DISD's Music Memory Project Nurtures the Next Generation of Classical Music Lovers

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Why do people buy concert tickets? Maybe they are motivated by the social element. Maybe it's intellectual or artistic curiosity. Sometimes good old-fashioned boredom is motivation enough. Or maybe -- and I'd imagine this is the most common reason - maybe they just really love the music being performed and want to hear it played live.

It's hard to love music you don't know, so the fact that the majority of young people are barely familiar with even the most ubiquitous classical music is a valid reason for symphonies and opera companies to worry about ticket sales in the coming decades. Octogenarians don't go to the symphony because symphonic music inherently appeals to old people. They go because it's great music. And they know that it is great music because they grew up hearing it and had the opportunity to get to know it well.

Dragging kids to a concert once a year to sit through a long piece of music they've never heard before is a pretty bad introduction. At best the experience will pique their interest. At worst, they won't remember it because it was an isolated event with no context. So do we just let this music die a slow death without developing new fans? Or do we figure out how to really let kids get know this incredibly important art?

Last Thursday, the Meyerson Symphony Center was packed with very eager, very excited third-, fourth- and fifth-grade kids, all of whom not only like classical music, they know it really well and have strong opinions about it. They were at the Meyerson to participate in this year's Music Memory Finals, a sort of old-fashioned name-that-tune, drop-the-needle music recognition competition in which the orchestra plays a very short excerpt of a piece -- only a few seconds long -- and the kids race to correctly identify the piece by title and composer.

The students, who came from nearly every elementary school in the Dallas Independent School District, had been picked to represent their schools because they did well in their music classes and were asked to join their school's Music Memory club. Or, as Cesar Flores, a fourth-grader from David G. Burnett Elementary put it, "Because they gave me permissions [sic] and I really like the music and my mom let me."

Before the competition, cheerful but weary music teachers herded their packs of matching-T-shirt-clad minions through the Meyerson's marble-floored lobby. The teams had spent months -- some of them the whole school year -- listening to, learning about and memorizing the tunes of 16 classical selections that ranged from the familiar (Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor) to the more obscure (Fannie Mendelssohn's Das Jahr).

I spoke with a couple of kids as they impatiently waited for the concert hall doors to open. They all had pride in their teams and their schools ("Frederick Douglas Elementary is gonna ace this!" one kid cheered), and they all wanted to take home a trophy. They also all, without exception, had very strong opinions about the music they'd gotten to know over the year.

Every child I spoke with had a favorite piece. "My favorite is Symphony No. 1, Finale, by Prokofiev," John Cervantes, a Reinhardt Elementary fourth-grader rattled off. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana was a popular favorite. Lucas Simonton, a fifth-grader from Lakewood Elementary told me why Orff's piece is so great: "It has this ominous, creepy tone to it," he explained, "but also it has that exciting fun part to it, like exciting like a mystery. And you can use it a lot of it different ways. Like, I've even seen it in a York Peppermint Patty commercial!"

Some kids couldn't choose just one favorite: "My favorite is Beethoven's Ruin of Athens!" a fifth-grader from Wilmur Hutchins Elementary told me, "No, actually I like the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. But Beethoven is my favorite because he is a really great pianoist [sic]. I love his music and I always keep a full CD of his!" Then she broke out into giggles for no apparent reason and started humming a melody by Beethoven.

Somewhat miraculously, the kids were filed into the hall and organized by team. Teachers milled about with clipboards and kept the chaos to a minimum. A grandmotherly figure in a bright orange and yellow flowing top set things in motion by asking the kids to practice being really excited without making any noise. They dutifully and enthusiastically silent-cheered, waving their arms and wiggling around like quiet little fish.

They introduced the orchestra who almost immediately launched into a quick excerpt from one of Brahms' energetic Hungarian Dances. As the melody swept across the hall, excited whispers of recognition ("I know this one!!!") could be heard everywhere. These kids know this music and because they know it, they are excited to hear it. Plus, "it really has a beat to it," the little girl next to me explained.

The grandmotherly figure at the podium was Mollie Tower. Music Memory, the program that brought all these kids to the Meyerson, is her brainchild. She started it over two decades ago in Austin, and her curriculum is now used across the country. Dallas is one of the few cities whose symphony collaborates with the local school district to provide the kids with live musical performances at the final event. Dallas is also the only city thus far to take the collaboration a bit further; the orchestra playing on Thursday was a mix of students from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts orchestra and volunteers from the Dallas Symphony. For a few of the excerpts, a student even took the podium to conduct.

The benefit for everyone involved is clear. The high school orchestra and chorus members get the chance to play alongside professional musicians in a beautiful hall. The kids in the hall see kids that look they will look in a few years playing on stage. They also get a chance to really know -- and love -- some of the world's greatest music. And in 10-20 years, classical music gets some very young, very dedicated, very enthusiastic audience members.

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