, Lexile scores empirically calculate the exact parameters of a child’s vocabulary, and many publishers expressly limit the words authors can use. Controlled vocabulary has its pedagogical uses, for sure, but not everything directed at kids needs to be pedagogical. In 1977, interviewer Roni Natov asked Arnold Lobel about whether his own work used a controlled vocabulary. He responded:

I wouldn’t dream of it. … I think of trying to express myself in the simplest fashion I can, but I won’t stop and not use a word that is a little longer, if there’s not a simpler word. … I’ve used words like “avalanche,” and “beautiful,” because there just isn’t another word that I could gracefully exchange them for … Once [kids] bite into reading, they’ll read anything. Once they are enjoying it, nothing stops them, even if they come to a word that they have to sort of sound out and fight with a bit.

The Classical Cliché approach to family programming subscribes to a belief that kids only grasp easily-singable melodies and stock emotions, a tepid controlled vocabulary of musical meanings. Like Lobel, I’m suggesting that we move beyond this mindset, and recognize youth programming as a serious and energizing forum for creativity.

Writing in The Atlantic, George Saunders suggested that when a piece of writing moves you, the author “imagined you generously, and you rose to the occasion.”  Saunders uses Tolstoy as an example, but the same could be said about Lobel. It’s often said that a work speaks to the “inner child” within an adult. But some work speaks to the “inner grownup” within the child. Lobel imagined kids generously.  He created characters with quirks and foibles and emotions, and he told stories with complicated messages. And kids rise to the occasion.

Contrary to popular wisdom, I do believe that kids can discern a truly special performance from a mediocre one. I think kids know when they’re being talked down to. They just don’t express their feelings through the same channels as adults. In writing Owl, I never felt like I was dumbing anything down. I was preoccupied with all the same challenges and obsessions that interest me when writing any piece of music. The piece even has some of those new music bonafides like multiphonics, whistle-tones, and metric modulations. It’s a demanding score written for invested performers. The challenge of writing the piece was not so much about limiting my vocabulary, but rather one of clarity. Like Lobel said, I tried to find the simplest, most direct way of speaking in the moment. I found it hugely rewarding, and I realized that family programming is full of opportunities for composers and performers.

Five such opportunities come to mind:

One: Youth programming has a built-in and deeply appreciative audience. As a musician and university professor, I have to pick and choose what events I go to, attending to my work-life balance and various obligations.  As the father of school-age children, I face the opposite challenge. I want my children to have memorable experiences, and, well… I don’t want to deal with bored children on weekends. So while I am reluctantly turning down concert invitations as a professional, I am actively seeking them as a parent. If a family-friendly event also caters to my musical interests, you can bet that I’ll be there, and I’ll bring three kids in tow. That’s four people in the audience, instead of one. Or zero. This also addresses issues of inclusion for parents in New Music, which Emily Doolittle called attention to (from the perspective of motherhood) in her much-recommended 2017 article on NewMusicBox. Furthermore, parenthood is a much more cross-cultural experience than mine as a composer and professor. Which brings me to my next point.

Two: It’s inclusive. Much has been said about the unwelcoming atmosphere at Classical Music concerts. “No clapping between movements” is a favorite bugaboo for such editorials. Really, though, sitting in your chair with the lights dimmed, program in hand, while someone plays a piece, and then clapping while the person bows—that in itself is a set of cultural conventions that some people find alienating.[2] Regardless, any preconceived notions of concert etiquette go out the window when kids are involved.  Kids have episodes, they run around, they crinkle candy wrappers and juice-box straws… and it’s okay. The music is still wholly appreciated, even by seasoned concertgoers, and maybe a little less ossified in the process. This kind of environment goes a long way toward breaking down cultural barriers to entry in music performance. Especially when such events are offered for free, or by optional donation, family programming has far greater potential for cross-cultural and socioeconomic inclusion than traditional programming.

Three: It invests in community. It’s not just outreach or community building. The experience of the music by those present matters. But it’s also not just a concert. It’s an impression, potentially a very lasting one, upon people less inured to live performance than most listeners who hear my music. Such programming builds awareness about contemporary music among unlikely supporters, so that maybe our next underground new music festival might be a little less removed from public awareness, and a little more welcoming. More importantly, it’s an investment in the kids who see it, many of whom might otherwise never see a professional flutist up close, or learn that there’s such a thing as a bass clarinet, or that a cello is different from a violin. Who knows what impact these encounters might have? In what other context are we so poised to make such a profound impact on even one of our listeners?

Four: Reaching young audiences promotes (and requires) creative approaches to curation as well as composition. As an example, the Danish experimental music ensemble Scenatat developed a series of Concert Walks with support from the now-defunct European agency New:Aud, an organization once dedicated to connecting Europe’s premiere new-music ensembles with young audiences. Such events don’t need to be child-centric to be child-friendly.[3] In all sectors of the New Music world right now, people are engaged with the question: what can a concert be? Bringing youth and families into this discussion is a major catalyst for creativity.

For my fifth and final point, I defer to the wisdom of Frog and Toad. In “The Dream,” the last story in Frog and Toad Together, Toad dreams himself on a stage in a huge auditorium where only Frog sits in the audience.[4] A strange voice announces “THE GREATEST TOAD IN ALL THE WORLD.”

Toad took a deep bow.
Frog looked smaller as he shouted,
‘Hooray for Toad!’
said the strange voice.

Toad played the piano,
and he did not miss a note.
‘Frog,’ cried Toad,
‘can you play the piano like this?’
‘No,’ said Frog.
It seemed to Toad
that Frog looked even smaller.

As the story goes on, Toad shows off a number of astounding feats, while Frog grows smaller and smaller, until he eventually disappears. The more Toad boasts and shows off, the more he (literally) belittles Frog, and the more he distances himself from what matters, until he loses it completely. Talk about a complex message for young readers.

I’m guessing anybody trying to make a go at a career in the performing arts understands the exhaustion of perpetual one-upmanship. We are all under such pressure to “count”—to add to those dreary lists of names, venues, awards, and commissions that, if we’re lucky, render our professional bios unreadable. Yes, this is a terribly unhealthy fallacy, which I know to be irrational and destructive, but which I confess remains lodged somewhere in my composer id. The thing is, kids don’t care about any of that, and it’s just so wonderfully refreshing. They don’t care if you’re the greatest toad in all the world. They do care about sincerity, directness, and honesty. They know when someone is taking them seriously. It’s a very healthy exercise as an individual and as a community to pause and take stock of how we might try to communicate something important to children.

Many other reasons to invest in family-friendly New Music could be added to this list, some of which I have touched upon, and others which deserve their own articles: accessibility, cultural impact, activism, and even economic reasons come to mind. Fundamentally, though, each of these reasons comes back to the same point: Music, and New Music especially, is about community. Obviously, not all events, aesthetics, and messages are suitable for children. My next few projects are not expressly written for young audiences. But having spent so much creative energy over the last year with young audiences in mind, I believe I have grown as a composer and a person. I believe our community will grow stronger if we take young audiences more seriously.[5]

[1] I apologize for the irony of linking to JSTOR here, since I realize that not everyone has access to it. Still, the concept of Controlled Vocabulary is fairly ubiquitous and easily investigated through search engines.

[2] Whether or not Classical Music describes what we do, many of the readers of this blog will surely participate in events that share at least some of these conventions. It’s fine—I love these kinds of concerts! But the experience is far from universal.

[3] Quite a bit of what makes an event family-friendly has to do with presentation, and not repertoire per se. I thank Emily Doolittle for making this point, both in her aforementioned article, and in personal correspondence. In this article, I am primarily talking about the creation and performance of kid-friendly repertoire, leaving suggestions for presentation to other writers. Though as projects like Concert Walks demonstrate, content and presentation are not always separable, and family-centric programming encourages us to think this way.

[4] I sympathize with Toad’s low turnout in proportion to the size of the venue.

[5] I’d like to thank Emlyn Johnson, Daniel Ketter, and Tiffany Valvo for bringing Wild Imagination to life, and for our conversations that led to this article.