First impressions are everything. We've all had memorable first introductions, and know that many long-lasting opinions — both positive and negative — usually come from those moments. Unfortunately, classical music seems to have accumulated more than its share of unfortunate initial encounters. And with the frequent cry of doom facing the industry, it's more important than ever to make sure the genre's first impression is a good one.
Enter Rob Kapilow, the conductor, composer, and commentator who has made an impressive career presenting classical music in a positive light. This energetic, enthusiastic musician works to educate people by offering specially designed programs for all ages — children who are new to the genre and adults who have soured to it. Through his national presence and distinctive series, including Family Musik and What Makes It Great?, Kapilow has an unwavering dedication to making music an event that is enjoyed by all.
Kapilow appears on call-in radio shows across the country to promote his performances, and he regularly takes the opportunity to ask people why they hate classical music. The response is usually related to first experiences, such as a concert they hated or an elementary school music teacher who told them they were tone-deaf. Through Family Musik, Kapilow has set out to change things right from the beginning.
"One of my goals is to make first experiences great," he says. "They should come and feel like the concert hall is a place where they had a great time — they didn't do anything wrong, they interacted and had a participatory experience — and that it just be a place that they want to come back to. It's really important to me that it be welcoming."
The Family Musik series, now in its third year at Lincoln Center, has quickly turned into one of the most popular, creative family events in New York and across the nation. The performances appeal to all ages and are designed for "kids from five to 95." When Kapilow had children of his own and began exploring the available activities, he realized that there were very few events that catered to the entire family. He responded by creating programs that are interesting, not just to children but to adults as well. He's managed to successfully bridge the gap by choosing his material wisely.
This season's installment includes three programs, and each one gets families on their feet and involved in the music in a different way. During one of the highlights of the first program, Fairy Tales (December 2), Kapilow will invite children onto the stage to choreograph a dance for Cinderella with a mop and a rag. Tap Tap (February 3) will feature the premiere of Kapilow's tap dance concerto, Nick-Nack Paddy Whack (written with and for dancer Ayodele Casel), and will ask the audience to be an integral part of the piece by clapping rhythms while Casel dances. The final concert, Play Ball! (March 3), will include Kapilow's setting of "Casey at the Bat," before which he'll explain how music interprets literal things (the bat hitting a ball, for example). During an epilogue he plans to bring local Little League players onstage to symbolize his favorite thing about baseball — that children are its future, and even if you've struck out or lost, the game itself will always go on.
One of the primary goals of Family Musik is to demonstrate that classical music is a living form of art. It wasn't just composed by people who died long ago.
"Not only is composition being written today," explains Kapilow, "but it's being written by Rob, the guy who they've met and he's right up there, and hey — we're hearing this piece for the first time! Concerts can be brand new music and old music, and there's no difference."
Kapilow particularly interacts with the children and makes sure they're enjoying themselves on every level. He encourages everyone to have fun the entire time, and asks the audience to clap in patterns, sing along, learn a little dance, or any of a variety of activities that illustrate the piece. These exercises and explanations comprise about a third to a half of each concert, and then it's all put together and performed by Kapilow's top-notch colleagues. By then the children are invested in and knowledgeable about the music, so they're completely engaged and participating in the event.
"I think we have a model of decorum about concerts that is really inappropriate," says Kapilow. "The truth is, when kids are really silent, they're often having a really terrible time — they're zoning out and counting the acoustical tiles on the ceiling. I think there should be vibrant energy — they should be bouncing in their seats. Think of how repressive it is to hear a great movement go by and not clap. I mean, is that really the message you want to give kids? Have a great reaction but don't show it? I want them to have an enthusiastic, participatory experience."
There is a plaque in Lincoln Center's North Plaza, quoting John D. Rockefeller, which Kapilow says fits right into Family Musik's mission. "The arts are not for the privileged few," it reads, "but for the many. Their place is not on the periphery of daily life, but at its center. They should function not merely as another form of entertainment but, rather, should contribute significantly to our well being and happiness."
"The idea is to take this stuff and make it not far away," Kapilow says. "For so many kids classical music is distant from them. Even if they're at a concert it just feels foreign to them. So the idea of all these concerts is to bring it to their lives, to make it at home to them. I think having given them a place where they think it's a creative, fun, alive place to be — and that's what Lincoln Center and any concert hall is — then my mission would be done. Then we get them for What Makes It Great?"
Karissa Krenz writes frequently about the arts.