Age Limits for Children's Concerts
Organizations that set age limits for children's concerts are often reproached by parents who take exception to the restrictions, but there is good reason for setting these limits.
"No one under 6 will be admitted into the hall," is often printed on the advertising for young people's concerts. I have had the dubious distinction of being the "witch" who turns families away as they arrive at the door with an underage child hoping no one will notice. I have been accused of being elitist, pompous, heartless, lacking in compassion, and, clearly, not intelligent enough to see that this particular three-year old has the intelligence and maturity of a six-year old.
Some parents arrive with the younger sibling because a concert ticket is cheaper than a babysitter; some, because they are dreadfully tired of Sponge Bob and they, themselves, like to attend something with more substance; some, because they are certain that their five-year old is capable of understanding and appreciating music, even though other children his/her age are not. Clearly, they think, our message is not for them. If I admit that there are children who are unusually mature at five and are able to sit through a concert, why don't I simply allow the parents to decide for themselves when it is appropriate to bring their child? The simple answer is that in order to be a good parent, one is supposed to think of one's child as superior, wonderful, mature, respectful, thoughtful, insightful, and highly intelligent. Parents may have to face the fact that their child may not get 1600 on the SAT's when he or she is applying to college, or a 4.0 GPA while there, but when the child is young, parents are supposed to be utterly and totally adoring, optimistic, and believe that their child is uniquely qualified to appreciate all the experiences in the world to which they have exposed him or her....especially, if this is the first child!
Perhaps, the better the parents, the more capable they are of overlooking the whispering, rustling of paper, squirming in the seat, and trips to the bathroom, looking upon the overall experience of being in the concert hall as positive exposure to the arts - after all, no temper tantrum or wet pants. From the point of view of the family sitting next to them with nine- and eleven-year olds and the musicians on stage, however, the underage child's presence is a disaster.
"Lighten up!", one hears. "They're kids. What do you expect" This is supposed to be fun. We paid to have a good time. How do you expect them to love the arts if you're so uptight about age? Isn't this entertainment?" Yes, but think about the others involved in this experience
The first job that a musician will give up when he/she can afford to do so financially is playing at parties.
The second job, and sometimes the first, that a musician will want to shed is playing for children. Years of playing for school groups have even resulted in principal players in major symphony orchestras having contract clauses that state they do not have to play kid's concerts or pop concerts. Why? Not because the performers are elitist snobs who feel that their art form is too good for children, but rather because the quality of the audience greatly affects the quality of the performance. When the orchestra feels that the audience is not able to understand what they are saying musically, or when they are playing through a war zone of M&M box noise, whispering, crying, and traveling the aisles, it is very difficult to give a performance with any musical integrity. Underage children are not at fault; they do not buy the tickets. Developmentally, they are not supposed to either understand the explanations from the stage or to sit quietly for that period of time. Age restrictions on concerts are there to protect children from well-meaning parents with unrealistic expectations. Age restrictions are there to promote musical enjoyment by never letting it be boring for the child simply because he or she is not ready for a particular concert.
Can the orchestra and conductor really tell if my child is whispering in Row Q? One of the most important aspects of all backstage tours I gave for children at the Kennedy Center was to take them on stage to look out into the hall. Children and adults are always astounded at how clearly the musicians can see the audience. All people would be equally astounded at how an acoustically good hall not only allows everything from the stage to be heard clearly in the hall, but how well those on stage can hear hall noise. Is it difficult to give one of your children directions at the dinner table, when you have only time to say them once, while another of your children is talking? The conductor of a young people's concert with a noisy audience is faced with the same problem.
Good entertainment is very serious business; good education is very serious business.
Schools have discovered that the oldest student in the class will have the greatest chance at success and, statistically, the older students always do better. Don't rush your child. The child who begins algebra before he/she is ready will be miserable. The child who is exposed to concerts before he/she is ready to sit quietly and fully understand and enjoy what is happening on stage will not love classical music, but, rather, will remember it as boring, and rightly so, for it is boring when you don't understand what is going on.
"The child who is exposed to concerts before he/she is ready to sit quietly and fully understand and enjoy what is happening on stage will not love classical music, but, rather, will remember it as boring, and rightly so, for it is boring when you don't understand what is going on."
Respect the age requirements, because, while they are not perfect, they remain our best guide to expected success.
An attentive audience, meaning an interested, involved, age-appropriate audience, will ensure you of further quality programming for your child. If young people's concerts are not rewarding experiences for the orchestra, the finest musicians will not play for them and the music director himself will not conduct them. Remember, the executive director of an orchestra is also the person who must face the angry conductor who says, "If you cannot get the four year olds out of the audience, I am not doing these concerts any more."
A wonderful drama teacher explained to a class that talking, whispering, and not being respectful, etc. during a performance was like pouring paint on an artist's work. Young children make noise; this is a natural and delightful part of their being. Noise is paint in the concert hall. An age restriction continues to be the best (though not fool-proof) guide for having the paint cans left at the door.
Don't despair! There are wonderful opportunities for introducing your young child to music before he/she is ready for the concert hall - opportunities where children with paint cans are a plus, not a minus. Suzuki programs for violin and other instruments for ages three and up abound. Parent-child classes for two-year olds can provide memorable moments for both parent and child. Remember, under the age of six requires lots of supervision, a fun teacher, and a good group of students who are enjoying the activity. Follow your gut reaction. If it doesn't look like fun, try another program quickly. With this and some listening to recordings at home, you and your age-appropriate child will in time become great concert-goers, if for no other reason than that you are no longer sneaking through the door. Wait for the right time. You will be richly rewarded.
Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,
President of Maestro Classics