The San Francisco Symphony has a longstanding commitment to music education, beginning in 1919 when the orchestra performed its first group of children’s concerts. At the start of the 21st century, the orchestra embarked on a multimedia project with ambitious goals and unprecedented scope: to use media in its most public and accessible forms to instill a lifelong love of music and show that classical music can speak to everyone. The Keeping Score project is a national, multi-year educational media program designed to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds.
In an effort to bring the classical music experience to new and experienced listeners alike, Keeping Score encompasses a national PBS television series, an interactive web site to explore and learn about music, a national public radio series (The MTT Files), documentary and live performance DVDs, and an education program for grades K–12 to further teaching through the arts by integrating classical music into core subjects. “Keeping Score is designed to give people who have been intimidated by the rituals of classical music the chance to get past that,” says Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. “If I were sitting down next to somebody before I was about to play a piece on the piano, I’d say, ‘Let me tell you a few things.’ One on one. As simple and direct as that. My goal is to clarify everyone’s intentions—what the composer had in mind, what the performers have in mind, what kind of voyage of discipline and self-discovery goes into the process of making music.”
The project began in 1999 when the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund proposed to partner with the SFS in a new and groundbreaking music education initiative. The Hass Foundation told the SFS to “think big,” and according to John Kieser, general manager and director of electronic media, Tilson Thomas and the SFS creative team came up with several ideas. The idea the Haas Fund liked best was to recreate for television the popular Family Concert Series that MTT had created with the orchestra in Davies Hall. The Haas Fund wanted the shows to be produced for PBS so there would be access for all, with no economic barriers preventing anyone from viewing the programs. But as the creative team worked towards the goal of broadcasting the concerts on television, they realized that they couldn’t just record them in the traditional way—since the time of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, media has progressed dramatically and today’s viewer would require much more richness and diversity.
They decided that they needed to capture live concerts in a way that had never before been attempted. First, the camera would have to bring the viewer right inside the orchestra and show people how the music and performance were constructed. Next, the television programs needed to be “experiential” documentaries that would explore why music is so powerful, would humanize the composers, and would put the music into an historical context. Realizing that television was starting to fade as a medium when compared to the World Wide Web, the SFS team decided that the project should be like a three-legged stool, having a broadcast component (TV and radio), an Internet component, and a teacher training program to integrate classical music into the curriculum for all subjects in public schools. “We wanted to give people an entry point into classical music,” Kieser says. Another goal was showcasing the musicians in the orchestra and the partnership with MTT. “Besides educating future audiences, we wanted to clearly establish Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony as providers of an exceptional classical music experience,” says Kieser.
The initial pilot program for the Keeping Score series was a documentary and live capture performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. After the taping and editing were completed, the broadcast was shown to focus groups in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. The groups were composed of people of different ages who didn’t listen to classical music, but had watched at least one program on PBS in the last year. In terms of building future audience, the age group the SFS was most interested in reaching was 22–44. After watching the program all participants in the groups felt that music had an intrinsic value, but they were afraid to talk about it because they found it intimidating. “It’s like wine,” Kieser says. “Everyone has a fear of getting into it.” It was so intimidating that when asked what sort of person should lead them on the journey into exploring classical music, the groups agreed that someone with an English or German accent would be best! The groups liked the format of learning about one composer and one particular work in each show, and loved hearing from the musicians themselves, going behind the scenes to learn what goes into creating a performance. The SFS team did a lot of tweaking to the show after it was viewed by the focus groups, and the Tchaikovsky pilot aired in June of 2004 on the PBS Great Performance series to wide critical acclaim. The show was watched by over one million American households.
Much of what was learned from the taping of the initial program was applied to the first full series of television programs, Revolutions in Music, aired on PBS in November 2006. The three broadcasts in this series each feature a composer who changed the way music was written in his time, setting the course for the generations of musical evolution that followed. These documentary episodes cover Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. To date, the broadcasts have been viewed by four and a half million people nationwide. Live concert performances of the three works were also aired on High-Definition PBS stations and are available for sale on DVD, with sales approaching 30,000 units, for over $285,000 in revenues. Currently in production, Series Two is expected to premiere nationally on PBS in 2009 with episodes on Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique), Charles Ives (Holidays Symphony), and Shostakovich (Symphony No. 5).
The companion web site to the series provides an interactive online experience designed to give people of all musical backgrounds a way to explore the music and stories behind these works in much greater depth and detail, and at the listener’s own pace. In one section of the web site, it is possible to follow along with the musical scores while audio and video content is seamlessly integrated as the measures of the score go by. Other sections explore a variety of musical concepts, such as Beethoven’s use of themes and keys or Stravinsky’s intricate use of meter. Separate sites for each composer feature biographical and historical information that explore the influences that led to the composition of the featured works. Alex Ross, in an excellent October, 2007 New Yorker article about the Internet and classical music, praises the Keeping Score project and web site, and hails MTT as “Bernstein’s most faithful and hopeful follower…with these programs he is performing radical acts of demystification.” Over 150,000 people have visited the site to date.
The MTT Files is written and hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas and co-produced with American Public Media. The radio program features eight 60-minute episodes where MTT metaphorically pulls out some of his “files”—ideas and musings about music and art, and reminiscences of the legendary artists he has know throughout his career. The series includes an episode featuring Tilson Thomas in conversation with James Brown in one of the soul singer’s final interviews before his death. The MTT Files recently won a Peabody Award for Radio Programming.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the project is the Keeping Score teacher training program. Designed to help students learn through the arts, the program trains K–12 teachers to integrate classical music into core subjects such as science, math, English, history, and social studies. School districts in San Jose, Sonoma, and Fresno, California as well as in Oklahoma City and Flagstaff, Arizona are currently participating in the program, with more districts planned for the future. Each district selected for the program must have socioeconomic and racial diversity in their student populations (45% of the students currently participating in the project are below the poverty line), must have an institution of higher learning (university or college), and a semi-professional or professional orchestra in the community. Most importantly, the districts selected must be seeking innovative ways to improve their schools.
Participating teachers are trained by SFS musicians, educational staff, and a variety of arts educators. The teachers come to San Francisco for a week of immersion in music during which they experiment with different instruments, attend SFS concerts, and participate in a highly structured program of workshops and lectures from morning to night. Feedback from teachers has been impressive, with many remarking that this is the only program they’ve ever been involved with that concentrates primarily on them—on making them better teachers by improving their skills, including being able to generate their own ideas about how to use music as a tool in their classrooms.
One third-grade teacher who was teaching about the western expansion in America used Copland’s Billy the Kid as a soundtrack and urged students to create a character, Billy, who was heading out west for the first time. Instead of just learning dry facts about the Louisiana Purchase, the period of western expansion comes to life for the students as they connect historical facts to their version of “Billy.” In a fifth-grade math classroom, a teacher played the overture to La Traviata and asked kids what they heard. Surprisingly, the students initiated a discussion about longing and desire after listening to the powerful music of Verdi. The teacher made the point that equations are expressions of desire—x and y just want to belong to somebody. After hearing the music and participating in the discussion, the children in the group had a much easier time grasping the concept of equations.
Sometimes, there are unintended outcomes in the classroom. A fourth-grade teacher in Flagstaff assigned students the task of creating their own musical instrument out of found objects. She had two homeless students in her class, and because of their experiences, they were much more creative than their fellow students at imagining the possibilities inherent in their found objects. These two children came back to class with instruments that impressed and amazed the other students. As a result, their social standing in the class went way up, along with their feelings of self-worth.
The SFS is doing all it can to fill the void now that music education is being reduced or eliminated in public schools across the country. “As the schools have, by and large, cut arts education and music education out of the curriculum, it has become up to large organizations to help people understand the language and power of music,” says Tilson Thomas. “Our big performing arts organizations have to take the lead in picking up the slack, which is difficult, because that is not why these institutions were created; it was not envisioned as part of their responsibility . . . a responsibility that we have no option but to accept and undertake is to guide and encourage children and young people in their understanding of how music really works and what it means.”
It is very rewarding to work for an organization that is taking the lead in music education with a visionary project like Keeping Score. I am proud of the commitment my orchestra has made to making the music I love accessible to all. Of all the maestros I have worked with, MTT is the most able to connect with audiences and really get them excited about the music. He is entertaining and engaging—able to put people at ease, to tell stories that draw them in, and to show them a way to experience music on a more personal level. His ease in front of the cameras and the enthusiasm he exudes are key components to the success of the project, as are the wonderful insights and personal stories my colleagues in the orchestra provide. Already the Keeping Score project has come a long way to meeting its goals of enlarging the audience for classical music, reaching and educating underserved audiences, cultivating an appreciation of the art form, and establishing the SFS as a provider of exceptional classical music experiences.
The musicians of the SFS Media Oversight Committee want to extend our great thanks and appreciation to Debbie Newmark, AFM’s director of symphonic electronic media. She spent countless hours helping the committee navigate its way through issues not addressed by the A/V Agreement, including compensation for musician interviews, use of material from the SFS radio archives, and use of A/V and audio material on the web. Thanks also to Trish Polach and Lenny Leibowitz for their legal assistance.