Never Work with Children (or animals).

The challenges and opportunities of Music for Young audiences.

Founded in Dublin in 1995, The Ark strives to uphold one of the little-known points of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: every child should be able to develop their creativity, whether musical, pictorial, etc.. Creative Arts Manager of this cultural center unique in Europe, Aisling O'Gorman strives in this text to dismantle one by one the clichés that circulate about children's music. Better yet, she shows how artists, and in particular jazz musicians, would have a lot to gain by thinking about this audience, which is small in size but large in number and open-mindedness.

Music – the great connector :

Like anyone working in a completely niche area of work, I’ve found myself working in music for children more or less accidentally. For the past 8 years it has involved working at The Ark in Dublin which is a year round venue and cultural centre dedicated to children. But prior to that I ran the participation programme for a concert hall and had a practice as a freelance community musician. That work in an average week could quite easily include people aged 3 to 83. Naturally, this has prompted me to think a lot about the lifelong importance and role of music for people of all ages.

Music is of course a great connector with an unparalleled ability to transcend language and speak directly to the senses without translation or mediation. This may be its strongest feature as an art form and its most powerful attribute.

The universality of music is self-evident: we can all create rhythms by clapping, stamping or tapping objects and we can all sing. We ‘music’ long before we speak. The preverbal sounds made by babies and toddlers follow the melodies and rhythms of speech and resemble music much more than language for a long time. Researchers in Hungary and the Netherlands have also shown that new born babies are capable of detecting the beat of rhythmic sound sequences which may indicate that human musical capacity has an evolutionary advantage.

It is unsurprising then that music is found in human cultures across the world with evidence of musical activity stretching back millennia. Ancient musical instruments more than 40,000 years old have been found but it is likely that other kinds of ‘musicking’ such as singing have been around since the earliest humans.

In modern adult life, we often experience this most elemental art form as mere consumers or passive recipients. But the experience of music in childhood may still be the most connected and alive. For children, music is full of wonder and excites curiosity. The potential of engaging the full power of music with such an audience is immense.

Music as a Right:

Where I now work, The Ark, is an unusual organisation not least because it is a multi-disciplinary arts venue dedicated to presenting professional arts programmes for people aged 2 to 12 only. Furthermore, The Ark was founded on the idea of arts and culture as a right.
This is not the first thing that springs into most people’s minds when we think about human rights. However, it is the essence of Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of The Child [1989] which was ratified by Ireland in 1992. It inspired the founding of The Ark in 1995 with a vision for children’s right to art as equal citizens.State Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Article 31 :

  • State Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  • State Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

For me, this was a new way to consider artistic endeavour that was deeply thought provoking. If art of all kinds including music is a right, then it is fully inclusive. Using the language of rights puts an indelible value on fostering a lifelong love of the arts for all from childhood.

Children are dependent on adults to be able to make connections to the world and access the things they need – including music. Perhaps it is only by thinking of art as a right that children are indelibly included in a vision for society with arts and culture at its heart.

Otherwise, it becomes a matter of choice and the financial capacity of parents and schools. This undoubtedly, leads to inequality. It can also tend to privilege some types of music over others often for reasons of perceived social status rather than artistic value per se. Instead we need to be encouraging children to critically and creatively encounter music of quality of all kinds.

To date 196 countries have signed up to the UN convention. If this means we value childhood and value music for children as a right, then surely our youngest citizens deserve the best of what that art form has to offer? If it is a right, shouldn’t that give us pause when presenting children with dumbed down or commercialised forms of music only? Why shouldn’t children be able to enjoy the same high level of cultural expression that we take for granted as adults?

Perceptions of Music for Children :

Unfortunately, Music for Young Audiences has a bit of an image problem. It is either not known of, or else viewed in less than positive terms. Many of you reading this may not have heard the phrase ‘Music for Young Audiences’ before and neither had I until recently. Though somewhat awkward, it is a term that I find useful as it helps put a spotlight onto this somewhat neglected area of music.

The naturally disenfranchised nature of childhood can be a factor, however unconscious, in the negative connotations of this work. This can affect the status of all kinds of work involving children not just artistic work. Children are not visible in public life as they cannot vote and do not have their own financial means. It is perhaps then all too easy to be unaware of children as a significant part of society and, however unintentional, to undervalue the adults who work with them.

For example, we have probably all heard the offensive phrase ‘those who can’t, teach’. This not only completely dismisses entirely the hugely skilful and complex profession of teaching, but also insults children who by this definition only deserve teachers who are failure refugees from the adult world. This is an extreme example which is clearly false and wrong, but such ideas abound – often quite unconsciously.

 Monster Music Improv, produced by The Ark and Improvised Music Company 2016. Featuring Shane Latimer, Lauren Kinsella and Patrick Sanders.

This can hugely affect the perception, status and therefore appeal for professional musicians in engaging with young audiences. As an artist there’s a sense that if you choose to work with children it may be because you couldn’t really cut it in the ‘real world’ of adults. This is such a pity. Not only does it mean children are not getting to experience brilliant music by amazing musicians, equally it means that musicians are missing out on an exciting area of work as well as professional income.

A further layer in negative perceptions can be connected to money. Sometimes it seems justifiable to pay less for work involving children as we may not be able to generate equivalent levels of box office income as we might for performances for adults. However, if we want to be able to present professional quality music to children, those of us who are producers and promoters have a responsibility to make sure we can pay those who do this work at professional rates just as we would for any other audience. We may also need to make that case strongly to our funders. If your country has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child this may be helpful leverage. As pay and conditions improve, status usually improves too. In the long term, this will lead to more professional musicians creating more of this beautiful work and a positive culture of sustained and valued practice will become more widespread.

A third layer or hesitation can be, as my title hints, that work for children is difficult and you’d have to be crazy to do it. There’s some truth in this as undoubtedly children will be your most ruthlessly honest audience. But they will also be the most authentic and open-minded. In that way children challenge all of us to give of our best as they have an innate sense of quality and know when they are being patronised or ignored. Unlike adults, they will not stand for that.

Indeed this may be a scary prospect. Most of us are much more used to polite adults but that politeness can often be creatively stifling too. If adult audiences were as honest as children, how would that change attitudes on stage? Would it challenge performers to aim higher, composers to be even more creative? Any serious musician should not fear this, but relish the dynamic discourse which can potentially bring them to discover new and enjoyable aspects of musicianship.

Of course there have always been musicians who understand this. From Mozart and Maria Anna his sister who were both child prodigy’s, to Bartók’s compositions for children now often performed as part of recitals for adults because of their musical merit, to more recently Herbie Hancock performing for children on Sesame Street or Meredith Monk leading a music project for children in Belgium, there have always been outstanding musicians who don’t see engaging with children as a step down. Rather it is an integral part of the matrix of the endless possibilities of music.

The Advantages of Jazz :

I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of having attended many brilliant concerts for adults which were poorly attended or under appreciated. Yet, I have seen full houses of children scream with excitement, kick their legs, pump the air to express their enjoyment of what we as adults might label challenging music. Refreshingly, children don’t care about genres and this might be good news for jazz. They are only concerned about whether they feel a connection to it or not and if it excites their imaginations.

A particular example of this is a show I produced for The Ark, in partnership with Music Network, called A Most Peculiar Wintry Thing by composer Brian Irvine. In that show, the music was harmonically and rhythmically complex. This virtuosity was framed by a simple quirky theme which made the show accessible and age appropriate. But there was nothing dumbed down about the music and audiences of children absolutely loved it. No one had told them they couldn’t or shouldn’t like this type of music so they responded spontaneously and authentically. This helped clarify for me that when we talk about music for young audiences we are not talking about a lesser thing. In fact, for experimental music and jazz children may be in many ways the perfect audience. It seems to me quite possible that for contemporary and improvised music in particular, children can be one of the most engaged and responsive audiences you can have. 

One of the great joys in performing for children is their open-mindedness. They do not come with a list of forgone conclusions about music. For jazz musicians who embrace the opportunities of work with children, there is the chance to open young ears to new types of sounds that they may have never before heard. Taste as we all know develops at a young age. If you want a long career, children may become fans of your music into the future.
Yet, for many jazz musicians – apart perhaps from those in Norway where an extensive music concert programme in schools has run for decades and has been one of the largest employers of musicians –

the idea of performing for children may be a new one. If they have come across it, it is unlikely they’ve experienced a jazz concert for children but perhaps have seen uninspiring commercial offerings.

It seems to me that jazz in particular lends itself extremely well to connect with audiences of all ages and backgrounds because of its inbuilt flexibility. At a jazz concert, an audience member experiences a live conversation in music, as the musicians respond in the moment to the room.

Even more fundamentally, childhood can be seen as largely an experience of improvisation. Children are only part way through the process of socialisation so they are freer and less rule bound than adults. In addition, they delight in making things up in a way that most adults have sadly lost touch with.

Opportunities for interactivity, which children love, are also wide open when you are an improvising musician. The powerful connection you can create by having the audience inspire or be part of an improvisation is not to be underestimated. Two good examples of this are Tin Men and the Telephone from The Netherlands have created a sophisticated app to enable interaction or the show Mile(s)tones by Zonocompagnie, Belgium, where children can conduct improvising musicians live using simple gestures.
To explore what a jazz show for children could look like, in partnership with Improvised Music Company in 2016 we made Monster Music Improv. Here the flexibility of the musicians Lauren Kinsella and Shane Latimer was key. Cartoonist Patrick Sanders, who was the third member of the band, also improvised by drawing images live throughout the performance. Improvisation set the tone of playfulness and inventiveness from the opening song. Vocalist Lauren Kinsella took suggestions of monster names from the audience and then improvised vocal scats using those words. Later the show built to an ambitious improvisation finale involving the entire audience. The audience were first asked to describe the features of a new monster which Patrick drew in front of them. Then they were asked to invent the sounds for their monster which the musicians processed live and build on top of. 

The Adaptation Question :

The Ark is a multi-disciplinary organisation. So while theatre colleagues can easily attend annual festivals and see many beautiful highly developed theatre performances made for children which we can then consider for programming, things are different for me as such festivals in music are few and far between. Instead, I often will need to attend evening music performances for adults to get some sense of musicians’ abilities, style and performance skills. While watching I try to imagine whether or not we could make it work for children.

Why do I need to do that? If as I said earlier, music is a universal language, then why do any music performances need adapting at all you may ask? It is a good question and in truth some musicians are so charismatic, warm and naturally engaging on stage that maybe not much adaptation is needed in order for children to connect with and enjoy their performances.

There are some obvious practical considerations of course that it would be foolish to ignore. For example, children will need a shorter performance than adults. So maybe your solos shouldn’t be ten minutes long if that’s going to be 25% of your show. Or you might have to consider whether your lyrics are age appropriate. But apart from such common sense changes, why else might a music show need altering for young audiences?

But perhaps this question is another form of the concern that music for children is a lesser thing and that by adapting or changing what we already do in any way we are lessening it. I understand that position and would argue that the quality of the music should not be compromised as this is fundamental for all audiences. If your audience is young, you may need to think about ways to make the environment feel safe and comfortable, or you may need to resist cranking the amps up to 11 because children still have the upper range of their hearing. But if musicians are true to the music they love and enjoy, with a bit of thought I believe they can present strong work that children will also love.

So maybe adaptation is the wrong word as it implies a compromise and making something less than the original. Rather, I would love for musicians to be excited by the creative opportunities in this field that can feedback positively into their musicianship and career.

Of course you could just take your adult show and shorten it a bit, but I believe that you would miss out on unique chances to creatively stretch yourself in enjoyable ways. And surely any serious musician wants that?

The Role of Education :

Though I believe the highest values of music and artistry can and should be applied to work with and for children, clearly there are particular skills and ways of thinking that will help musicians to be able to make the most of such opportunities.

In order to develop those skills, experience is vital. For example, some musicians may be uncomfortable making eye contact, or music stands can become something to hide behind and a barrier to connecting with an audience. Musicians may need support in experimenting and perhaps challenging existing stage habits in order to be able to make better connections with young audiences and ultimately create more confident and assured performances.

Recognising this, in 2018 and again in 2020, The Ark and Improvised Music Company created a new CPD opportunity for musicians called Fun Size Jazz. Curious musicians were given a chance to present a short 10 to 15 minute scratch performance for children as a training and learning experience. The musicians participated in advance workshops, received feedback and support from the producers as well as rehearsing and performing twice for small audiences of about 30 children.

We have completed two iterations of this project to date and 9 ensembles have participated. The feedback from musicians has been positive citing a positive creative stretch, an enjoyable challenge and a valuable chance to learn and reflect. For some it has whetted an appetite for more which is wonderful.

Programmes such as Fun Size Jazz however can only ever start a process. For a serious culture of this work to emerge and sustain, fundamentally we must look earlier to the education of musicians in the first instance. This would not only be about putting performing for young audiences firmly on the curriculum at third level but also to foster confidence in communicating and connecting with audiences beyond technical skill alone. In such a virtuosic art form as music, it is perhaps difficult to get this balance right. It is exciting though to see innovations in music performance and communication with audiences happening elsewhere such as the Aurora Orchestra’s By Heart concerts.

Is it unusual? 

I started out this piece by saying that the work I do in Music for Young Audiences is niche and unusual. Ultimately, I don’t want this to be the case. What’s niche about an art form like music that can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds and across language ?

There are of course pockets of long term development, notably in Norway in particular, as well as Belgium. The Creative Europe supported Big Bang network (of which The Ark is now a partner) as well as the Young Audiences Music initiative are also both heartening and important initiatives. Even since I started doing this work I’ve noticed considerable development and an encouraging growth of interest in the topic.

My hope is that in the future high quality music for children is the norm. I hope that more musicians discover the joy of connecting with young audiences and that it pushes them to new creative heights.

I hope that funders and audiences widely recognise the value of this work and that it is properly resourced. The Ark is Ireland’s only dedicated cultural centre for children and the first of its kind in Europe but how would the future look if organisations like The Ark were as abundant as arts centres for adults ?

This won’t happen quickly. Music struggles with resources and revenue already and it’s understandably difficult for musicians, producers or promoters to take a risk on something new in a precarious and competitive market. However, if music as a universal right can guide us, then pursuing music for young audiences is worth it.

I look forward to the day I can say my job is common place as I will consider that to be a job well done.