Behind the Scenes: Our Story

A few years ago I was asked how it was that I became a musician, in particular an opera singer of all things! Did I come from a musical family? How did a kid find out about opera anyway? Was I taken to operas as a child? The answer was simple. My mom turned on the radio and I listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday morning. I don’t think this is a particularly unusual story. The gift of music coming to me, a child, in this free and magical way was life changing. So, I sang, was blessed with an extraordinary musical education and developed an eternal and abiding passion for music.

Those same few years ago I was also thinking a lot about the problem of audience development for classical music. How do we create an appetite for classical music in youngsters who then grow into concert going adults? I began to research and found that, like biology, there are critical periods in a child’s development when they are the most receptive to the beauty of classical music. If not exposed to these sounds by an early age (cutoff appears to be about 9 to 10 years) a child’s mind and ears seem to close up as cultural and peer pressures increase. This fact fueled my mission, how to get classical music to kids.

During that time I was introduced to Brenda Barnes, now my friend and collaborator, the President of KUSC Classical Radio in Los Angeles. Brenda is a spectacular person with great foresight and creativity. She and I met and both agreed that the Internet might just be the mode of delivery for classical music education, just the one to captivate kids, our mission was forged: to merge the world of classical music with the world of the web. After all most every kid lives part time on a computer. And so it began.

Brenda and I began discussions with all kinds of people. Through some of her Board of Directors, we were put in contact with Internet venture capital people, and people already working in the world of Internet development. We had some pretty overwhelming meetings with individuals who spoke a language we could barely understand at the time. “Wow, Brenda, did you get all that?” A classic question I typically asked in our parking lot debriefings. Then there was the commercial web design firm. These guys were great, but after an initial investment of our time and money, they produced a production budget that would choke a non-profit horse. Oops, our brilliant idea would require a few hundred thousand to become a reality. Some advisors told us that it was impossible for us to do this project, we could not develop web delivery and content simultaneously. It had bankrupted many an endeavor. After all, we weren’t Disney or Pixar, were we?

We stopped. By that time, I was only more convinced that this was a worthwhile project. Brenda’s support never faltered. We had to re-group. I began to think that I should just close the door to my office and somehow just do this work myself. I became even more determined.

The first step was to find a web designer who would be willing to work with a non-profit. I had to find a designer who had imagination, creativity, energy, zeal for the work, belief in the process, and would be able to work with someone as inexperienced as I was. That was a problem! My friend Bernie Frischer, the visionary and genius who developed “Rome Reborn” (a virtual reality project which maps sites of antiquities) also believed in our mission and made the introduction to the fantastically talented Ann Zumwinkle. Ann has brains and humor to burn. With two very tiny grants, I was able to hire Ann and her team which includes John Marchena, a brilliant designer with great artistic sensibility. We were off to the races.

Now, just what were we going to teach? How were we going to draw kids into the world of classical music. We needed a combination of colorful graphics, great music, and engaging experiences. Countless hours were consumed by debate, even down to the color “palette” we would use. Matisse won out. We now have a gorgeous home page with six musical snippets of music set to animation.

The music decisions were made carefully. We decided to feature music that was performed and/or composed by my musical friends and acquaintances. Why? First, they are major talents in their own right, and secondly, they believed in the project and simply donated their own performances which they themselves had recorded. The music that opens the home page, for instance, is a performance of Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite by Robert Theis, a gifted pianist who has won the Prokofiev Piano Competition, no small feat. Rob also recorded the beautiful Chopin Etude that is featured on the “Solo Instrument” snippet. My very good friend, the famous composer Morten Lauridsen, graciously agreed to allow us to feature a recording of his world wide hit “Dirait-on” for the choral music button. There is a very special recording of the composer Byron Adams’ “The Vision of Dame Julian” performed by the well known soprano Camille King. Byron is also a friend.

Brenda and I have always wanted our music education project to have a broad reach. We designed our education modules, one for each form of music featured on the home page, to be kid friendly, with music learning games. We wanted the experience to be available to families and to teachers. With music education falling farther and farther behind in the public school agenda, we hoped to provide an accessible experience for teachers, so we imbedded cross curricular experiences as well as developed a standards based downloadable lesson plan for each module. There is some debate within the music education community about teaching “programmatic” music (music with a story line) versus just teaching music (without any plot line.) Obviously, we want a child to be able to listen to a piece of music in a wholistic way, but after surveying what is already out on the web, our feeling was that the experiences needed to have some “glue” around them, something to captivate a child’s imagination and keep them interested. Simple “drive-by” experiences in music composition, for instance, didn’t seem to keep a kid’s attention as well as music which was embedded in a context. We did a lot of research! We did a lot of testing! We kept the objectives relatively simple. We used language for the kid’s listening guides that would be friendly, not too traditional. We borrowed some theory from Rob Cutietta, a music educator and the Dean of the USC Thornton School of Music . He uses terms to teach about music that kids can relate to … color, mood, energy, and flow.

Our dream was realized with the launch of “Creative Kids Central” www.kusc.org/kids on the home page of KUSC. So far, we have an education module produced on learning about symphonic music based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, and a chamber music education module based on Brahms’s “Clarinet Trio in A Minor”. The rest of the planned modules are in design and development mode.

Recently we were approached by the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, California. They were requesting our permission to use our Scheherazade graphics to compliment their family concert which was going to feature that composition. Working with the energetic people in the education/outreach department of the Symphony and with the assistant conductor, our graphics became stretched into a full 30 minute “movie” which was displayed on a giant screen behind the orchestra in the new and stunning Segerstrom Hall of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. A bank of computers was set up in the foyer of the concert hall, as we watched as many kids played with our Scheherazade education module as a pre-concert warm up to the performance. Now that was gratifying!

Has it been easy? Yes and no! The mission has been the easy part, the realization a complicated adventure. We did it without massive funding, with a tremendously talented team, and with huge support for the work. We now have a lot more experience! Our enthusiasm remains at high pitch. There is a future for this form of web-based music education, one can only speculate about the possibilities and potential.

Jama Laurent, Ph.D.
President, Creative Kids Education Foundation