The Boise Philharmonic's Sounds Like Fun! concert series is tailored to build young children's appreciation for symphony music. Each of the five concerts, divided by sections of the orchestra, is 45 minutes long and uses kid-friendly music selections—including the Spongebob Squarepants theme song—to engage 1-to-10-year-olds.
"For many kids, this is their first exposure to live symphonic music," said Tina Kierce, marketing director for the Boise Philharmonic. "It is so important to have family and children's programs in relationship to music."
The concert series originated in 2000 under the supervision of then-conductor Jim Ogle. The principals and the chairs from each section—percussion, strings, brass, woodwinds and orchestral specialists—put on the concerts, and each takes time between songs to explain to the children in the audience how their instruments work, breaking the concepts down to vibrations and sound waves.
Kierce, the mother of two children aged 3 and 4, emphasizes the importance of music education. "I have boys, and they are very sports-oriented, but it's important to me to give them a well-rounded experience," Kierce said.
"The sooner you introduce kids to music, the better," said Jill Rowley, associate concert master for the Boise Philharmonic and performer in the strings concert. "Little ones will hopefully find an instrument that they really love, and even if they don't choose to play, it will teach them to love the sound and become audience members." She added that young students who learn music develop better coordination between the two hemispheres of the brain."
Rowley herself began playing violin at age 9, and before that, practiced piano and spent time singing with her parents. She and her husband, the principal violist in the Boise Philharmonic, started their children in piano lessons at a very young age. Her daughter is now the principal violinist for the Treasure Valley Youth Symphony.
In the Boise School District, elementary students can start orchestra in the fourth grade. Susan Courtial teaches orchestra at Train Wind, Longfellow, Owyhee and Liberty elementary schools.
Courtial has been teaching in the district for 10 years and was initially drawn to Boise because of its reputation for established, resilient music programs in the public schools.
"It is a unique school district. There's a band, choir and orchestra in every single elementary school. The enrollment is huge," said Courtial. "We are scrambling to get instruments in the hands of kids who can't afford them. That's a great problem to have."
Teaching elementary students about music theory and performance is most likely no simple task. Courtial customizes her lessons to accommodate her students' short attention spans and need for constant reinforcement.
She makes simple requests and asks the students to demonstrate concepts immediately. Her students learn each idea sequentially and in layers so that they are always applying previous techniques and concepts.
Camden Hughes, who teaches band at Whittier Elementary school, keeps his lessons moving fast and uses games and activities to keep music engaging and entertaining for his students.
"We play Jeopardy sometimes. The questions are all musical categories: notes, rhythms, articulation marks and things like that," said Hughes. "They love to play other games like musical chairs that allow them to demonstrate their playing."
Hughes said music performances can be difficult for young children, but they can be a great way for kids to build confidence in front of others."I like to downplay the performances—not to build it up so much that they get nervous and can't play. I want them to understand that making a mistake is OK and they can just keep going," said Hughes.
Courtial has observed the confidence her students develop in music class crossing over into her students' other studies. "Just last week, one of my students told me that orchestra is her favorite class and she [likes to] comes to school because of [it]."
"A student who listens well but doesn't read well will get better at reading," said Courtial, whose master's thesis at Boise State was about brain development related to early elementary string playing. "Music is a discipline that engages multiple areas of the brain at the same time. Students must understand math, fractions, counting, the physical motions to make the music, and artistic expression."
"Students also begin to have a legitimate self-esteem that is based on accomplishment," she said. This is especially important for students who have a difficult time in a traditional classroom format that is mostly based on reading and writing.
Programs like the Sounds Like Fun! concert series and the Boise Philharmonic's Musical Kids program, which consists of 30-minute lessons for preschool age kids, help pave the way for music interest later on in life.
Each Sounds Like Fun! concert offers two performances and can accommodate 250 audience members. Rowley feels that programs like these are essential in helping children engage in the universal language of music. "Music is something that binds people together, and in that sense, I think that this is a wonderful gift to give your children," she said.
Hughes can see the difference in his students who have had prior music experience. "Early exposure is key. One thing that I've definitely noticed is that the students who have piano lessons early have a big advantage over those who did not. The piano is a very visual instrument. Music theory just makes more sense to those that play the piano, and they can apply it to any instrument they want."
Courtial feels that getting small children enthusiastic about music early is easier than it seems.
"Be a fun person and talk about music with enthusiasm and joy," said Courtial. "They just get excited when they see that you're excited and that it's fun. That's the most important thing."
Feb. 2, Sounds Like Fun! Strings!; March 1, Sounds Like Fun! Brass!; April 5, Sounds Like Fun! Woodwinds!; April 26 Sounds Like Fun! Orchestral Specialists!; $7 adult, $5 per child, or $30 for a family ticket. For tickets and more information, call 208-344-7849 or visit BoisePhilharmonic.org.