You may not expect to learn about clouds, meteorology and science just from listening to music. Kids may not realize they are being schooled on the states of matter or sharpening their reading skills. And parents may not imagine that music can be used to help their children understand the importance of courage while developing conflict resolution strategies.
It’s not every day that a man dressed as a chicken graces the Houston Symphony stage, but Associate Conductor Robert Franz finds that it helps him get into character for the Family Concert Series he leads at Jones Hall.
“I love to wear costumes and get into character,” Franz says. “It helps keep the mood informal, creating a friendly atmosphere. It inspires me to get into a childlike mentality, giving myself a chance to be fun and funny.”
But the informality of the series is not to be confused with the serious research and strategy behind how music can affect the development of children and helping schools emphasize educational learning objectives.
“As an oboist, I was involved in the Bolton Project through my woodwind quintet," says Franz. "While in residence at what was considered an at-risk school, standardized test scores raised from the 40-percentile range to 88 percent. We also realized we had trained one of the most engaged audiences — with acute listening skills, something that is tied to the development of effective reading practices.”
Music no doubt has the ability to support the school curriculum. While there is concern that field trips to art performances may take away from precious classroom time, children need to experience different active-learning mediums to better synthesize and retain information.
“Schools respond rather well to our programming choices," Franz says. "We partner with teachers to create relevant experiences that are supportive of the educational environment. Not all children learn in the same fashion, and providing this service helps them engage meaningfully. If we cover something they are studying, children feel really smart, and the symphony experience becomes a familiar environment.”
In turn, that fosters feelings of self-worth and confidence.
While keeping things light on the surface, the music for the Family Concert Series is carefully chosen to highlight great masterworks of the orchestral repertoire. The Houston Symphony does not play down to its younger audiences, but rather capitalizes on the naturally inquisitive nature of children to allow an organic access point into symphonic music.
“I don’t view children or family concerts any differently that the other Houston Symphony performance series. I aim to present the best music in the best way. I talk to children like people, and I enjoy the process of communicating with them,” Franz says.
And the adults, both musicians and parents, admit to having fun as well — often providing creative opportunities for families to bond. Interacting with younger audiences help ground musicians in their responsibility as advocates of their own art form.
Says Franz: “The Family Concerts are all about fun. I enjoy providing a medium for multiple generations to come together. There are some educational elements, and I thrill in exposing children to the arts.”
Next year, the Houston Symphony has planned four Family Concerts:
While exploring how water is depicted in music, a program titled Music of the Little Mermaid also includes Debussy’s La Mer, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, Handel’s Water Music and the Baccarolie from the Tales of Hoffman. It’s an opportunity for children to experience how music has been portrayed in different artistic eras.
While activating acute listening skills, Perfect Pitch: The Music of Baseball also brings Houston Astros’ announcer and Hall of Fame Awardee Milo Hamilton, while linking popular cultural experiences.
In leading the series, Franz puts forth immense energy and passion. The old saying that “those who can, do; those who can't, teach” has no place at the Houston Symphony.