Musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performing at the High Museum of Art for Family Fun Day — (L to R): Jun-Ching Lin, violin; Carolyn Hancock, violin; Daniel Laufer, cello; Paul Murphy, viola

Here’s another great post by Mr. Ken the Librarian, our guest blogger! This one focuses on preparing for a family visit to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  Look out for his next post in his series soon! -Nicole

I remember when my daughter was four or five, we would take her to the family concert series in Symphony Hall.  These were events we all looked forward to.  The themed concerts were always wonderful, but the pieces I remember best were the performances that told stories like The Journey of Sir Douglas Fir by Ric Reitz or the orchestral version of Chris Van Allsburg’s seasonal favorite The Polar Express.

Stories can be set to music, but music is always story by its very nature.  Introducing young minds to the pleasures of music is made easier by developing an appreciation for music’s visual and story-telling side.  In addition to musical enrichment through audio recordings and live performance, picture books are ideally suited to guiding children on a path to lifelong music appreciation. Parents can facilitate this journey by supplying children with books with a musical theme.  There are many, but I’ll highlight some of my favorites below:

Peter & the Wolf (retold and illustrated by Ian Beck) takes Prokofiev’s classic symphonic tale from 1936,  which introduces the key instruments of the orchestra, and gives it wonderful new life with Beck’s colorful illustrations of the familiar characters of Peter, his grandfather, and the various animals in their snowy surroundings.  In Beck’s interpretation the wolf is suitably scary (but not too scary) and I think this is the book that encouraged a passing fascination with wolves by our daughter at a young age.  I even remember going to the Cleveland zoo one snowy December day to visit the wolf enclosure because Peter and the Wolf was such a focus at that time in our lives.  My daughter later took up the oboe, which I like to think may have been partly in sympathy with the unfortunate fate of the duck. There are other storybook versions of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, but Ian Beck’s is the one that I remember most fondly.  There is a short explanation of the instruments at the end of the book.  It begs for a CD or a musical download, but you’ll be able to find a version of the music quite easily.

The following are other picture books that have a similar goal—telling a story while highlighting the instruments of the orchestra:

In The Composer is Dead (by Lemony Snicket; music by Nathaniel Stookey; illustrated by Carson Ellis) the inspector is called in Hercule-Poirot-style to investigate the murder of the composer (who unfortunately is now de-composing).  The inspector interrogates the instruments section by section with many puns and hilarity (that quite honestly seem to be aimed at a much older reader).  In the end we learn that even though the conductor, and sometimes also the musicians, are wholly capable of “murdering” composers, it’s far more likely that they are keeping them alive.  This book comes with a CD narrated by Lemony Snicket that along with the specially composed music makes it a multimedia extravaganza.  The ASO performed this as part of the family series in 2011.

The Remarkable Farkle McBride (by John Lithgow; illustrated by C.F. Payne) was performed as an ASO family concert in 2012.  John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun) is quite an accomplished children’s book author, and his humorous rhyming verse in this book is paired wonderfully with C.F. Payne’s bold cartoonish illustrations.  A child musical prodigy masters the violin at age three, but his passion for the instrument is short-lived, switching to flute a year later, but quickly tiring of that, progressing to a trombone, percussion, and finally finding his true gift when he takes the baton and leads all the instruments at once as the conductor!

Another wonderful book that serves as the perfect introduction to the symphony’s instruments is Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin (by Lloyd Moss; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman).  This title was distinguished with a Caldecott Honor for illustration when it came out in 1995 and has earned a much-loved place in children’s literature in the intervening years.  It has also been made in a Weston Woods video.

In Jake the Philharmonic Dog (by Karen LeFrak; illustrated by Marcin Baranski) Jake is the pet dog of the stagehand for the philharmonic orchestra in a setting that looks remarkably like Lincoln Center in New York City. During practice the woodwinds remind Jake of birds, the French horn makes him think of a car horn, and the percussionists make Jake whimper when their thunderous crashes remind him of an electrical storm.  But the strings are what calm Jake and his tail wags back and forth in time to the music.  Jake saves the day when he walks across the stage in an audience-filled hall to return the “stick” he had found to the conductor and the concert can begin.

I Know a Shy Fellow Who Swallowed a Cello (by Barbara S. Garriel; illustrated by John O’Brien) is a redo of the folk rhyme “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”. This version concerns a man who has the unusual habit of devouring musical instruments with predictably cacophonous results.  The whimsical illustrations pair nicely with the silly rhyming verse, and the shy fellow gets through an impressive assortment of instruments before the predictable ending where we see all the instruments one more time!

This year the ASO Family Concert series includes some well-known stories from children’s literature in its program:  Huckleberry Finn from Grofé’s Mississippi Suite. Empress of the Pagodas from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and a West African tale retold by Eric Kimmel, Anansi and the Moss-covered Rock.  Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to read up on these characters from the pages of a book before attending the concert.  Story and music go hand in hand!

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