Can kids tell the difference between a good performance and a bad one?

Sarah KirkupWed 5th March 2014

At an LPO FUNharmonics concert, Sarah Kirkup ponders the importance of a child’s first orchestral concert

It’s Sunday lunchtime, the sun is shining for the first time in about 10 years and the LPO are stuck inside the Royal Festival Hall performing to a couple of thousand noisy, excited kids in a FUNharmonics concert. I’m sure that if I look closely enough I’ll detect the telltale signs of a hangover – crumpled clothes, a grumpy expression and playing that’s not quite on the ball – but I look in vain. Here is an orchestra whose players look positively fresh-faced and raring to go.

Of course, every orchestra, no matter who their audience is, should give 100 per cent. That’s what they’re paid to do, and what the audience expect – and deserve, no less. But the fact remains that the tours, workshops and educational commitments every orchestra is expected to embrace in addition to a heavy concert schedule can leave members feeling exhausted and less than enthusiastic on occasion. And perhaps you’d expect one of these occasions to be at a concert for kids – after all, how would children know the difference between a good and bad concert anyway?

I was interviewing Israeli-born American pianist Orli Shaham recently and she had something interesting to say on this subject. Ever since her twin boys turned three (they’re now six and a half), Shaham has been the driving force behind Baby Got Bach, an interactive concert series for three- to six-year-olds based in New York. Not only has she noticed that children are open to everything in these concerts – ‘I play everything from Bach to music written last year’ – but also that they accept everything equally ‘so long as the pieces are wonderful and the performers have conviction’.

‘Conviction’ is the key word here – and possessing it as a performer is even more important when playing for kids than for adults, Shaham believes. If you don’t have it, they’ll see straight through you. ‘On stage, we’re interpreters but we’re also salespeople,’ she says. ‘We want the audience, to believe in what we’re playing so if we don’t believe in it ourselves, it’s quite obvious.’

She has a point. When I think back to my time as a peripatetic flute teacher, it was always when I taught the pieces I loved the most that I got the best results. My enthusiasm rubbed off on my young students (most were under the age of 11) and they played better because of it. That’s true of all teachers, of course, no matter who or what they’re teaching. The more enthusiasm they have, the more positive the response will be. But with children who are new to a subject, you have to work that bit harder to grab their attention – and to keep it. The flip side, however, is that because they’re coming to it without baggage or preconceptions, the opportunities for developing and exploring are endless.

Which brings me back to the LPO’s FUNharmonics concert. Here is a regular opportunity (they’re held every few months) for players to make a big impression on kids new to classical music – and that’s exactly what I see the LPO doing in ‘Yikes! Spikes!’, the focus of which is the world premiere of Benjamin Wallfisch’s The Porcupine, set to Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts poem of the same name. The players throw themselves into Rossini’s ‘Galop’ from the William Tell Overture (the violinists gamely demonstrating bows and arrows with their instruments once the piece is over) as well as Leroy Anderson’s Jazz Pizzicato, Wieniawski’s Scherzo-Tarantelle (with violinist Hyeyoon Park) and a sumptuous excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Proceedings are overseen admirably by CBeebies presenter Chris Jarvis, evidently a consummate musician, and conductor David Angus, with whom Jarvis has a natural rapport.

But the highlight is undoubtedly The Porcupine, with Wallfisch framing Dahl’s witty rhymes with just the right amount of melody-tinged rhythmic writing, and Jarvis relishing the lines ‘I ran for home, I shouted, “Mum, / Behold the prickles in my bum!”’

This was my five-year-old’s first proper orchestral concert and it could have gone either way. Thanks to the LPO and everyone else involved in FUNharmonics, he was hooked and we’re already planning to go to the next one in May. We’re even talking about starting piano lessons. Now that’s what I call progress.

Sarah Kirkup

Sarah Kirkup has been Deputy Editor of Gramophone since 2010. She has a particular interest in the connection between classical music and dance, especially ballet, and has written about this subject for Gramophone and other publications, including those at the Royal Opera House.

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