very young people’s magic

In today’s world, Facebook constantly asks me about what I like  — do I like our local coffee shop (Sasha’s), our local bike shop (Champion), or tying my shoe laces? Each day, I am bombarded by emails that a friend has “endorsed” me on LinkedIn as someone who knows a thing or two about music.  These are all simple things, easy enough to “like”, but not get involved in.   My wife likes to tell an anecdote where, someone was told to “like” their local hardware store to win a prize — so an elderly luddite logged on to Facebook, and wrote a long soliloquy on the hardware store’s wall about how much he loved their service.  Sometimes, you feel compelled to say something more than “like” or “endorse”, to be read rather than merely be counted in a data set.

 A few days ago, we attended a free performance by Mario The Magician, at Lincoln Center’s Atrium. It was flawless in every way — nonstop magic, with a game trio of three lovely jazz musicians.  Benjy (our older son) was swept up in excitement throughout the show, and on into the rest of the day. Mario has a way of engaging kids by making his tricks plain to see at first, as if he is a terrible magician – and then having the kids point out how he messed up.  Eventually, he’d do it right, and without skipping a beat, move on to something else.


This morning, we attended a Very Young People’s Concert by members of the New York Philharmonic, which focused on introducing members of the string family — two violins, viola, cello and bass.   By comparison, this show, I’d say, had a very hokey, drowsy energy.


The program seemed fun enough – music by Bizet, Britten, and variations on “Pop Goes The Weasel”.  (Tchaikovsky also made an uncredited cameo appearance with his “Pizzicato Polka”.) I prepared Benjy by playing him some of this music earlier, so he’d be excited to hear it live.


Though there was the “March of the Toreadors” from “Carmen”, there was not a word about the composer Bizet, bull fighting, marching or opera.   Violist Rebecca Young, who was also this program’s host, played triangle and cymbals — though she had a viola on stage, she never played a note on it, as the viola parts were covered by Judith Nelson.


The lyrics for  “Pop Goes The Weasel” were reworked to introduce the instruments, as well as to introduce a few foreign terms, like pizzicato (plucking) and spiccato (short & off the string).  This felt weird to me as a parent – why had nobody mentioned that these words were Italian, and why we use them, as opposed to plain English?


Benjamin Britten wrote his “Simple Symphony” in his early 20s, using themes from piano pieces he wrote when he was just 10-13 years old.  Britten was a genius, and the Simple Symphony is a wonderful showcase for the strings — but here it competed with a slideshow and a narrated story, about someone named named Philippe. To be honest, I couldn’t follow it, because the volume of the narrator was equal to the music, and the music was more engaging.  I couldn’t tell what the music had to do with the slideshow, or what connection the slideshow had to music or the string family.  Benjy dozed off on my shoulder.


After the concert, there was a token moment of kids trying instruments, about a minute each — but even here, this was again an opportunity to hammer home some Italian — here, try bouncing the bow – that’s spiccato, and now let’s take the bow away — pizzicato.   There, wasn’t that fun? Now let someone else try.


By far the best kids program we’ve attended so far is Wake up, Clarinet! by Oran Etkin. In it, Oran begins the program with the clarinet case closed, as if the clarinet is asleep. He continues to assemble and gently “wake up” his clarinet (whom he calls Clara Net) over a period of probably 8-10 minutes, during which he captures the kids imagination by showing how difficult it is to put it together and make a sound. Kids gasp in amazement, like at a magic show, as they are introduced to the other instruments, to the music, to the composers who wrote the music, and by the end everyone is dancing.  I really wish the Philharmonic programmers could check it out.


Just like in Mario The Magician’s show, when he performed his tricks badly to make a point, Oran Etkin’s show emphasizes that everything needed to be in place to make a sound.  Playing an instrument takes passion, practice, and a healthy dose of failure.  Communicating these things is harder than teaching the word pizzicato, as it can’t just be said – it has to be felt.


It’s so easy to say that I “Liked” the New York Philharmonic concert, because I do like this kind of programming, and kids urgently need it.  But I also feel it’s necessary for me, especially as a parent so closely involved with music, to call the Philharmonic out on these points.  I learned immensely from critically watching this program with Benjy next to me.


The final lines of the “Pop Goes The Weasel” song this morning were these: “come see me at the Philharmonic sometime, so we can stay employed.”     Exactly right — these kids, and their parents, need to know why spending $30-100 on a ticket is better than going to the movies, why a Simple Symphony by Britten is more interesting than the best song by Justin Bieber, why Carmen should have more likes than Twilight, and so on.


Go on — make it magic.

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