Few concert series in New York City are as ultra-popular as are the New York Philharmonic's Very Young People's Concerts (VYPCs). Geared to children between the ages of three and six, these events began four years ago when Philharmonic staff members decided to offer an alternative for the increasing numbers of families bringing preschool- age children to the long-running Young People's Concerts, which are designed for older children. The response was so enthusiastic that the number of performances at the 450-seat Merkin Concert Hall has been increased. There are now three repetitions of each of three programs, with one of each offered to preschool and kindergarten groups. And still they are sold out as soon as the tickets go on sale.
The music is regular repertory, not children's music, with each season's programs revolving around a single composer or group of composers. This season's VYPCs begin on April 26, and the theme is "Dvorák and Friends." With the memorable lilt and infectious energy of folk song and dance, music by Central European composers Dvorák, Smetana, and Bartók will unify and animate programs that examine basic musical concepts: "Allegro and Adagio," "Forte and Piano," and "Treble and Bass."
Journalist Nadine Brozan recently sat down for a conversation with four participants in the VYPCS: Philharmonic violist Dorian Rence, who authors the stories that she reads at the concerts; Principal Viola Rebecca Young, who is the host of the series this season; and violinist Kerry McDermott, who is a frequent participant and whose children are regular audience members; and Lori Custodero (a childhood music specialist and program coordinator of music education at Columbia University's Teachers College), who is the consultant in developing this series.
Nadine Brozan: Describe what happens at the concerts. Do the children simply sit in their seats, listen : or squirm as three-year-olds are wont to do : and go home?
Kerry McDermott: We invite the parents to show up 15 minutes early and we go into the lobby with our instruments and play songs like "Twinkle, Twinkle" (or the variations on it com- posed by Mozart) and offer games that reinforce the theme of the day such as "fast _slow" or "high _low." The children can talk to us, and after the concert they are invited to stay to try out small versions of the instruments.
Dorian Rence: During the performance I tell a story, sometimes over the music and some- times during quiet moments, accompanied by projected illustrations.
KM: My son and daughter : who are nine and seven years old, respectively : have told me that what they like most are the story and the slideshow.
DR: Yes, children are hard-wired from an early age to listen to stories, so I felt that the best way to keep them interested in music is to do so through a story with illustrations. I disturb the music as little as possible, and the story has an ebb and flow like the music.
Is there a common thread running through the stories in different concerts?
DR: Yes, I created a character whom I named Philippe the Penguin partly because the illustrator of the slides that accompany the story, Marion Schoevaert, is French, and partly because penguins look like musicians dressed in tails. Philippe's story always ends with a cliffhanger for the next concert. He is so popular that one mother told us that every night when her little boy goes to sleep, he says, "God bless Philippe."
How are the performers and instruments chosen?
KM: We draw on the whole Philharmonic Orchestra to form chamber groups. The ensemble is predominately made up of those string players who want to be involved, but every concert has a guest artist : a bassoonist, say, or a piccolo player.
How do you think children as young as three engage with classical music?
Rebecca Young: I think they just take it in for what it is. I don't think they analyze what they are being told.
Lori Custodero: We generally underestimate the ability of children to understand musical ideas. If you babble very fast to babies, they recognize the humor and laugh. Often, in mis-educating children, we think it necessary to teach them what fast and slow, soft and loud (sub-themes of the concerts) are. They know it already. Children have a deep understanding of what loud sounds and soft sounds mean. So they come to us, even at three, with a lifetime of experience. Last year we asked the audience how the Can-Can made them feel, and they said, "Happy, dancey."
Then the musicians played it in a different tempo and that was funny to the children. When we are very young, we process music at a very basic level through our emotions and through movement, feeling all the things that adults feel but regulate.
What do you hope to impart of lasting value to children?
RY: I remember going to the Young People's Concerts when Leonard Bernstein led them and his voice, his enthusiasm, and his love for what he was sharing with the audience made such an impression on me that I wanted to be on that stage. I used to roll up my program and pretend it was a violin, and I wanted to be part of that orchestra : not just any orchestra but that orchestra.
But surely not all the young concertgoers will be inspired to become professional musicians. What are your other hopes for these concerts?
DR: We can instill joy in music in children, and also reignite our own love for and joy in music.
For further information, visit the New York Philharmonic.
Nadine Brozan is a journalist now retired from The New York Times.