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Making Pieces Come Alive For Kids

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Leonard Slatkin, conductor and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, travels around the country learning about the state of music education -- and too often doesn't like what he sees.

It's not just that some school systems don't have adequate programs, he said. Too many teachers are ill prepared to teach the curriculum and have no idea how to make the music connect with kids.

Slatkin said he likes to draw young people to orchestral music by telling them about the lives of famous composers and the times that helped shape them.

"The stories behind the music make it come alive for kids," Slatkin said.

It also helps, he said, for people to understand that there is no "right way" to hear a piece.

"Two thousand people can hear the same piece and have 2,000 different reactions," he said.

Slatkin has made it a priority for him and his orchestra of 100 musicians to travel each year to what he calls American residencies, intense education seminars with high school and college students.

He leads a student orchestra through a piece, helps the musicians correct mistakes with a professional viewpoint and then tells them to put down their instruments and just talk. Many of the questions thrown at him, he said, are about the future.

"I try to tell them honestly about how to take an audition [and to] look at various aspects of music as a career opportunity, as a teacher, a librarian and other options," he said.

Last month he was in Clark County, Nev., and this month he has returned to Washington for a week of educational events at the Kennedy Center. Starting Sunday, the week includes eight young people's concerts and family concerts that will feature the world premiere of the composition "Rip Van Winkle."

Slatkin said young people's schedules today are so busy that it can be difficult to help them develop an appreciation for orchestral music. Parents, he said, can play a vital role by sharing music they enjoy with their children and, in turn, listening to what their kids like to hear -- even when it is painful.

"It is always a good idea to stay tuned to what young people are listening to," he said. "What my profession does is mostly resurrect what has existed in the past. To make it relevant, you have to find keys to what is going on today. So the people who do concerts have to find that hook to relate to them."

Slatkin's 11-year-old son, Daniel, likes to listen to a range of music, he said, including Kanye West and Coldplay.

Slatkin said he likes to make a game out of it: "I'll play you one of my favorites, and you play me one of yours."

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