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Behind the Scenes

Making Space for Neurodiversity: Exploring Relaxed and Sensory-Friendly Programming

An image from a sensory friendly concert. In the foreground, a female violinist plays; behind her, two children sit on a woman's lap on the floor.
A November 2022 Sensory-Friendly Concert | Photo by Courtney Perry

Experiencing the joy of a live Minnesota Orchestra concert is something many of us take for granted. For audience members with autism, sensory sensitivities or many other types of neurodivergence, attending a conventional concert may feel overwhelming and intimidating. That's why the Orchestra began offering its Relaxed and Sensory-Friendly Concerts, a series of performances meant for all audience members to enjoy music in ways that work for them.  

Relaxed Concerts take place in the main auditorium of Orchestra Hall and feature several accommodations meant to allow all in the audience to enjoy themselves. Before they arrive, audiences can view our digital “Orchestra Hall Pre-Concert Story” that outlines in the first-person how it will feel to enter the space, who will be present and what will be happening from start to finish. For those unfamiliar with these concerts, it is important to note that the audience may be noisier than what you might expect at a symphonic concert, but this is part of our commitment to welcoming all to experience the joy of live music exactly as they are.

Our Sensory-Friendly programming takes place in the smaller environment of Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium. Similarly to Relaxed Concerts, concertgoers can view the “Pre-Visit Story” (please be aware this is an example from a November 2022 performance) before arriving at Orchestra Hall. At the concert itself, guests are provided with fidgets, noise-canceling headphones and other materials to help provide a comfortable and safe listening environment. At Sensory-Friendly performances, audience members are welcome to get up close to the instruments or experience the music in a quieter space.

The Orchestra paid amazing attention to detail to make the environment friendly for my autistic son. That included the fidgets, floor seating, quiet area and general acceptance of whatever may happen while he was enjoying the concert.

November 2022 Sensory-Friendly Concert attendee 

Music can be a tool for wellness, connection and enjoyment. Since the inception of our musician-led Sensory-Friendly programming, we have partnered with Minneapolis-based Toneworks Music Therapy Services to create more personal interactions between audience members and Orchestra musicians by giving musicians with disabilities the opportunity to perform alongside Minnesota Orchestra musicians. Our Sensory-Friendly programming has reached thousands of audience members, spreading the joy of live music to members of our community who may rarely experience it otherwise. 

This year, we’re offering our first Sensory-Friendly Concert for teens and adults on Thursday, February 23, in collaboration with Fraser and the Autism Society of Minnesota. Lyndie Walker, MT-BC, owner of Toneworks Music Therapy Services, and community member Daniel Britt are hosting the concert which begins at 6 p.m. Afterwards, there will be conversation stations set up for audience members to participate in structured socialization time. Minnesota Orchestra fellows Lovrick Gary III and Esther Seitz will perform alongside guest Ruth LeMay and her 3 Strings ensemble.