Education Concerts: A Conversation with Ankush and Michelle
Everything Conducting founding team member, Ankush Kumar Bahl, is joined by recent E.C. contributor, Michelle Merrill, in writing the following article about education concerts including how they are created as well our best tips for a successful show...
Michelle Merrill: When I first thought about education concerts, it was for my very first audition with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. I was clueless...
Ankush Kumar Bahl: Me too! Putting together my first education concert at the National Symphony Orchestra was an extremely valuable learning experience, but definitely a trial by fire. I had done education concerts before, but not with a team and not on such a large scale… I mean, we had about 20 concerts each season and served over 40,000 students! There were a lot of people involved who were helpful and came with a ton of experience, but were also key decision makers at the NSO which made every part of every concert highly scrutinized and vetted.
MM: Yes! Even when I got to Detroit and had some experience under my belt, the first concert I did (only three weeks into the job), was a free Educational Webcast. That concert was already basically set, but we still ended up making a ton of changes to the script so it fit my voice.
AKB: Ah yes, your own voice - that is so important! I also had to adjust scripts at the beginning of my tenure, BEFORE I was trusted to write the script myself ;) There are so many things that you learn on the job and get better at after a few seasons, right? Unfortunately, we don’t all have the luxury of learning on the job, but if you are reading this, you are in luck! The goal of this article is to help you learn from our experiences so that you are one step ahead when you program your next Education Concert. There is so much to consider, but for now Michelle, where do you start??
Where to Start?
MM: The thing that helped me most at first was simply scouring the internet to see what other orchestras were doing: What themes did they pick? Did they focus on a single musical idea? What kind of repertoire did they do? I also went to education concerts in Jacksonville and Dallas to see how things played out in real time and took copious notes on what I thought worked well.
AKB: That is exactly what I did as well, researching online and in-person. Wherever you live, make it a point to attend the Education Concerts or YPCs (Young People’s Concerts) in your area. It doesn’t have to be at the New York Philharmonic or at Carnegie Hall. Every orchestra does them and does them well! I highly recommend that you reach out to your local orchestra and just ask to attend. Really!
PROTIP: You may not realize that most orchestras and conductors will welcome you to their rehearsals if you ask humbly and politely. Go ahead and email the general address on the orchestra’s website letting them know that you are a young conductor who is eager and willing to learn all you can from their organization (do not go deeply into your qualifications or attach a CV unless they ask). Most likely it is simply enough that you are there to learn and they will allow you to attend as long as you maintain a respectful distance, demeanor, and are appreciative. What education department at an orchestra is going to say ‘no’ to educating?
Of course, as Michelle mentioned, there is so much online today. Do the research and get your ideas started on the right path. This is NOT stealing, by the way. Repertoire is there for everyone to use and it's not like calling your next Halloween Concert A Halloween Spooktakular is trademarked by anyone! Err..well, I don’t think it is... Anyway, the most important parts are the content under the title and between the music, right?
MM: Right! To learn more about those details, I reached out to some great friends and colleagues who had already been working as assistant conductors for a few years. Sure enough, they graciously sent me scripts that both they and others had done so I could start to get a feel for how to organize these types of concerts. Of course, once I got to Detroit (as you mentioned earlier), there was an entire team dedicated to getting the program and script together. I fondly remember numerous roundtables in the conference room where we edited and retouched the scripts, even laughing heartily at a couple of “that’s what s/he said” moments that clearly didn’t work!
AKB: Ha! I have been there, but I usually leave those in for the orchestra to enjoy :) Next, what should we tell them about the nitty gritty details of getting an education program like this started?
The Nuts and Bolts
MM: One of the big things we would do is time the initial script to see how long it took in a read-through, then we would begin to trim and finesse based on that. One thing to note - it’s always better to start with MORE and trim away, than to start with too little and frantically figure out ways to add.
AKB: Agreed! So much will be left on the cutting room floor (and you will soon realize that less is more), but you want to end up with the best parts, so starting with more makes sense. Keeping the kids attention is key and if you spend too much time explaining a single concept too much in depth, you risk losing them!
Typically concerts are a maximum of one hour long from walking on and walking off stage (45 or 50 minutes could also be the standard at many orchestras, fyi). That would look like about… 35 minutes of music, 15 minutes of talking and participation, and then we usually add 10% for clapping, calming them down, etc. (about 5 minutes). That would equal 55 minutes - perfect!
MM: So now that you know how much time you would typically have, we should talk about next steps.
AKB: Of course. Usually, the education department would ask that you submit a proposal of what kind of concert you are looking to present to the students. For this, I would recommend that you submit a proposal with a number of the important elements outlined, but also a proposal that is easy to digest quickly and understand. Like I said, MANY people with many different backgrounds may look at this before it gets approved, so keep it clean and clear!
Let's go over what elements that proposal should have:
Concept and goals
Perhaps a marketing blurb
Outline any audience participation you may incorporate
List all of the repertoire: Composer, title, orchestration, timing
Are there any cuts? If so, let them know how long it will make the work (even if you don’t have the exact cut completely figured out yet)
Finally, summarize the total time in music and maximum orchestration required
MM: For sure! Also, the more of the concert you have fleshed out, the better. This is especially true for an audition where a committee will be looking to see what you can do. Use this opportunity to impress them from the get-go by having a script already thought through and will allow them to see your total concept and execution.
Also, sometimes it can be the education department who may come to you with an idea and ask you to help flesh out the repertoire and concept. This happened recently with me when I came to guest conduct the National Symphony for an all-female composer program.
AKB: Good point, there are many ways a show can be started/constructed and many roles of the conductor in that process. It can absolutely vary year to year and orchestra to orchestra.. Thanks for pointing that out! We want our readers to be ready for anything :) Now, there also might be some rules or guidelines that we haven’t mentioned that you will need to consider as well, right?
MM: Yes! First, be cognizant of the restraints of size. Depending on the budget for these concerts or the space of the venue, you could have the full orchestra or you have to make your concert work with a chamber orchestra or smaller group. The organization is looking for a partner who is flexible, so while it might work nicely with your original concept, you may not be able to do the Alpine Symphony on this one!
AKB: Fair point! Although, it is worth checking to see if your orchestra allows you to perform pieces or excerpts from a work and leave some instruments out. For example, doing a Strauss tone poem with triple winds (even though it is written for quadruple winds) may be allowed!
MM: Also, you may need to think about any union rules that may come up. For example, does using a member of the orchestra as a soloist or speaker cost more? If so, that could become cost prohibitive over numerous performances!
AKB: Finally, you should find out if you have a rental budget. Some publishers give discounts for education concerts and repeat performances but even those dollars can also add up quickly.
Boy, this is a lot to consider when programming, but there is so much more!! Michelle, I wanted to ask you, outside of the nuts and bolts, what aren’t we mentioning that is integral to education concerts?
Additional Elements and Considerations
MM: For me, Education Concerts must be entertaining with an educational slant. There are two things I always try to incorporate into every educational show:
1. Always have at least one piece of music that the kids will recognize. This could be starting the concert with Superman March or ending with Star Wars, or it could be the opening of Beethoven 5 or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. You can even look into what the students will be studying at that time of the year (if they are lucky enough to have a music curriculum) and try to find pieces to incorporate that way. Finlandia, for example, is a big piece students tend to learn in school.
AKB: That is smart. It is just like at a concert of your favorite rock band when the audience goes wild after an old favorite or classic begins. It is so much fun to hear the gasps from the children when the orchestra starts to play a piece they know!
2. Also, have a participation element (or two!). Teach the audience how to conduct a simple 2/4 pattern, getting faster, getting slower, getting bigger for louder and getting smaller for softer, and then invite them all to join you in conducting the next piece (turning around to react to what they are doing and encourage their skills). You could also find a way to get them to sing. Once we did the Barber of Seville Largo al factotum, and in place of the Italian lyrics (to help them better understand the gist of the story, and make it a little silly), I had the audience sing to the tune “Brushes and Scissors.. Combs and Hair.” It was very ‘Warner Bros,’ but the kids got a kick out of it. Then, when the tenor sang the original, they went nuts over it. Also, if you only have time for one participation component, put it at about 2/3rds of the way through the concert (think Golden Ratio/Golden Mean). This will help bring kids back into the action - it can be hard for 4th and 5th graders to sit still for a whole show!
AKB: Another great audience participation element I have used is to create a ‘storm’ in the concert hall by using the students. Here is how: in waves of students throughout the hall, you ask them to 1) rub their hands together to create the wind, 2) snap their fingers to mimic rain drops, 3) pat their thighs to create heavy rain, and 4) stomp their feet to create thunder. I have even had the percussion section join us at the peak and asked the backstage crew to flicker the house lights on and off in order to help the desired effect - and make the students shriek! It always sounds amazing, even with smaller audiences. After they create a storm, you could ask them to ‘let the orchestra try’ and then play the storm scene from Beethoven 6 or William Tell Overture.
MM: Oh that reminds me, I have done a great one before with Ives’ Country Band March. This was especially good because it incorporated a desired element for the teachers: singing together. What you do is have one half of the room sing “London Bridges” and the other half of the room sing “Yankee Doodle” one after another in two groups. Then you simply have them sing the two songs together. They will think it’s hilarious, and it’s a great example of exactly what is going to happen in the piece they are about to hear.
AKB: That is awesome and I am totally stealing that! Another question, have you ever found ways to utilize other community organizations? I imagine that it can be a great way to bring in other subjects or elements not normally seen in the concert hall, right?
MM: Yes! One of my favorite concerts was titled “Symphony of Science” and we brought in a scientist from the Michigan Science Theater. He had all sorts of props to help demonstrate musical waves and sound nodes. It was definitely a more advanced program and I even learned a thing or two!
AKB: That is great and also mentions something we have not yet talked about - the use of a co-host! I have worked with many on my concerts and they always help, if you can swing it. Franky, it can be A LOT to hold the attention of the orchestra and the audience when your back is always turned toward one of them and you are constantly switching between conducting and speaking. It is so helpful when someone else continues the concert after you conduct as you catch your breath! If you can’t afford to hire an actor, perhaps a member of the education department or the orchestra would want to co-star with you? Or as you did, getting a member of the community shouldn’t cost much (if anything) since it will help promote their organization as well!
MM: I was lucky my first year to have Damon Gupton, who is not only an actor, but a great musician and conductor, as a co-host. But not every co-host is going to come from the music world, so you may need to review things like composer names and terms so that they feel comfortable.
AKB: Wow, you had Damon your first season? How lucky were you?? Anyway, whether or not you have a co-host, I have found it to be extremely helpful to put my next line (or the next thing that I had to do) on a post-it note at the end of the piece in the score so that I did not hesitate between the end of a work and my next ‘act.’
MM: My goodness - I’m stealing that tip! How did I never think of that before!? Can I also recommend that you don’t shy away from real terms, but don’t overload either...
AKB: Didn’t you have a trick for that?
MM: Yes, Debora Kang (formally with the New York Philharmonic and now the Director of Education in Detroit) had the (evidence based) rule that if you ever had something important to share (and you want the students to really remember it), you repeated it THREE times! It feels a little awkward at first, but I try to incorporate this when writing scripts now.
AKB: Speaking of the education department, you really need to be in lock step with them and you can’t just unilaterally decide on repertoire or make up a topic out of thin air without consulting them. I mean, besides wanting to include the curriculum that the school districts are focusing on, you also have to think about how marketing is going to sell this to teachers as well, right?
MM: Absolutely, they are asking their parents and schools to commit time and resources (think school buses and chaperones) to this experience and will continue to come as long as they see value, but may slowly allocate their resources elsewhere if the concerts are not well received, not educational, or not particularly entertaining!
AKB: That is a scary thought and reminds me how important these concerts are and how seriously we need to take them! Your turn, any more pro-tips?
Do’s and Don’ts
MM: Yes! Here is my concise list:
DON’T be too serious! Think of children’s programming. You don’t have to be so silly and goofy, but you can be more on their level. Revert back to being a kid for an afternoon and watch Sesame Street. Take notice of how the adults talk to children and explain even difficult concepts.
DON’T however, shy away from serious repertoire. Yes, you have to make sure that things don’t get too long, but you would be surprised how intently children will listen - if you prepare them beforehand. DON’T forget about the orchestra. Find pieces that they will enjoy playing and find ways to utilize musicians during the show (either through talking or performing). Try showcasing a different family of instruments and have them wave to the audience? Finally, find ways to keep it interesting since you don’t want the people onstage just “going through the motions” but rather, engaged with you and the audience as well.
DO Wave to the audience when you walk onstage and when you leave. This is an extremely easy way to connect with the crowd and make them feel a part of the experience
DO Memorize your script. If you are constantly having to look down at a script, you have a disconnect with the audience, when you could instead be looking at them directly being fully engaged. (Click here to read Michelle's article titled Speaking to an Audience)
DO think twice about using visuals. We live in a world of visual stimulation and there are two sides to this: you can use visuals to help aid the presentation or you can leave visuals out of it to draw kids in a different way. I think there are merits to both! I once did a concert called “Composers on Instagram” which was a really fun and unique program. However, if you can find ways to connect with students without the use of electronic visual aids and instead connect the music to what they see on stage in front of them ( the different instrument families, the moving of the string bows, the pounding of the drums, the arms of the conductor), it will help their minds and ears expand even more by tapping into a different part of their brain.
AKB: That is such a tough balance but love what you wrote about that! I will add a few more do’s and don’ts now…
WIth regards to cuts: be specific, be early with submitting the cuts, and be thoughtful of your librarian’s time.
I also need to echo what you said earlier: keep it fresh. This is for you, the co-hosts, and the orchestra! The orchestra is listening and paying attention at all times, so I always found it fun to keep them on their toes as well. Think about it… very often we are doing two shows (in one two and a half-hour service) day after day, so you want to keep the orchestra listening but also need to keep yourself and your co-host in a fresh groove.
Oh, and I almost forgot: when you ask the audience to scream, they often REALLY scream (which can hurt adult ears on stage and off), so be aware of that and don’t ask them ‘How y’all are doing?’ too many times in a show. Also, know that once you rile them up, it can be hard to reign them back in!
MM: Good point! I actually rarely ask a question to the audience just in case someone decides to take the opportunity to inappropriately show off in front of their friends.
AKB: Ha! What are you talking about? That has definitely never happened in one of my shows ;) One final piece of advice: I had one excellent co-host insist that we went through the script (very quickly at least) every morning. I didn’t think that it was necessary at first, but after making that a part of our morning routine, I quickly realized that it made the shows super fun, easy, and without any major unforced errors.
MM: Completely agree. If anything, it helps to get me in the right mindset for the day and, of course, helps me refresh my own memory. To further add to what you said and to the tune of keeping it “fresh” for the orchestra, if I was doing a show solo, I would really try to mix up what I said and be a little more “off the cuff” and improvisational - just to keep all of us on our toes!
AKB: Exactly. I also love what you said about keeping everyone on their toes. I often try to think about the great Disney or Pixar movies and make the experience equally enjoyable for the parents and the kids (or in this case, the students and teachers/orchestra musicians).
AKB: Michelle, thank you so much for helping me out with this article! Having been to one of your YPCs at the Kennedy Center with my kids, I can say with first hand experience that you do an excellent job and that you do incorporate so much of what we talked about in this article into your shows.
MM: Aww, thank you Ankush! One of the greatest contributions we can make as conductors is to give young people the awe-inspiring experience of being in front of a live orchestra. These concerts are our chance to cultivate the next generation of life-long listeners. I just love doing them.
AKB: I do as well. I would like to add that most institutions agree these concerts are extremely important to their community, so they expect their conductors to really dive head-first into the process of creating and executing these at the highest level. They know that this is a unique (and sometimes singular) opportunity to grab the attention of these young minds and get them interested in listening to or learning more about classical music. I certainly remember my first time hearing a live orchestra and think about that moment every time I create and conduct one of these shows. Thank you again Michelle - and thank you all for reading. Happy programming and don’t forget to HAVE FUN!