by Rebecca Winzenried
Music web sites balance learning and lighthearted fun.
"My daughter has expressed an interest in joining the school orchestra. Is there any place on the Internet to find information about different instruments or music lessons?" Four years ago, the answer would have been, "not really." Today it would be, "Sure, let's go!" Young musicians can choose from a number of destinations geared specifically to their interests--and attention spans. Among them are dedicated children's sites created by orchestras as places where kids can visit, alone or with their families, to play games that teach basics of music or learn a little about how instruments look and sound. Precisely because they are so colorful, it might be tempting to dismiss these kids' sites as so much eye (or ear) candy. But to orchestra administrators they are a natural way to extend an organization's educational efforts far beyond concert-related activities or classroom initiatives. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's BSOKids site, for instance, includes teacher guides and information about educational concerts; online-ticketing for those concerts is in the works for this season. While the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's DSOKids site already has ticketing capability, its educational content has been generalized to be useful to worldwide visitors.
And evidence shows that not all those visitors are teachers or their young charges. The DSO has received its share of messages from adults, such as the 40-year-old beginning piano student who finds answers to her music assignments on the site, or the grandfather whose enthusiasm for the games can hardly be contained in an e-mail, "here I am--a grown man... sitting in front of my computer... in broad daylight, during business hours--actually playing the game and having a great time." The San Francisco Symphony has also gotten feedback about its SFSKids site from "kids who are significantly older, that is to say adults," according to Ron Gallman, director of education.
The potential number of visitors--the web sites highlighted in this story report from 10,000 to 40,000 visits a month--and the resulting exposure they bring make it tempting for a performing arts organization to jump onto the Web with pages for kids. But developing a truly winning formula--an elusive combination of fun and useful information--for a children's music site is no easy task. One of the biggest challenges at this point, education directors note, is making sure a web site offers something truly new and different from the myriad of sites, musical and otherwise, already out there. Even a technology-oriented organization like the San Francisco Symphony waited until earlier this year to introduce its SFSKids site. Gallman and a development team spent more than a year observing other sites, taking in ideas, and testing content and games with children's focus groups. "Fun for fun's sake is fine, but in addition it has to have real educational integrity," he says. Not to mention that kids can be ruthlessly sophisticated Internet critics.
Meanwhile, more established sites like the New York Philharmonic's Kidzone are dealing with growing pains. Launched in 1999, Kidzone began as a content-rich site that emphasized information about symphonic music, instruments, and orchestral history over games. It was a necessary beginning, notes Director of Education Tom Cabaniss, since Kidzone was one of the first sites to provide such basics in a package that was welcoming for children. He notes that the orchestra is now going back to balance Kidzone's content with more interactive elements and games "to increase the hang-out factor" and to address some suggestions from teachers, such as the addition of an online composition program. Children's music sites tend to focus on introducing symphonic music to students in the elementary years (grades three to six). Some spillover on the upper and lower ends aims to catch younger kids who are just beginning to explore music--the "parent in the chair with a kid on the lap" audience, notes Cabaniss--as well as pre-teens who have a few years of study under their belts. Teachers and parents are also a valuable audience, invariably addressed in a separate area with information about concerts and family programs. Here are a few that focus on orchestra activities:
The most recent entry by an orchestra (it launched last March), San Francisco's SFSKids is a vibrant site where children can work through progressive music lessons without even realizing they're learning something. Kids are invited to "Meet the Notes" and explore tempo, rhythm, pitch, harmony, or "Make A Tune" with the Composerizer, where they can try melody lines in varying order. Both are components of the web site's centerpiece Music Lab. The site also includes information about activities at the orchestra and a radio station that plays more than 50 classical selections. Appealing graphics (melodies of the Composerizer are placed on music stands, with audio clips at each stand) and appearances throughout by a quirky animated alien conductor make SFSKids fun to explore for kids and adults. The site's lively look is no surprise; it was designed by 415, Inc., which also developed the SFS's main web site and its American Maverick's mini-site.
Another spirited site, BSOKids is distinguished by a clean yet eye-popping design, and a really fun animated introduction. The Baltimore Symphony's interactive content isn't as deep as SFSKids, but the site is a work in progress; the orchestra has continued to add new features to the site since it launched a year ago. Currently, the site includes Morton Subotnik's Creating Music program, which encourages kids to try their hand at composing on a digital sketchpad. The "Sound Off" section gives students a chance to "Be a Music Critic" and submit comments about BSO concerts. Kids will also have a chance to name the conductor character that appears in the introduction and has become the orchestra mascot. His "bio," as written by young visitors, will be included in the backstage area, where kids are introduced to people behind the scenes, like the (real life) orchestra librarian and stage manager.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra's children's site is the place to play one of the coolest music-related games online--Beethoven's Baseball. Pick five composers for your team (in trial matches at the SYMPHONY office, Brahms was always the last picked, Stravinsky the first. HmmÉ) and send them to bat, against Beethoven, the pitcher. Score runs by answering questions about classical composers. (Kids can read up first at the "Composer's Corner.") Of course, Beethoven's Baseball is just one of the options on DSOKids. The site has changed a bit since its introduction in 2000. Visitors are ushered into the "Music Room." Move the mouse over the "furnishings" to find more about a particular subject; click on the piano to hear an instrument, the computer to find games, etc. The "Teacher's Lounge" has other furnishings such as a bookshelf of resources to click on for blank sheet music and information about instruments or concerts.
The New York Philharmonic's Kidzone was one of the first dedicated children's music web sites; it's been welcoming visitors "backstage" at Avery Fisher Hall since 1999. While the site's basic onstage/backstage graphics remain the same, its content continues to grow. The site is set up to offer a glimpse of the musicians' lounge (with interviews), soloists' dressing rooms, instrument storage locker (with two levels of information about instruments) and more. Among the new activities, visitors can view video clips of musicians onstage and go "On the Road" with the orchestra during its recent Asian tour, with postcards from the road.
The American Symphony Orchestra League's own children's site has also been redesigned since its launch in 1999. Like Kidzone, it offers backstage glimpses through news, interviews, and information about instruments of the orchestra. But reflecting the League's national role, Playmusic has a broader mission to reach students across the country, with links to youth orchestras and resources for young musicians, their parents, and teachers. Young musicians can connect with a peer mentor and get answers to questions about the study of specific instruments. Games also include Morton Subotnick's Creating Music.
As a companion piece to the MIT Media Lab's Toy Symphony project, this site is mostly too text-heavy to interest kids. But it does offer a Kids' Page with photos of the music toys--Beatbugs and Music Shapers--created for use in the project, which introduces children to symphonic music and involves them in composing and performing activities. Of course, seeing pictures on a web site won't do much for most kids--the experimental toys aren't available at the local toy storeÉ yet--so steer kids to the Hyperscore showcase. The software, developed by the Toy Symphony team, allows individuals to create a composition by drawing on a computer sketchpad. Hyperscore then interprets the shapes and colors of lines into melodies. The software is available for free download from the site, or just listen to some of the Hyperscore compositions created by children that have been performed by orchestras involved with the project.
The companion web site to From the Top, which showcases youth musicians in an old-time radio show format, includes audio clips and behind-the-scenes information about the Public Radio International program and its amazing young performers. But the site has expanded since its launch in 2000 to become more of a music education resource, offering information for parents about music schools and teachers. An educational section offers classroom materials for teachers. Much of the information on the site skews toward middle and high school, but kids of any age will enjoy listening to the From the Top archive in the "Listening Library."
Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.