Summertime is festival time. Wherever you look, there are stacks of cultural offerings, more often than not with top notch line-ups, and there is so much variety that it’s hard to narrow down your choices to just a few. So what’s to be done with the darling little ones? Babysitter? Cancelled. Grandma and Grandpa? Otherwise engaged. Bring them with? Unthinkable! With horror, your mind’s eye sees how the young one will react to the eagerly awaited revenge aria (“Mum, why is that woman screaming”), restlessly rustling around in their seats and finally, at the high drama of the death scene, with the rest of the audience holding its breath, the clearly audible whine of “that’s sooooooo boring”.

Children's concert © Barbara Frommann
Children's concert
© Barbara Frommann
But is it really like that? Do all children find classical music boring? And if so, why? We’ve asked some of the biggest classical music festivals in Germany and Austria about their experiences with very young audiences, and how it’s possible to provide children with a positive first encounter with classical music. They gave us a fascinating insight into the ways in which a programme can be created. And while the answers from each festival were varied, they all agreed on one thing: the cause of our young audience’s lack of interest in classical music lies in its image. “Many are reluctant to consider classical music, and think it’s elitist and unapproachable”, says Stephanie Momper from Rheingau Music Festival. “With a bit of information, these inhibitions can often be dispelled.” Lena Oymanns from Beethoven Bonn Festival agrees: “It’s clearly the case that a lot of people – grown-ups as well as youngsters – simply don’t come across classical music in their everyday lives”.

So what can festivals do to change this? Is there a right way, in the festival context, to deliver the required musical education? Absolutely, say our interviewees, although it’s never straightforward, as Ulla Kalchmair from Salzburg festival explains: “Many people complain that only an “event” can drag the couch potatoes away from the TV and the computer. And several concert managers despair that so-called high culture seems to be ageing with its audience. Festivals have to take action.” And in this instance, “action” is the magic word. Children don’t just learn with their heads: first of all, they learn with their hands, by trying things out, joining in and taking part. Festivals know this, so they put on events targeted at a young audience, in which children can be at the heart of the action.

To achieve this, many festivals have devised specific programmes in which young people can play an active part. There are children’s festivals and family festivals for the youngest, with brightly coloured costumes and plenty of options to dance and sing along. Like this, kids experience a playful introduction to “grown up-music” at a very early age, leaving no space for any reticence to develop. There will be something for kids at all ages, a visit in class from a musician who's played a concert in thet area the night before, or are going to play one the night after. In all the childrens' programmes, however, the festivals' work isn't merely informational. A little more advanced young listeners can even get an idea of a possible professional field by interviewing musicians and organising a complete concert, for example.

Workshop at Beethoven festival © Barbara Frommann
Workshop at Beethoven festival
© Barbara Frommann
An additional focus for festivals is the support of young people from an artistic point of view, through bursaries and programmes like Salzburg’s “Young Directors” and “Young Singers Project” or a yearly opera camp, in which children and young adults the to go backstage and breathe the air. Be it toddler or star of tomorrow, any one of these varied productions can be incredibly important. Lena Oymanns says “if young people are able to experience an emotional connection with music, that music will stay in their memory”.

In some cases, there has to be some background for such emotional engagement to be possible, especially for opera. So operas get abridged and their language gets simplified, in order to give very young kids an easy way into the works. To do this, festivals often work with specialist companies like Taschenoper (pocket opera) Lübeck, who produce kids’ versions of famous works. We wanted to know whether children and families have favourites, and it seems that besides popular content such as fairy tales, the evergreens of regular opera houses are on the top of the list. “The whole of our young people’s programme is always rapidly sold out, especially our cushion concerts,” explains Maria Gaul from Munich Opera Festival. “The productions that are guaranteed to be the most popular for kids and families are still The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel.”

For all these ideas, festivals profit from the uniqueness and richness of their programmes, even if this poses other problems. For example, concert halls generally only have their own orchestra, so they always have musicians on hand, who can visit schools or can put on additional performances for children, with comparatively little additional expense. However, in the framework of a festival, first of all one has to find amongst the visiting musicians someone willing and able to take on this kind of work. Against that, there’s the possibility of designing a unique offering in which the venue and programme have been chosen to match each other. By working together with various artists, it’s possible to create different formats each of which targets a different target audience.

<i>Die Entführung aus dem Serail</i> for children 2013: Peter Kellner (Osmin), Johannes Dunz (Belmonte) © Wolfgang Kirchner
Die Entführung aus dem Serail for children 2013: Peter Kellner (Osmin), Johannes Dunz (Belmonte)
© Wolfgang Kirchner
An exciting example of how flexible a festival’s offering can be is the “Feel the music” project. In the framework of this project, deaf and hearing-impaired children are able to experience music not just with their ears but with all their senses. Of course, this is a highly specialist offering, but it’s an example of an important and effective approach, as Lena Oymanns stresses: “Festivals can open up to their audiences, can reach out to young audiences, can make the journey with them...” Whether it’s in the form of cushion concerts or the illustrations in children’s concerts, which appeal to a young audience far more than the usual artists’ pictures, there are no limits to the shape and form of “opening up”. It will be exciting to see what this summer has in store for us.

,p>Very recently, we received another set of interesting insights from the Festival Styriarte Graz, which we would not want you to miss:<\p>

Young People's Concert with the Great Orchestra Graz © Lukas Seirer
Young People's Concert with the Great Orchestra Graz
© Lukas Seirer
Just as the representatives of the other festivals, Claudia Tschida has found that classical music often means little to children: "Kids and young persons aren't introduced to classical music since their parents don't know how to approach it and it isn't part of life and listening habits of families nowadays. Classical music has a reputation of being difficult (the term "serious music" seems ineradicable) and not very easy to listen to. You are given the impression that you need to know an awful lot about classical music before you can actually listen to it. In addition, there are unbelievably high barriers which immediately create stiffness and lead to many questions: 'How do you behave in a concert? When am I allowed to applaud? What do you wear?’ Parents worry about this and pass the worries on to their children - there are still many barriers to be dispelled." <\p>

In order to work towards this, Graz has "Young People's Concerts". These are live programmes for children from the Graz Great Orchestra , which often combine classical and pop music to point out connections and differences. Claudia Tschida considers working with parents to be as important as working with kids, in order to dispel barriers and prejudices among the generation that should be a model to children. Thus, parents can introduce their kids to classical music themselves and "plant the seed. In the end, however, you do have to wait for the wild years of your youngsters to pass and the seeds to take root."

Our thanks to Beethoven Bonn Festival, Rheingau Music Festival, Bavarian State Opera (Munich Opera Festival), Salzburg Festival and Festival Styriarte Graz<\em> for their support with this article.

Translated from German by Hedy Mühleck and David Karlin