Young Audiences Music 101

Why outreach concerts for kids are different from concerts for grown-ups
1. Different types of concerts

For the sake of clarity, it is important to define the two main types of concerts for young audiences: commercial family concerts and outreach concerts (such as concerts in schools).

Family concerts exist within a commercial market and must usually contain elements which are easily recognized and trusted by the adults (who must buy the tickets and provide transport to the concert arena). These elements are usually:

  • Recognizable children's themes
  • Well-known performers (or performers who are especially associated with children)
  • Musical content which is recognized as “for children”. This is usually repertoire which the adults remember from their own childhood and wish to expose their children to, or repertoire which is so heavily marketed that it is easily recognized by adults and children alike.
  • Commercial music connected to popular products, films or TV shows
  • Traditional repertoire well within the children's existing experience or frame of reference

Since the parents must be convinced of the suitability and appropriateness of the concert ahead of time, their positive expectations create expectations for their children as well.

Outreach concerts, on the other hand, do not usually exist in a commercial market. This creates a unique concert situation with its own challenges, but also with great artistic opportunity. None of the children have bought tickets. There is no pre-existing will, expectation or trust connected to the concert. All these things need to be created by the performers during the first crucial minutes of the concert. At the same time, the performer is free of the artistic constraints and limitations commonly found in commercial concerts for children. Since the concert does not need to serve a theme, generate sales or teach a non-musical agenda - it becomes a platform for free artistic expression. This artistic potential is the greatest dividend available from outreach concerts. Only when the musicians do not reflect upon the nature of outreach concerts, and automatically extend goals and expectations from commercial concerts do outreach concerts become less than they can be.

Each concert production is unique. Even more than that, each outreach concert meets a unique audience. This means that, even though the production can play very consistently, not every audience will react in the same manner, have the necessary cultural references to connect with the program, or the required knowledge and preparation to respond to the music. This also means that there are no universal answers to the questions of what makes a good production. While there may be no universal answers to what makes a good concert production for young audiences, there are universal questions that each musician, producer and concert arranger should be asking.

Which questions can we pose in our work to strengthen our concert programs for children?

Which awareness points do we need to constantly keep in mind when creating programs for young audiences?

Concert productions have production parameters that the producer can work with to strengthen the concert experience. These parameters are:

  • Performers – who is playing?
  • Audience – who are they playing for?
  • Relevance – why is it important for the audience?
  • Content – what are they playing?
  • Form – how does it develop over time?
  • Theme – is there a common thread that binds the program together? (Does there need to be?)
  • Venue – where is the concert performed?
  • Time – when is the concert performed?

In certain situations, one or more of these parameters might already be fixed (for example having a school concert with the school’s largest room as a concert arena). A producer can consciously manipulate several (or all) of these parameters to strengthen the concert experience. Let’s discuss each of these parameters individually.

2. Production Parameters

Musicians create the moment

Performer quality is an important aspect of a successful outreach concert for young people. The specific qualities needed are often different from performer qualities ordinarily associated with other types of concerts. A good musician is only at their best in a given context, and a children’s concert is not an arena where all good musicians are able to excel. Normally, it is the job of the producer to secure or create a context where the performer can be at their best.

Performers need to have an artistic vision in which they believe, and the technical skill to realize it. But more than that, they need a strong will (and the ability) to communicate their artistic message directly to an audience of young people.

This artistic vision must be (or become) relevant for the target audience. This places a large communicative responsibility on the performers. The responsibility becomes even greater when the concerts are outreach concerts in the schools, since the audience has not personally made a choice to be at the concert. From the very start of the concert, the performers must convince the audience that this is the concert they want to be at – even if they don’t know it yet!

Performers of commercial concerts, where the audience has invested their own ticket money and time in the concert, can experience "bad" audiences. This usually happens when expectations are not met, the wrong expectations are created, or when the concerts’ marketing has reached the wrong target group. In school or outreach concerts, where the children have not chosen the concert themselves, it is the performer’s responsibility to actively build a relationship with the audience and communicate effectively. The performers are responsible for creating a "good" audience at each and every concert.

Producing good concerts for children is dependent on trust. The musicians must trust their audience. It is also vital that performers trust the judgment of their producer. The audience must be encouraged to develop trust in the performers. All involved must trust the communicative power of the music.

  • Where do we begin creating our concert?
  • Do we pick the music we want to present first, and then find the appropriate performers?
  • Or do we find really good performers and let them play what they know best?
  • What do we do with really good musicians that cannot communicate effectively with a young audience?
  • What do we do with really good communicators who do not perform at the highest level?
  • How do we recruit (or create) performers who can effectively reach young audiences?

They haven’t bought a ticket

The audience of an outreach concert is easily definable. We usually know a great deal about their ages, surroundings, experiences and preferences. Research in the fields of developmental psychology and sociology can give a great deal of insight into this type of audience, and in a way that is quite different from demographic studies of commercial concert audiences. At a commercial concert, the audience usually knows quite a lot about the performers, but little about each other. At a school concert, the audience doesn’t know the performer, but they usually know each other quite well.

A concert is both an individual and collective experience at the same time. Much of the success of a good concert lies in establishing a group dynamic in the audience, where all audience members actively participate in creating a group experience with the musicians and the music. At the same time, it is important that each individual audience member feels that their concert experience is relevant and personal.

  1. How does our young audience experience music?
  2. What kind of an audience dynamic do we want to create for (or during) our concert?
  3. What special adjustments must we make to our presentation for a particular audience?
  4. How do different age groups affect the way we create and present different concert programs?

Why should this be important to me?

Many (otherwise fine) school concerts have been stopped in their tracks by the simple question; “why should this be important somebody who is six years old?”

To paraphrase Postman and Weingarten’s three essential questions of teaching

  1. What kind of concerts are we producing for young people?
  2. Are they important?
  3. How do we know?

A young audience concert which lacks relevance for young people becomes nothing more than adults having fun while children watch. It is a type of artistic arrogance which puts the very audience it should be reaching, on the outside of the experience

There is no such thing as a bad audience at a school concert, only performances lacking in energy, motivation, commitment, relevance or communication. Yes, it is our fault.

  • How do we create relevance in our concert program?
  • How do we create the necessary “ownership” of the concert experience by our audience?
  • Is it enough to have a relevant theme or song lyrics?
  • If we do not want to perform music the audience already knows, how do we make the unfamiliar relevant?
  • How does one make music relevant?

Content, preferences and references
What do they like, and how (why) do they like it?

Concerts are about music, and the point of departure for any music-centered concert for young audiences must trust the musical content. Children have their own specific set of musical preferences and cultural references. It is important to work directly with children during the preproduction phase of the concert to ensure that any use of preferences or references is valid for the age-groups in the audience (and not simply assumptions by the adults).

Children live in a different perceptual world than adults. Children under the age of about nine or ten do not have established music preferences for rhythmic pulse, major and minor tonality or tempi. Most children experience music through what is described as "one track" listening. This means that they listen primarily to one aspect of music: the groove, the bass line, the harmonic progression, the melody or the timbre. For much of childhood, melody is perceived as a form or outline. Elements like intensity, dynamics and tempo are often mistaken for one another.

There are many myths about children and musical preferences: "Kids like rock", "Kids need to be tricked into listening to classical music", and so on. It is true that children usually like what they are told that they like, and effective marketing can establish musical preferences (although these preferences are usually linked to a "cult of personality" where the listener’s loyalties are more strongly attached to an individual artist, their clothes, hairstyle, image or song lyrics, and not necessarily to the actual music). One of the reasons that kids like rock (at least kids from about 11 or 12 years and up) is because rock has a steady rhythmic pulse that is usually over 114 bpm, clear melody, medium fast tempo and few movable parts (rhythm and lead guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and maybe keyboards). This music is perfect for single track listening. Entrainment (the phenomenon where humans synchronize to their surroundings by, among other things, movement) usually happens with children between 114 and 120 bpm. This happens regardless of style, which anyone who has seen preschool children move spontaneously while listening to Vivaldi will tell you.

  • Are our musical choices for concerts with children guided by misconceptions of what kinds of music children like?
  • Does programming music children like, different from children liking the music that we program?
  • Do we use children in an active role to confirm our production choices?
  • In what ways do we adapt our concerts for particular age groups?
  • How do we know when we have developed appropriate content for a particular age group?

Form and dramaturgy
Telling a story

The concert form is linked to the audience’s expectations, ability to concentrate over time, and their need to experience development in the concert.

An audience of young people have several natural questions they need answered by the performers during the course of the concert - Who are you? What are you doing here? What’s in this for me? The old teacher’s adage applies here - Children don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Without a clear and direct communication (and establishing of a relationship or social contract) between the performer and the audience, the musicians are reduced to being merely adults doing something. Children already have enough of that in their day. The form of the concert must reflect a will to connect and create a relation between the performers and the audience – and to hold the audience engaged over time.

The order, intensity and presentation of the music create their own special dramaturgy. Often, a thoughtful placement of the music in the program is enough to secure the feeling of forward motion in the concert program. When the music itself is not enough to propel the program forward, the musicians should consider other ways of creating the necessary dynamic or focus. Visual, stage and dramatic elements are all usable, but should not be used to the extent that they get in the way of the music. The purely auditory message of music is easily overshadowed by visual stimuli. The abstract nature of musical expression is easily overcome by the more concrete and understandable spoken communication of theater. When the drama comes first, we are producing theater. When the visuals come first, we are producing multi-media. If our intent is to create a concert experience, our focus must be on the music. The music must always come first.

Often stories, fairytales or other dramatic elements are used to give the concert form. The need to remain consistent with the story’s fictional contract creates conditions which often limit our artistic choices concerning the music. Often, the music ends up serving the story. There is an important difference between putting music into an existing story, and forming a narrative line around strong musical programming. When creating a concert using a dramatic plot, it is important to understand the tension and release of the plot line. A story line has its own form, and ideally the parallel musical form should be complementary so that the two lines can be mutually supportive. This is also true when using film or other audio/visual devices in the concert.

Children have a predictable concentration curve during the course of a concert. Concentration is highest during the first ten minutes or so, and drops off sharply before rising again shortly before the end. The form and content of the concert must be able to compensate for drops in attention to keep the concert alive and moving throughout its duration. Most concerts for children (and most classroom teaching in schools) experience a low-point in concentration about 2/3 of the way through a 45 minute period. This is often a good time for a dramatic break, change of pace, or shift in style.

  1. Is music the main element of the experience?
  2. Does the dramaturgy overshadow the music, relegating it to a secondary role in the concert?
  3. Does the order of the music, the energy and intensity in itself represent a varied and attractive dramaturgy?
  4. Does the concerts storyline run parallel to the "musical dramaturgy"?
  5. Does the use of non-musical elements (drama, visual effects, etc.) dominate the performance?

What should the concert be about?

Themes are popular with concerts for young audiences, and can be a good way to create a degree of understanding and expectation for the audience. But, of course, concerts should be about music. At a certain point, themes become larger than the music and the musical experience of the audience becomes subservient to the theme. An example of this are purely functional concerts for children like concerts about traffic safety, songs about the multiplication tables, or music which needs extensive explanation or dramatization to link the music up to the theme.

While a theme can strengthen a concert program by creating a clear position from which the audience can approach the concert, we must be careful to not “put the cart in front of the horse”.

  • What story are we trying to tell?
  • How is it connected to the music?
  • Can the music stand on its own merits, or is it dependent on the story?
  • Does the theme add relevance to the music, or does it limit the types of music that can be performed in the concert?
  • What kind of impression does the audience take home with them? Have they been at a concert, or has the performance mainly been about something other than music?

The room is an important part of the concert

The room (and how it is used by the performers) can be an essential part of the concert’s ability to communicate with its audience. The concert venue contributes most to the audience experience when it has (or receives) a direct relevance to the musical content. There are many aspects of the venue which must be considered. Does the audience have any existing feelings or associations connected to the venue? Does the venue itself create any expectations for the audience which the concert must account for? Does the venue contain any visual elements which are so novel or prominent that they represent competition for the audience’s attention?

Different rooms contribute different qualities to a concert. It is important to choose (or create) the room that is most beneficial to the artistic goals of the concert. Most of us automatically think of a large concert hall when we consider the optimal venue for a concert, but this is not always the case. Rock concerts, folk music, club music and other styles of music are often better and more relevant in other spaces. Although large concert halls can be an advantage because of their good acoustics and sight-lines, their weakness for young audiences is their size and form. A traditional stage-audience separation is not always an advantage for a young audience since it puts them in a passive role, watching something that happens someplace else. Often, a young audience will respond to this situation as if they were watching TV or a film, commenting out loud on what is happening and occasionally doing other things at the same time. This is perfectly natural, all things considered, and should be expected. The producer should always define the size and placement of the audience in regards to what is needed to effectively communicate the music, and not in relation to the maximum capacity of the concert hall.

The choice of venue has a visual value for the concert. A theater in Rococo style might be a great place to experience Bach cantatas because the visual effect of the hall harmonizes so well with our references for baroque music. A hip-hop concert in the same arena would probably lose some of its credibility. In any case, the visual effect of the concert hall disappears as soon as the lights go out. Even for concerts in gymnasiums (and in daylight), a strong performance will often make the room “disappear” for the duration of the concert.

  • What does the listener in the last row experience?
  • Does the room itself give relevance to the music? (We should note that a jazz club gives relevance to a jazz concert, but only for the adults who have the proper references. To children it’s just another room).
  • Which use of the room strengthens the musical content?
  • Are the performers in an imaginative world of their own which needs a "fourth wall" solution separating the performers and the audience?
  • How is the audience situated in relation to the performers?
  • Do the performers remain static on stage, or du they use the room and their ability to move around?
  • Is the concert strengthened by creating physical distance and isolating the stage with lighting? Or are we using lighting just because it is expected as a part of a “real” concert?
  • Is the concert strengthened by the use of a room where children feel secure and at home, like a classroom or a gymnastic hall? Or is the concert best experienced in a space that the audience is unfamiliar with?
  • How much intimacy does the concert require?
  • Can we adapt the room to the concert, or do we need to adapt the concert to the room?

Why now?

The placement of the concert in time can be an important factor. There is usually a date or time when a concert program is especially relevant, and the resulting musical communication stronger than at other times. This relevance can be anything from having Christmas concerts in December to scheduling preschool concerts during periods between children's napping and eating cycles. Sometimes the time of the concert is fixed due to tour logistics or other factors.

In some cases, the choice of an improbable time for a concert can actually arouse the curiosity and motivation of the audience. There are many examples of successful concerts at dawn, or at midnight. Concerts which simply happen, without there being an agreed upon concert time where the audience meets the performers, can also result in a dynamic and lasting concert experience.

  1. How can we determine the best time for our concert?
  2. Can we prepare our audience so that, when the concert happens, the timing is perfect?
  3. What factors determine the best concert time for our audience?
3. Other determining factors we can use to strengthen our concerts

Physical positioning
If it is closer, it is more important

Physical nearness, sightlines and the ability to hear well are essential for the young audience. Most people focus their listening visually. This means that children at a concert must be able to see, before we can expect them to hear. Physical positioning governs the way we must approach the way we place the audience and the performers in the room. Conventions of stage\audience thinking (which we are usually stuck with at traditional venues like concert halls) should not be taken as automatic premises for the concert.

A large, open space (like a gymnasium or blackbox) affords the flexibility to position the audience in a wide variety of ways. Many producers make the mistake of trying to recreate the traditional stage-audience separation instead of exploring the other possibilities presented by such a space.

Even the traditional limitations of orchestral concerts can be changed if the performers have the will to go out of their traditional roles in order to better communicate with their audience. One of the best orchestral concerts for young audiences I have seen recently integrated the audience into the orchestra by seating the musicians on “islands” of risers, and seating the children in among these islands. The children got to walk around and choose new vantage points after each piece. Every child was fully engaged, because they could get closer to the sounds, instruments and performers which interested them the most.

  • Can everybody see and hear well?
  • Does the audience sit close enough to the stage so that the performers are a natural focus point for the children (even those sitting farthest away)?
  • Is the maximum size of the audience governed by the size of the venue, or by the nature of the concert?
  • Can we manipulate the physical space between the performers and the audience to strengthen our musical communication?
  • What kind of physical positioning is optimal for the audience at our particular concert?

Psychological positioning
Who is visiting who?

A young audience can be psychologically positioned before the start of the concert. There are several simple ways to achieve this:

  • Control the manner in which the audience enters the concert arena. Experience shows that a systematic and controlled entry to the venue creates a better starting point for the performers. The performers don't have to start their performance by bringing the audience down to the energy level the music demands, they can bring them up. Chaos and noise during an uncontrolled entry bring other external elements into the concert hall. These must be allowed to run their course (or be extinguished) before the concert can begin. However, not all performers are capable of this!
  • Give the audience auditive and visual cues before the concert starts. An audience which enters a room with music softly playing in the background, a wash from stage lighting creating a mood, and a stage which invites curiosity is better prepared for the start of a concert. Find ways of signaling that something special is about to happen.
  • Create ownership to what is going to happen. Performers at the front door welcoming the children are important to the success of the concert. It defines ownership of the event and begins creating important relations between the performers and audience. There is a tremendous difference between musicians playing in the children's gym or classroom, and the performers welcoming the children to their concert arena. Certain programs will want the children to have a feeling of ownership to the concert. There are many roles available for participation: carrying equipment, helping with the rigging, serving as hosts for the performers, participating actively during the concert with musical activities, etc. Each individual concert program must evaluate which role for children is most productive or appropriate for that particular program.
  • What are the children's expectations upon entering the concert venue?
  • Are the performers aware of their ability to influence their audience in the minutes immediately preceding the start of the concert?
  • Who "owns" the room at the start of the concert?
  • What expectations do we want our audience to have to the concert they are about to hear?
  • How can we build these expectations in the time we have available?

The producer: an important external viewpoint
What kind of impression are you making on stage?

Talented musicians can almost always develop an interesting public concert on their own. But outreach concerts for children are different. We can have talented musicians, interesting music and ensemble playing of the highest standard - and still end up with a bad concert. This is because we need to communicate with an audience who has usually not chosen the concert, or even to be a part of the audience. This means that we have to use all the resources at our disposal to communicate with our audience; performance, spoken comments, body language, building a relationship with the audience, movement and nurturing the audiences concert experience all along the way.

We need to approach the creation of concert programs for children from the broadest possible perspective. This often entails the musicians working with a producer who can help the performers "see" their own performance from the outside (and from the audiences perspective) and help them make artistic choices (especially the hard ones!). We need other perspectives in the process as well; choreographers to form the way the performers move and use the room, theater instructors to define and form the dramatic elements of the concert, and reference groups of children to give direct feedback during the production process.

How do we get to the next tune?

Transitions between musical numbers are an important part of concert production. It is especially important in school concerts or other types of outreach concerts where the audience is not necessarily familiar with the music from before. Well formed transitions can strengthen the concert form, create expectations for the listener and establish an impetus that drives the concert forward. On the other hand, poorly thought through transitions can confuse the audience, fragment the concert form and diminish the flow of the performance.

There are many different techniques for effective transitions: everything from organic, musical transitions to well-crafted verbal commentary.

  • What effect do we want from our transitions?
  • Do the verbal comments draw the audience closer to the music and the listening experience?
  • Is the quality of the transitions on a par with the quality of the music? (or does the concert’s energy fade and forward movement dissipate the moment the musicians begin to talk?)
  • The performers have practiced for years. How much have they rehearsed their transitions?

Student involvement and activities
Learning by doing

It can often be an advantage to involve children directly in the concert in the form of activities such as songs, movement or the performance of rhythms. While, this sort of activity can enrich the concert, it can also reduce the quality of the listening experience for the members of the audience who are not actively involved. Inviting the audience to sing, move, or otherwise get involved can make their concert experience stronger and more dynamic. But, such activities must be carefully crafted for different age groups. Complicated rhythmic patterns, motor skills or song activities can demand so much concentration and effort from the children that they separate from the musical context of the concert and become isolated challenges. The performers must always be extremely conscious of why they are including activities in their program (relevance), and how they are working with the children (method).

  • Do our activities help the audience connect with the music?
  • Are the activities appropriate for the abilities of the age groups at the concert? (Good keys for singing, attainable motor skills and rhythmic activities are well documented in music education literature)
  • Do movement and rhythmic activities reflect the true rhythmic character of the music?
  • Do the musicians have a good methodology for presenting and leading the activity?
  • Is the activity rounded off in such a way that it leads naturally back in to the concert?
  • Is the activity placed within the concert form so that it strengthens the overall concert?

Who decides about the quality?
Good or bad for whom?

Kids deserve the best. There are few people who will argue that children deserve less than our best efforts. But what is "the best"? All of the people involved in creating or facilitating a concert experience for children have individual (and often widely differing) criteria for quality. It is vitally important to avoid the traditional double standard of children’s concerts. We should never present anything for a child that has less quality than what we would present for an adult.

  • Does the concert have focus on music as its primary form of expression?
  • Is the listening experience of the audience central to the concerts form and content?
  • Do the performers have an artistic vision for their performance?
  • Do the performers have a strong will to communicate their music to young audiences?
  • Do the performers play well, technically and stylistically?
  • Do the performers communicate effectively and directly with their audience?
  • Is the musical experience relevant for the audience (or made to be relevant within the course of the concert)?
4. Summary

This toolkit article is the first is a series brought to you by the Blackboard Music Project. The aim is to share and strengthen our joint knowledge around concerts for young audiences. We hope that you have found it interesting and please feel free to drop us a comment to let us know what you think.

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