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In Symphony's New Program, Babies Take Center Stage At Helzberg Hall

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
An audience of kids, and their adults, circled a Kansas City Symphony string quartet on stage at Helzberg Hall.

If you're the parent of young children — especially under the age of 5 — it might be difficult to picture them at a classical music concert. No talking, listening quietly, sitting still, and not kicking the seat in front of them for more than a hour? 

The Kansas City Symphony is working to break down some of those perceived barriers with a new program called Petite Performances — for the youngest audiences, ages zero to 6. This series invites listeners on stage for a short concert at Helzberg Hall, up close to the musicians and their instruments. 

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Symphony cellist Allen Probus played in the quartet. Three of his six children attended the performance.

"There's something about feeling like you're connected with them on stage," says education manager Stephanie Brimhall. "The stage itself is also an instrument. It vibrates and it moves. So being able to feel that, and actually feel what the musicians are doing as well as hear and see what they're doing — it makes a difference."

The Symphony offers a range of education programs and family concerts available to kids. But Brimhall says programming for very young children needed "a little beefing up." She has two kids of her own under the age of 6, so she knew they'd need the opportunity to dance, to sway, to clap and to be vocal. 

"In planning this program, I was constantly asking myself: 'What could my kids do?' Because they were kind of on the early end and the late end. And there's a big difference between 1 and 5," Brimhall says, "so we thought about different ways we need to approach it to make sure everyone had a positive experience."

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Kathleen Saysoff was inspired to bring her family, after taking her daughter, Reagan (at left), to the ballet. 'She was more interested in the instruments,' she says.

In January, for the first performances in the series, violist Jenifer Richison helped arrange some of the nursery rhymes, such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Dinosaur," and "Itsy, Bitsy Spider," for the Symphony's string quartet. 

"It's really fun watching kids recognize pieces versus just listening to something. It's also interesting to watch how they engage with each piece, and how they interact with different dance styles," Richison says. "How they danced to the polka and how they danced to the jig was totally different, and I didn't expect that."

Richison and the other musicians knew that, for this concert, they would need to be flexible and attuned to the attention span of their audience. 

"It's less pressure and it's more pressure," Richison says. "Because you want them to have a good experience and enjoy themselves. And they don't know what's going to happen. So you want to present something exceptional."

Kansas City Symphony's next Petite Performances concert takes place on May 21 at Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts with a focus on woodwinds: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. The cost is $5 per child. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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