In a full auditorium at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is inspiring children’s imagination with music and storytelling.
The Pre-K through second-graders squirm in their seats, a captive yet fidgeting bunch curiously scanning the musicians sitting in a semicircle on stage before them. For most, this is the first time they have seen a live symphony orchestra. Their experience today could fuel a lifelong passion for music, learning and creativity.
This is one of seven ASO Explorer concerts for young children in the Birmingham area, a program that will reach about 3,500 children in a year. The symphony also holds two Young People’s Concerts for third- through sixth-graders later in the season, which exposes an additional 4,500 students to the symphony. “The performances are part of ASO’s Education Concerts, which aim to create sustainable, meaningful programs and partnerships that foster strong relationships with schools and families”, states ASO Director of Education Deanna Sirkot.
“We want to provide programming that is relevant, imaginative and exciting through extraordinary performances, so that children can go to a concert and it be a meaningful experience,” she says.
Donations from the community and corporations like Protective Life enable ASO to maintain a quality, full-time professional orchestra and to run programs, like the Education Concerts, in-class music curriculum programs, and the Alabama Symphony Youth Orchestra, which provides music education to more than 25,000 area students each year.
ASO Explorers is unique in that it introduces the youngest children to symphonic music, and creates the foundation on which future music learning is built. A positive first experience helps children bond emotionally and intellectually with others through creative expression, according to the National Association for Music Education.
“These are some of the performances I look forward to the most,” says Christopher Confessore, Resident Conductor and Principal POPS! Conductor. “You get an honest reaction. They will let you know if they like something.”
After a brief introduction during a typical show, Confessore raises his baton and tells a story about how each group of instruments arrived that day to the performance. “The percussion came on bikes; the cellos walked; the violins, violas and harp followed closely behind,” he explains. As each group of instruments is mentioned, they mimic the sounds of movement. “The flutes and piccolos jogged; the Oboes rollerbladed,” Confessore says as the volume of the music rises. “The bassoons came on ATVs; the clarinets came on skateboards. They all arrived here in the parking lot. As you can imagine, it was crazy!”
The room becomes alive with music as the children bounce in their seats, their bodies keeping rhythm with the song that fills the room. When the music and energy die down, Confessore takes a moment to discuss elements like tone, tempo and rhythm, before launching into another imaginative exercise using various instruments to depict the flight of the bumblebee, a waltzing cat, and heavy stomps of an elephant.
In their classrooms before the concert, teachers prepared the young students for the performance with teaching guides provided by ASO. The guides reference videos and recommend activities to help students better appreciate the concert experience. Activities include imagining how bees fly from flower to flower, considering whether they move quickly or slowly and if their wings are loud or quiet.
When the orchestra performs the “Finale” from William Tell, the young audience comes alive, bouncing and giggling, their arms swaying overhead. It was 9-year-old Charles Cooper’s favorite part.
His mother, Catherine Cooper, homeschools Charles and his 11-year-old brother James. She brought them to the ASO Explorers concert to broaden their budding interest in music. Charles currently plays the recorder but is interested in graduating to either the violin or the trumpet. He moved mid-concert to a row farther back in the auditorium so he could get a better view of the string instruments.
Catherine and her husband were avid attendees of the symphony and opera in Los Angeles, before they had their four children and were eager to share this passion with their youngsters. “The ASO Explorer concert was the perfect opportunity to expose them to the symphony,” she says. “I liked how it was geared toward the children. It was a great introduction.”
Still humming the music, Charles agrees. “I really liked it. I want to see it again.”