Guest blogger Mandy Meisner learns how the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sensory-Friendly Concerts are making Orchestra Hall inclusive for all audiences. Sensory-Friendly Concerts at Orchestra Hall are designed for patrons of all ages and abilities, including individuals on the autism spectrum and those with sensory sensitivities. The 2018-19 series includes five concerts featuring the full Orchestra and three featuring solo instruments or small ensembles, beginning with a performance by cellist Katja Linfield in the Target Atrium on November 20.
I was taught we have five senses. You can imagine my surprise when I learned today’s scientists have identified nine: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, thermoception (heat and cold), nociception (pain), equilibrioception (balance and gravity) and proprioception (body awareness). Our bodies are a constant symphony of input and output of the information around us in a much more expansive way than I thought.
A symphony orchestra performance may look, sound and feel very different to each of us. With this in mind, in recent years the Minnesota Orchestra has introduced a new series of Sensory-Friendly Concerts designed for everyone to enjoy, no matter how we process those nine senses. The idea originated five years ago with a handful of Orchestra musicians who wanted to create a welcoming environment for young people on the autism spectrum. They gave small-scale performances in the community, and eventually in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium, that were well-received. Now the Orchestra has expanded the Sensory-Friendly series to include three small ensemble performances and three full-Orchestra Family Concerts each season.
Back in February, this is how I experienced my first small-ensemble Sensory-Friendly concert:
We gather in the glass box of the Target Atrium, escaping from the winter cold, a smattering of different ages and ilk. Without the formal protocol of a standard classical concert, the energy spills out with heartfelt vocal responses, jitters and tapping. Minnesota Orchestra musicians Pamela Arnstein and Kathryn Nettleman talk in easy conversation about the works being performed, the instruments and bits of their lives. Even before the music starts, we feel as we are all friends.
And when it does start, the room is transformed. The music itself is reflected in the responses of the audience. Universally, we are calm. We are moved by the story the music tells, quiet and soothing in parts, humming and chortling in rhythmic delight in others.
A young man, looking dapper in a crisp white shirt, black suspenders and bow tie, comes on stage to perform on his cello. He is the first cellist with Down syndrome to play in the varsity orchestra at school. His sound is clean, confident and straightforward. He beams with joy.
There is a second youth performer. He sits stiffly at the piano, his face unemotional. But his music is filled with great expression and sweetness, and that is all we need to know him.
adding the full Orchestra
Six months later, I attend the first full-Orchestra Sensory-Friendly Family Concert, when the Hall is flooded with families. Whole families, many for the first time, are experiencing a Minnesota Orchestra concert, together. No one is left behind. In the lobby, a large table holds gobs of colorful clay that are shaped into trees and animals in the small, dimpled hands of children. There are stations throughout Orchestra Hall, creative welcoming islands.
Before the concert begins there is quiet chatter, the flutter of arms and swishing of pigtails. The host, Lyndie Walker of Toneworks Music Therapy Services, speaks in a clear, slow cadence about courage and triumph, bravery and perseverance.
No one is required to sit still, be silent, or clap only in the “right” places. Instead, everyone is welcome to express themselves and experience the music in their own way. We are human prisms; the music goes through and we become a spectrum of indescribable colors.
The music flows over us, each piece offering a different sensation: Aaron Copland pounds through my chest; Harry Potter is whimsical, hopeful and adventuresome; West Side Story’s plaintive lines tug somewhere deep. Cellist Nygel Witherspoon enters with his signature cloud of curly hair. His playing is tender and melancholy for one so young. Conductor Akiko Fujimoto finishes the concert with the blazing end of the Firebird.
When the music ends, sounds and motions of delight can be seen and heard throughout the Hall. Next to me, a family of four lingers. A young woman with impossibly thick hair held back in a barrette rocks back and forth, glowing. Her name is Carly. She is 20 years old, and this is the first time she has listened to the Minnesota Orchestra. She had been receiving music therapy for the last 15 years and was visibly enjoying the performance, vocalizing enthusiastically in parts, shaking in others.
I spoke with Carly’s mother, Lisa, who shared with me her appreciation in having this opportunity to bring not only Carly, but their whole family. This was in fact the first time they could all come together. Later, I tell her the Minnesota Orchestra will offer a Sensory-Friendly environment for all the family concerts in the 2018-2019 season.
News that feels good for all of our nine senses.
Photos by Greg Helgeson and Scott Streble.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2018-19 Sensory-Friendly Family Concerts include Carnival of the Animals; The Tin Forest; Joyful Rhythms, Joyful Sounds; and a three-concert solo and small ensemble series in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium.