If you’ve ever parented, taught, or observed children aged seven, eight, or nine years old, you know that they need to be doing stuff to learn, not just sitting listening.
This was something I observed when I went to see a professional/educational collaboration of Dido and Aeneas last spring at LaGuardia School of Music, Art, and the Performing Arts. On November 19, I joined several hundred first- and second-graders from New York City public schools who were attending one of six concerts taking place over three days at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. The concerts were part of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall’s educational program called “My City, My Song,” a theme meant to evoke a musical expedition through New York City and featuring musicians from Queens (Irish vocalist Anne-Marie Hildebrandt, piano/bodhrán), Harlem (gospel/opera baritone Gregory Rahming), and Manhattan’s Little India (Indian vocalist Falu, joined by vocalist Gaurav Shah, harmonium player Borahm Lee, and tablas player Satyan Shah).
For the most part, this one-hour program had the kids singing, clapping, and moving the whole time, beginning with the program introduction, a spirited call-and-response “I say a boom, chicka boom” with a group leader. The kids had prepped some of the songs in their classrooms in advance, and when a song was announced that they knew and liked (which was most of them), they whooped and cheered. Hildebrandt, the Irish singer and pianist, sang “Lannigan’s Ball,” O’ro the Rattlin’ Boy,” and “Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier.” Rahming, the baritone, sang “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit” and “Total Praise.” Vocalist Falu, in a vivid purple tunic and pants, sang “O Lal Meri,” “Raba,” and “Alla Hoo.” When the kids were asked to sing an Indian scale with a flatted seventh (mixolydian mode), they parroted it right back, in my opinion better than a same-sized group of adults would have managed. They joined in with a simple two-part “amen” pattern in “Total Praise,” a church song. They had fun with “magical music remote control,” which one girl held onstage and used to point to one of three musicians onstage, who could be activated by aiming the remote control in their direction and miming “start” or “stop.” The sessions were not heavy-handed with teaching the core concepts, which was “words we use to talk about music”—basic concepts like “pattern,” “ornamentation,” and “fast.”
A cameraman moved about the stage capturing the whole thing, both in wide view and close-up, creating a live video that was projected on a screen at the back of the stage. This was a big plus from a presentation standpoint, allowing everyone to see clearly, even from the back seats. I suspect also for children who may not have attended a concert before, the screen gave them some comfort and familiarity, as well as an instant focusing device.
By a long shot, the songs the kids liked best were those with a strong rhythm element, like the fast Irish songs and all the Indian songs. A sprightly operatic bit—a portion of one of Papageno’s arias from The Magic Flute, in English—seemed like rough slogging for them, even for two minutes. After all, this was an aria, not a song, and there’s a pretty big learning curve separating those two. I know lots of adults who can’t sit through an aria—much less a whole opera—either.
Photo by Jennifer Taylor