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Interview with Bonnie and Stephen Simon

Samantha Brody, Scholastic Parent and Child

Bonnie Ward Simon and Stephen with their dog Marigold

Bonnie and Stephen Simon are adventurous musicians. With inspiring imagination, they use music to tell stories, paint pictures, and travel through space and time. Bonnie is the former executive director of the Washington Chamber Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Stephen produced 25 years worth of beautiful performances as the music director of the same organization and is a prominent symphony conductor. Together, the husband-and-wife team created the Chamber Symphony Concerts for Young People series at the Kennedy Center, which packed the house for more than 10 years. Now they are producing the Stories in Music® CD series to help parents and children better understand and enjoy symphonic music at home. Now, please join us as Parent & Child magazine presents: Bonnie and Stephen Simon!

Bonnie Ward Simon, Stephen Simon & Marigold

P&C: Where did your love of music begin?

Bonnie Simon: Listening to my parents playing string quartets with friends every Thursday evening. Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart quartets still give me a feeling of warmth and home. I started on the violin, begging my father to give me lessons. I still own the quarter size violin and can play it!

Stephen Simon: My mother sang to me all the time when I was very young. I began taking piano lessons at age 4. She and my father took me to lots of concerts. I remember a New York Philharmonic Children's program conducted by Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall. He knew how to excite young people: He had a pipe band march down the aisles playing "Scotland the Brave." It was thrilling! There was always lots of music at our home, both live music performed by friends, many of whom were professionals, and recorded music. Another important influence was church music. I was captivated by the pageantry of it.

P&C: What is special about symphonic music? How can children benefit from listening to and engaging with it?

Bonnie Simon: Symphonic music is complex and stimulates the brain in sophisticated ways, as research has shown. It is also capable of tapping into a broad depth and range of emotions. Think about the Also Sprach Zarathustra musical excerpt that opens the movie 2001: Space Odyssey. Powerful. The score to Pirates of the Caribbean — exciting. Many children's listening experiences are limited to a singer and a guitar, perhaps a chamber ensemble that comes to their school, or the electronic doodling that comes with a book and tape. Symphonic music is grand, bigger than life. Discovering that you want to play an instrument and deciding which instrument to play is rather like falling in love. A few people meet one person and mate for life; most, however, need to meet many people before discovering the perfect someone. Listening to symphonic music allows a child to listen to the sounds that various instruments make and then make an informed decision on which instrument they might like to try playing.

P&C: What inspired you to produce the Chamber Symphony Concerts for Young People series?

Bonnie Simon: I was on the board of directors for Carnegie Hall and was welcomed as "the next generation," whereupon I commented that if they did not start to include programs on the season schedule for me to take my child to, I would be "the last generation." I had a child who also loved music, dance, and theater, and there was nothing substantial yet age-appropriate, both in terms of program content and length, for me to take him to. I have always been concerned about the "graying of the American audience." The Concerts for Young People were created as multigenerational education.

Stephen Simon: I realized that if children were ever going to get to the concert hall it would be because their parents bought tickets for them. These concerts were my way to see that the symphony orchestra would be around for another generation.

P&C: How did you choose or create the music for those productions?

Bonnie Simon: The music for the Young People's Concerts was extracted from the evening adult concert series; a relevant theme was chosen around which we constructed each program. For example, on one occasion Bach's First Brandenberg Concerto was programmed on the evening concert series, so we created a young people's program showing that while people today listen to lots of music in the concert hall sitting still in their seats, much "classical" music had originally been dance music. During the first half of the program, I engaged a choreographer who created minuet, polka, waltz, and swing dance steps for the audience to do in front of their seats. It was great fun! The second half of each concert was an opportunity to listen to "child-sized portions" of great music from the evening concerts.

Stephen Simon: There are so many aspects to music around which one can build entertaining programs for children and adults alike. We believe in including the audience as part of the performance process, and, consequently, I composed orchestral arrangements for audience participation for almost every concert. Being a composer and an arranger, as well as the conductor, gave us a tremendous advantage.

P&C: What did you learn from the experience of creating concerts for children?

Bonnie Simon: I learned that 6 is the perfect age to take a child to his or her first concert — at that age, both parent and child will enjoy the experience. Unless a concert is created especially for a pre-school audience, it is important to wait until a child is happy sitting and listening for 30-minute stretches. Most important: everyone — including professional musicians — should learn something at the concert. And always aim at giving young people the very best. They can tell the difference, and you may not get a second chance.

Stephen Simon: I learned that creating programs for young people is far more work than performing an evening concert. To articulate why you interpret a piece of music in a particular way, or what a composer had in mind when he constructed a work, puts what a musician often does intuitively under the microscope.

P&C: What inspired you to produce the Stories in Music CD series for children?

Bonnie Simon: Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf with the express purpose of introducing young people to the symphony orchestra. It was a triumph, and yet there are very few works in this genre. We decided that this wonderful genre needed to be explored and began the Stories in Music project where we systematically created or unearthed a new work for narrator and symphony orchestra to accompany Peter every year. This recording project is our gift to all those who would never have the opportunity to hear them live. The new Stories in Music CDs are a combination of the two performance series. The great teaching parts of the Concerts for Young People are included on the additional tracks.

P&C: What have you accomplished or do you hope to accomplish through this CD series?

Bonnie Simon: We hope to introduce the glorious sounds of the symphony orchestra to children. We hope to make them better listeners. We hope that they will listen with parents, friends, and grandparents, because we feel that listening together at a younger age promotes listening together as children grow older. We hope to enlarge this genre so that no child grows up without having heard not only Peter and the Wolf, but also several other works for narrator and orchestra.

Stephen Simon: I want to share my love of music. I want symphony orchestras to be alive and well long after I am gone. I want children to understand that musical compositions are beautiful puzzles made out of sound. I want children to keep their ears alive and listening and not to always be screen dependent. And, I hope that the CD series may inspire children to want to make music of their own.

P&C: How do you recommend parents introduce young children to symphonic music?

Bonnie Simon: Sing, sing, sing to your child — even if you have a terrible voice. John Feierabend's Keep the Beat CD is an excellent collection of classical music to move and dance to. Remember, symphonic music is not just for putting children (people!) to sleep. Listen to the Stories in Music series. The American Ballet Theater's Nutcracker DVD is also an excellent way to introduce some great symphonic music to your preschool child in an age-appropriate way. Remember, classical music in the concert hall is perhaps the most abstract of all art forms.

Outdoor summer concerts where you can lie under the stars, take a walk, etc. are also a good place to start with a 3 to 4 year old. Do not take your brilliant 4 year old to the concert for ages 5 and up. You will both be miserable if you try to take a child before he is ready for the concert hall experience. Finally, when going to live performances, always remember that it is okay to leave at the intermission. It is far better to leave when your child has had enough.

Stephen Simon: Symphonic music can be enormously entertaining. Don't put it on a pedestal or try to teach it as a great, classic art form. It can be respected and admired without being worshipped. It should be fun and appreciated for its essential appeal.

P&C: What is the best way for parents and children to experience symphonic music together?

Bonnie Simon: "Pre-listen" whenever possible, namely listen to recordings at home before you go to the concert hall. This will also give you an idea of whether your child is ready to sit still through 45 minutes of performance where no talking is allowed.

P&C: What do you have planned for the future of Stories in Music?

Bonnie Simon: Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice is next, followed by Stephen's The Tortoise and the Hare set in the French countryside. We have just finished recording the story of Handel's Water Music, Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake at Abbey Road in London.

Brody, Samantha. Interview with Bonnie & Stephen Simon. Scholastic Parent & Child. June 2006. Online.

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