A Gateway to Classical Music

October 10, 2016 by JULIE GARISTO | MUSIC
The Florida Orchestra's Instrument Petting Zoo
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Instilling the Love of Classical Music in Pinellas’ Youth


We all first fell in love with classical music compositions in different ways. We may have learned about Wagner or Bizet watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, or got to leave class to hear orchestra concerts led by an entertaining conductor in the school auditorium. Or, perhaps, we sang in the school chorus or had a teacher who used jingles to help us learn elements of composition such as “E, G, B, D, F, lines of the Treble Clef!”

For many of us, these early experiences touched off a love of music, as a listener, performer or both.

Young people still encounter what Derek Weston calls a “gateway” type of music that ultimately leads to the enjoyment of classical music. Weston, the chairman of the music department at Gibbs’ magnet school, the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, has been conducting choirs and orchestras from student through professional level for more than 18 years.

“Often these ‘gateway’ genres are things like movie scores, musical theater, video game music or other types of music that are more mainstream than classical music,” Weston explains. “Many students also have had a wonderful experience with a music educator at the elementary, middle school or high school level that instilled an appreciation by not only teaching them about the genre, but allowing them to participate in performing classical music.”

The Florida Orchestra has implemented a suite of ambitious programs to provide more direct “gateway” opportunities for kids and families in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

By partnering with community organizations, the Florida Orchestra hosts “pay what you can” Family Concerts in a variety of settings on both sides of the bay. A Musical Playtime precedes the performances, featuring music-themed arts, activities, crafts and story books.

The coolest component of the playtime: The Instrument Petting Zoo, when students get to see up close, touch, hear and even sometimes try to play Orchestra members’ instruments.

The Florida Orchestra's Instrument Petting Zoo

The Florida Orchestra’s Instrument Petting Zoo

According to Erin Horan, TFO’s Community Engagement Director, kids “simply light up” when they get to touch and pluck the strings of a violin or get up close to a shiny, intricate French horn.

PCCA’s Weston concurs that the Florida Orchestra has the right idea with their season planning.

“The Florida Orchestra has been offering at least one concert per season that involves film music or video game soundtracks and they include a video element to the performance to further engage the audience,” he says. “The Pops in the Park free concerts also engage folks that might not otherwise attend an orchestra concert.  If we can get students interested in attending an orchestra concert, they may come back and hear Beethoven and Brahms the following weekend.”

The Florida Orchestra also presents Sensory-Friendly Concerts through a partnership with the University of South Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). The concerts, essentially the same as any other Family Concert, take into consideration the needs of youth and adults on the autism spectrum. Lighting and any amplified sound will be mid-level, and the house lights remain on. Also, the musical playtime portion may be limited to reduce noise and activity level.  

“We want their experience to be fun,” Horan says of the special-needs children and adults served by the Sensory-Friendly Concerts. “By making symphonic music both fun and accessible, we hope to take down barriers.”

Another barrier for many families is cost. With TFO’s Classical Kids & Teens ticket voucher program, children ages 5 to 18 can attend the Tampa Bay Times Masterworks for free with a paid adult.

There is a limited supply of Classical Kids tickets per concert. Children 4 and younger are discouraged from attending orchestra concerts.

Derek Weston with the PCCA Choir

Derek Weston with the PCCA Choir

Further, students, teachers, education staff, and members of the military may purchase individual $10 tickets with a valid ID to most Florida Orchestra concerts, subject to availability.

Pre-teens who’ve been bitten by the bug and exhibit a desire to pursue an instrument can reinforce their talents by applying to Gibbs’ PCCA magnet program.

“Many of the students that we have in our magnet program are already excited about Classical music when they commit to attend PCCA,” Weston says. “Our music history class often exposes students to composers and styles that spark interest in exploring Classical music at a deeper level.”

What to do you say to a teen or pre-teen who shrugs off classical music off as a dying art? Tell them that sentiment has been around as long as classical music itself.

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, spoke on this “evergreen topic” during a recent interview on The Diane Rehm Show: “The future of classical music, the death of classical music, the problems of classical music … It seems as though generation after generation now there’s been this fundamental worry about the prospects of the art form. The late pianist Charles Rosen once observed that this conversation has been going on for so long, for centuries in fact, that he said the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”

Ross added that the biggest hurdle has been and still is one thing: funding.

“There’s something about this art form where we feel that it’s constantly in danger,” Ross says. “And I think there are good reasons for that. I mean, it’s an extraordinarily expensive art form. So anytime there’s an economic downturn, and this goes back to the Renaissance and the Baroque era, when there’s any sort of financial crisis, these hugely expensive institutions tend to struggle. And, you know, a countless number of them have closed, have disappeared over the years. But others have sprung up to take their place. So it is this unending discussion.”

Attracting listeners and benefactors often boils down bringing our experience with classical music up to date — to make it relatable and enjoyable within the context of our busy, sensory-saturated lives.

Innovations in programming including tributes to rock legends such as the late, great David Bowie (February 3) or the upcoming Florida Orchestra concert performance of music from the Zelda video game, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses (December 16), provide intriguing Gen X/Millennial parent-teen bonding opportunities.

“I believe that there have been positive strides in tearing down the wall between the audience and the orchestra,” Weston says. “Oftentimes people view classical music performances as “stuffy” or unwelcoming to those who are not familiar or trained in the genre. Sometimes the small things, like Maestro Francis speaking to the audience before a performance to give important historical context of the piece, can help an audience engage more with the music and the musicians.”


2016/2017 Family Concert dates:

Fall Program

Sat, Oct 15, 10 am and 11:30 am, HCC-Ybor Performing Arts Building

Sat, Oct 29, 10 am and 11:30 am, Dunedin Fine Art Center

Sat, Nov 5, 10 am and 11:30 am, Mahaffey Theater Atrium


Spring Program

Sat, Feb 25, 10 am and 11:30 am, HCC-Ybor Performing Arts Building

Sat, April 22, 10 am and 11:30 am, Dunedin Fine Art Center

Sat, May 13, 10 am and 11:30 am, Mahaffey Theater Atrium


For more information on The Florida Orchestra’s programming and tickets, call (727) 892-3337 or (800) 662-7286.

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