Somewhere between our childhood and our adulthood we gain a sense of adventure with the foods we try. No longer are we held hostage by the “no thank you” bite. Now we actively seek new flavors, new ways to cook exotic ingredients, and new variations on old classics. Can you enhance duck confit with sriracha, or how about an avocado butter cream frosting on that blood orange pound cake?*
But the tradeoff for adults seems to be our cultural intake. Many of us lose the desire to experience new art, to explore and appreciate new music or paintings that challenge us the same way we expect new culinary dishes to excite us.
This is where kids have us beat. While their palate may not be geared for a roasted Brussel sprout dish enhanced with a pomegranate glaze, their ability to open their minds and imagination freely with art is something adults need to emulate.
Last month I asked my Chattanooga Symphony & Opera colleague, Mary Benno, if her middle school where she teaches music classes would be interested in sharing their impressions of the Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, and she was good enough to organize a listening project with the entire middle school and me.
The wonderful thing about middle school kids is they have an active imagination and an endless access to creativity, and they want to share their thoughts.
I asked them why music was important and got some fantastic responses like, “It helps you feel things” to “It makes you live.” The kids certainly had a great grasp on the value and importance of music in their lives.
We then talked about music in our everyday lives, video games, movies, and so on. Then I pulled out my violin and the CD recording of the Higdon Violin Concerto. We listened to the first movement and along the way paused to discuss how the music made them feel or what they thought of.
I asked them to write down words, draw pictures, tell stories, and the response blew my mind. It blew my colleagues’ minds and it was absolutely inspiring and impressive.
Within the first movement, many of the kids wrote these words: Suspenseful, scary, tornado, sorrowful, hopeful, nature, birds, sneaking, forest, anger and forgiveness, and wind chimes.
Phrases that came up in their writing included: An abandoned swing set, walking on a path in a pine forest, unsettled and calm at the same time, running or being chased, soul lifting, overcoming inner self.
We listened again after discussing their first thoughts of words and phrases. I asked what stories or pictures came to mind upon listening to the entire first movement, and here is a sampling:
“It sounds really peaceful at first, almost like the squirrel up there is calm and gathering nuts or something. And then it sees this big animal. It tries to catch the squirrel so it’s like a chase….I changed my mind. I’m still thinking of a little animal or something, maybe it like goes to a cave or something because it’s curious and then the animal comes out. Maybe the little rabbit or squirrel is lost. It sounds like it’s scared. Sounds like a chase, maybe the rabbit finds a good hiding place for a while, then the big animal gets closer and then the chase is on again. Stalking the prey but gives up and goes back to beginning. The rabbit is safe and it gets back home. Rabbit goes to sleep or gets lost again.”
“Hope to escape self then has inner battles between himself. Realized he can’t escape, gets angry starts to run in his mind in blank space, hits walls, villain gets closer and closer, eventually escaped or so he thought had to fight his fears and first lost then he won the battle, feels happy relief and feels confidence.”
“Searching for something that’s never been there, diving in a crystal clear lake on a white dragon spinning in a sea of wheat, background is in ruins, trying to run away but the sea of wheat goes on forever. PANIC, running up never ending stairs, keep going, going, going, fall down, start again, worrying, do I see the end, no, hurry, they are behind you. Everything slows to a stop, the enemy is creeping to you, slowly they poof away, the stairs poof away, you are in the wheat field crying in relief, the screams of the children are heard, they stop, everything is calm and quiet and peaceful.”
Personally, I have a very different view of what I see or hear in this concerto. But that is the beauty of music like this. Unlike movies or books, there is nothing that keeps our brains, feelings, or thoughts directed in a specific plot line. We are not obligated to think of anything in particular, but instead of how our inner emotions connect with the music.
If we see a pine forest or hear sympathy or understand a story differently from someone else listening to the same work, that makes for a successful piece of art in my opinion. All of the stories, drawings, and words the kids thought up were entirely relevant to the work, but the fun and meaningful part was the sharing of a mutual experience.
I had intended on sharing the kids’ thoughts on the other two movements, but I would encourage everyone to seek the recording, or come to the concert and open your minds. Like I told the kids, there are no wrong feelings, no wrong answers. If you have thoughts on any of the movements of the Higdon Violin Concerto, feel free to share them!