Why Are Kids Better?

Why Are Kids Better?

Last Sunday I experienced the highpoint of my concert going for this season. From the programming to the performances to the audience, I felt like I was partaking in a rock concert rather than a classical chamber orchestra performance. The hall was jammed packed with an audience covering all backgrounds and ages. The energy was electric. Likewise, the attention given to the players was spellbinding, as I did not hear one cough the entire evening.

Except for the ringers in the wind section, the oldest musician was eighteen years old. I was at the finale concert of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra Association. This 40-year-old organization has been a home for countless young musicians in the Bay Area, a place where both a beginning and an advanced string student can experience the joys and travails of playing in an orchestra. That evening the advanced orchestra premiered a work of my composition student, a high school junior named Matthew Cmiel. The beginning orchestra premiered another new work by Lily Chin, Double Dragon Dance, arranged for Chinese Zithers and strings. The show was rounded out by J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D Major and both Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.2 and Symphony No. 29. All of these pieces were performed with the same high focus, technical prowess, and musicality. The audience responded in kind, giving thunderous (and deserved) applause and hoots to the composers and to their works.

Time again and again I have witnessed concert halls packed with avid followers for youth orchestras. Often these ensembles have better precision and musicality than many adult community orchestras, some of which have professionals in their ranks. The audiences for these groups are not just blind followers, either. They are critical listeners, more versed in music literature than the average concertgoer of the local symphony series.

PACO exhibited what I have also found to be the case: these same audiences tend to be more receptive to new music than the average symphony audience. While I have been blessed to work with incredible professional musicians, those same musicians would also say that younger players tend to be more open to trying new music and that willingness is passed along to their audience. Adults who would normally have no clue who or what a composer of concert music is today come away from these performances of new music by youngsters eager to hear and learn more about it.

So, what is it about concerts by youth that can create such an optimum listening experience for both contemporary music and the traditional repertoire? Is it because the audience is filled with their fans, friends, and family? Are not our concerts filled with our fans, friends, and family? Do we feel freer to open our minds and hearts to children performing in a way that we do not allow ourselves in “professional” engagements? Or is it the way youth perceive and experience music? Do they get something we do not and is that translated into their performances? What is it that fosters passionate supporters of the musical endeavors of youth? Is it a quality limited to the way we adore our offspring? And, if so, can we create that same spirit without having our own parents in tow?

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Why Are Kids Better?

  1. jenny bilfield

    Open Ears, minds
    I’m glad that Belinda covered the topic of ‘reception to new music’, and did so eloquently. In many ways, the fact that audiences and young performers are not wed to specific styles, genres, actually opens their ears, hearts, minds. I also believe that audiences in general, are so frequently underestimated and I find categorizations (eg: ‘blue hairs’ for the senior crowd) quite repellant. People came to the concert she referenced, because they had a compelling reason to do so: the young performers. And, the performers probably played well because they responded to a conductor whom they respected. How could the smart people in the audience not hear and appreciate the results of this union? Creating meaningful experiences, and a reason for people to be there, really does unlock wonderful responses in listeners, whether it’s music of our time, or before. A sense of discovery. Some of the most prejudiced listening comes from within our field, sad to say — ‘connoseurship on speed,’ if you will. I, too, have really loved the freshness of youth concerts — it’s a sort of ideal forum to make music — without the same economic pressures on the performer (albeit perhaps other pressures). Creating opportunities for that energy to develop and flourish, and to be enjoyed, is our challenge as music ‘professionals’.

  2. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    I think part of what goes on for me when I attend youth concerts is that, on the one hand, I recognize that the performers aren’t as technically accomplished on their instruments as professional musicians, and the music is given less nuance and subtlety that it should have… But overwhelming that small tick in the minus column is the HUGE plus that these performers are head over heels, heart-and-soul dedicated to the music.

    I was recently commissioned by a high school concert band, and the kids in the band were constantly asking questions about the music, playing with a delightfully overzealous excitement, and generally had so much energy put into the project that you couldn’t help but love it, and them. Sure, there were some technical mistakes. But there was an enthusiasm and zest in the performance that were totally irresistible.

    On the other hand, I’ve had pieces performed by professional groups that were beautifully accurate but just dull. Clearly, many of the performers were disinterested, there for the paycheck, and just kind of phoning in their performance, because they had the chops to pull it off without investing too much effort. But the sound of effort, the excitement of pouring time and nervous energy into a performance… that leads to a good audience reception every time. The lackluster professional performance made a better CD for me to send out as a representative of my work, but the high school performance was much more enjoyable and involving at the scene of the crime.

    My ideal performers would still be professionals, if I could find a whole ensemble of them who were invested and excited about the music. But failing that, there’s something to be learned from the student who plays the bass drum with an indescribable joy and nervousness and excitement… versus the professional percussionist who stands there looking bored until his/her moment comes to nonchalantly play the drum part.


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