Symphony orchestras have reached out to school-age audiences for a long time. Many orchestras present "Young People's Concerts" or send smaller groups of musicians to perform at schools. Two years ago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) headed in a different direction when it opened a state-of-the-art music learning center called ECHO.
The idea for ECHO came from the CSO Music Director Daniel Barenboim, who is better known as one of the world's leading conductors and pianists.
"He wanted to build a music center where people could come and learn about the basics of music and which would serve as a hands-on introduction to classical music and the part music plays in our lives," says Megan Balderston, who manages ECHO. And the advantages of interactive learning struck an appealing chord.
Visitors to ECHOmostly students from the Chicago areareceive an interactive "instrument box" almost as soon as they walk in. They can plug the box into five different musical stations spread around ECHO, where they explore the world of music and record their own musical sounds. You can play notes on one of the boxes. (Requires Shockwave. Download now.)
At these glass-enclosed stationswhich look like oversized telephone boothsstudents cover topics from the creation of music to the teamwork practiced by an orchestra to the musical contributions from different ethnic groups around Chicago. By touching computerized screens, users adjust the tempo and volume of the music, add different instruments to the mix, or highlight individual sections of instruments from the entire orchestra.
"We make a comparison with how different notes form a chord and how you might combine different colors to create a new color," Balderston explains. "In other words, yellow plus blue equals green, in the same way that two or three different notes would equal a different chord."
Sounds and Silence also presents an everyday street scene, full of everyday noises, from which users can select a particular sound. "The corollary orchestral event," notes Balderston, "is to click on different parts of an orchestra and hear the different instruments played."
Yet another feature lets students experiment with the waves of a musical sound. By changing the amplitude of the wave, they explore how the sound changes.
"We have five different musical examples," says Balderston. "You're asked to choose one and to pick a color that goes with the music. You also pick a photograph, a season, and a location.
"At the end of the session, you're shown a 'scrapbook page' on the computer of what you've picked to go along with the music. And this is compared with the scrapbooks of what others picked using the same piece of music. Different people have felt and seen different things, and the point we're trying to make is that all of these interpretations are valid."
Move on to the Celebrations and Time booth, Balderston adds, and you'll discover a host of cultural links, including musical examples from just around the corner.
"We've recorded Chicago-area groupsfrom Mexican mariachi music to blues to gospelas musical examples. It really gives us a chance to showcase the kinds of music we have in Chicago and to make a connection with the classical music we offer."
You can even play the gonglike tam-tam in a performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," with Daniel Barenboim conducting. Hit your electronic instrument when the maestro points to you, and you'll get his electronic praise: "That was excellent, absolutely perfect." Miss your cue, and you will be told that you've come in too early or too late and that you should try again.