By Jenny Neyman
Violinist Paul Rosenthal walked into the gym at Sterling Elementary School and stood facing the bleachers full of students, regarding them will cool confidence and patience, while they looked back with perhaps a little skepticism, and the usual dose of little-kid squirreliness.
Rosenthal’s credentials didn’t matter much to this audience — that he’s a world-renown violinist, founder of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and its 40-year artistic director. They registered only the directive they’d been told: They were to sit still and listen while this man — slight in build, bearded, standing alone in the gym with only a violin — played for them.
Rosenthal explained that he was going to play a piece of dance music, the kind people used to dance to.
“He lifted his violin under his chin and drew the bow across the strings and started the sound, and in the gym of course you have the tremendous effect of multiplying the sound,” said Jean Brockel, president of the board of directors for the Performing Arts Society. “I was in a position to be able to see a whole section of kids’ faces, and they were all kind of looking at him like, ‘What’s this going to be about?’ And he started to play, and it was in unison — their jaws just dropped. They’d never heard a sound like that from just one man with one instrument. The thing amplified and it was just resounding throughout the gym and I thought, ‘OK, they’re hooked.’”
This scenario — kids being exposed to and enthralled by live classical music — has played out time and again over the past decade as the Performing Arts Society arranges for its visiting musicians to give workshops and performances in area schools. The society produces concerts locally so music lovers on the central Kenai Peninsula get to indulge in the live, classical and jazz performances that they crave but don’t always have access to living off the beaten path of typical tour routes. But many of the board members are teachers or have some connection to education, so including kids in the musicians’ visits was a natural inclination.
“Most of us were very much interested in education. Very early on we started trying to be able to find some of our performers who would agree to do school performances,” Brockel said.
It wasn’t a hard sell. Even though the musicians were more used to playing in performance halls to seasoned music connoisseurs than gyms full of school kids, they recognize the importance of exposing youth to music.
“Most of the musicians are very much aware that early on experiences in music, or anything else, are very valuable. As kids get to like music — classic music and jazz — in their early years, they turn out to be people who go to concerts in their later years,” Brockel said.
Impressive resumes and distinguished credentials are wasted on most school concerts, yet young audiences bring a sense of excitement and wonder to performances that has faded for adult audiences. In some instances, a school performance is the first time the kids have seen a harp or listened to a piccolo or heard pieces by Beethoven or Mozart.
“I think for most of these kids the sound of almost any of this kind of music is so different that they’ll try it,” Brockel said. “I think it’s really exciting and just amazing. The concerts are usually held in a gym, of course, and the kids are all sitting on the bleachers and it looks like a recipe for disaster when you first walk in, but it isn’t. It’s the exact opposite. It’s just absolutely amazing to see the look of attentiveness on their faces. They really get wrapped up in the sound.”
Musicians need to be cognizant of who they’re playing for — no more than a 30-minute concert for elementary schools and don’t expect miracles of nonfidgetiness from kindergarteners.
“Of course they squirm. They’re little worms, they just wiggle all over, and that’s fine. They can’t sit still, maybe, but they can still listen and they do the best they can,” Brockel said.
Making the concert interactive generally helps in holding interest.
“The musicians that play, most of them will talk a little bit about the music and give kids a little handle to it so they have something to listen for,” Brockel said. “Sometimes they have special music that they’ve found or created themselves to appeal to a certain level of education.”
But no matter what the age group listening or the instrument or style of music being played, Brockel said they’ve never had a school concert that didn’t generate attention.
“It’s great fun,” she said. “The kids have a really great response, and part of it is you have to give credit to their music teachers and the regular teaching staff because all of the concerts that we’ve done so far, the kids have been well prepared. They know concert manners, they know how they are expected to behave. They’ve had things explained to them about the kind of music they may be hearing and so the kids have been very receptive.”
The availability of school concerts and workshops varies from show to show, depending on the performers’ schedules. All concerts are free to the schools, and are arranged on a first-come, first-served basis.
There are still opportunities for school performances open for this season’s Performing Arts Society concert schedule. For more information, contact Brockel by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.