What picture do you suppose many people associate with “string quartet”? A bunch of old white men dressed like penguins playing stodgy old music for a few people who have learned to hold it in awe? Children don’t know that. When they hear a string quartet, or any kind of classical music, they love it.
I got a chance to witness it in person at one of the Eastern Music Festival’s “EMF Encircling the City” concerts. Greensboro violist and EMF faculty member Diane Phoenix-Neal conceived and started the series three years ago as part of the celebration of the festival’s 50th anniversary.
“EMF Encircling the City” is a partnership between the Eastern Music Festival and the Greensboro Public Library. The concerts take place in community rooms at the various library branches, with children as the target audience. Two different string quartets of Eastern Music Festival students divide the performance duties.
The room was crowded with interracial and intergenerational audience with a high proportion of preschoolers. Most of the youngest children (except the babies) sat on pillows at the musicians’ feet.
Phoenix-Neal first introduced the ensemble, which demonstrated each instrument in turn. The violinists played a theme from the movie Aladdin.
The violist played “Pop Goes the Weasel” and invited the audience to shout “Pop!” at the appropriate time. The adults present “popped” as enthusiastically as the children. The cellist chose the opening of a cello concerto.
The children were very noisy as Phoenix-Neal (or any of the quartet members) spoke, but sat with rapt attention while the music played.
I was surprised when Phoenix-Neal invited the children to guess the name of the first composer, but the quartet started Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the gaggle of children on the floor shouted his name after about eight notes.
The concert itself comprised movements of string quartets by Beethoven, Britten, and Ravel. I could see some of the children on their parents’ laps gazing around the room, but they were not fidgeting. No one shouted out. They loved the music. When given an opportunity to comment or ask questions, their excitement was palpable.
I also noticed how much fun the musicians were having. Members of small ensembles must continually give each other visual cues in order to stay together at important entrances or tempo changes.
The only one whose face I could clearly see was the violist, who always broke into a big grin as she looked toward other members. I don’t ever remember seeing such obvious joy at more formal concerts.
It was a bit of a surprise, therefore, when I spoke to the musicians after the performance and found that they were nervous to play for such an audience. True, they could make mistakes and no one would notice. On the other hand, children have no hesitation in letting everyone know when they’re bored.
The quartet shouldn’t have worried about that!
Why it matters
So where do so many grownups get the idea that classical music is stodgy old stuff that appeals only to elitists? They must not have had an opportunity to hear it as children.
More and more our schools are giving music programs short shrift. If they don’t eliminate music altogether, they treat it (along with art and foreign languages) as some kind of a frill and not part of real learning.
Apparently, anything that doesn’t appear on standardized tests no matter matters. My ex-wife taught English as a Second Language and had to police the lunchroom so that the “real” teachers could enjoy a duty-free lunch!
The cultural danger of devaluing music and the arts in the school curriculum is not only that children will not get exposed to classical music. They won’t get exposed to anything at all but the industrial music that gets airtime on our increasingly homogenized radio stations.
Photo credit: EMF brings music into libraries / News & Record