Chicago dad creates BIG sounds for little ears By Monica Ginsburg
Vic Muenzer wants to turn your kids into classical music fans. And if he converts you along the way, that's just fine, too.
Muenzer is the founder and conductor of the new Imagination Symphony, a 60-piece adult professional orchestra he created to perform classical music concerts for young children. Sound stuffy? Think again.
The Chicago radio program producer and syndicator doesn't even like the term classical music. "There's a real stigma attached to the word. Well guess what, some of the music is stuffy. But guess what, some of it isn't. Think of ‘Star Wars.' The music is so exciting. That's classical music, too."
The group's first concert, "The Little Wizard," will mix numbers from the soundtrack to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" with "really cool classical music" by Hector Berlioz, Maurice Ravel, Mozart and more, says Muenzer, the father of two young violin-playing boys. Actors from the Appletree Theater in Highland Park will share the stage to help tell the story of a misfit wizard who discovers the magic of music. Imagination Symphony will debut at 3 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago.
The orchestra will feature "some of the better musicians in the city," he says, including Chicago Symphony Orchestra members and his father, Edgar Muenzer, a recently retired CSO violinist. In another nod to this arts-rich family, Muenzer's wife Noel, wrote the Hogwarts-inspired script.
Learning from the kids After watching the way his own kids began to "get" music, Muenzer came to believe that it takes exciting, engaging and interactive performances to help kids develop their own love for music.
"I figured out very early on that if you just play records, young kids won't pay attention at all," says the father of Gregory, 8, and Gabe, 6. "It has to be visual and there has to be a story. When my kids were younger, they latched on to the Disney ‘Fantasia' films. After the videos were over, I noticed they were still humming the music. I saw that you need something visual to hold their attention. And a compelling story really helps them to appreciate the music."
Through his children, Muenzer also learned the value of repetition. "We always record concerts to learn from them, and when I'd play them in the car I noticed how quickly my kids would get to know story. And as we'd play something over and over, they seemed to enjoy the music more and more. I saw firsthand that repetition is a key way they learn. Now this is something that educators know, but for me it was a revelation."
To help ensure the concerts are more than just a one-time thing, Muenzer hopes to eventually make recordings available for purchase at the shows. "This way families will have the opportunity to get to know the music intimately. That's part of what it takes to develop a knowledge and love for something," he says.
Muenzer believes in being a musical role model for his children. In addition to playing music at home, the family frequently attends classical music concerts at Ravinia. "The kids like to take the train and sit on the lawn," Muenzer says. "They're interested in the music and enjoy listening to the music. They're running around, too, but they do seem to enjoy being there.
"Like any parent, all I can do is give my kids opportunities, be there for the concerts, take them to the lessons and encourage them. But I have no idea what they'll do with music, if anything, in the long run. That's for them to determine."
Making muggle music "The Little Wizard" tells the tale of Phineas Blackstone, a young Potter-like student who isn't very good at magic, has little confidence and makes lots of mistakes. His fellow wizard, Isadora, passionately loves music, but discovers that Muggle music is frowned upon at magic school.
"Isadora befriends Phineas and tries to convince him that music is magical, that it can take you places," says Noel, also a radio producer. "She shows him that when you hear a story through music, you feel what the characters in the story are feeling."
In the end, music empowers Phineas to make his own magic.
"We use ideas that are universally appealing to help kids get what's really going on in the music," she says. "Music is just another way to communicate ideas and feelings. We want to get away from treating the orchestra like a high art form."
And don't worry: no prior classical music experience is required. "So many people think they need to know something about the music before even stepping into the theater. But it's just music, it's just entertainment," says Muenzer. "If there are interesting things to know, we'll fill you in along the way. But it's not essential to enjoying the music."
Family friendly music Imagination Symphony hopes to stage up to nine concerts next year and, by its fifth year, perform 25 concerts in five geographically diverse venues. Muenzer also wants to build alliances with underserved communities, possibly by offering reduced ticket prices or transportation to theaters.
As cash-strapped schools eliminate music from the regular curriculum, Muenzer hopes his new venture will offer young kids an affordable and accessible introduction to classical music.
"I wanted to take my kids to the last couple of concerts my father played downtown, but Orchestra Hall doesn't even allow kids under 7 years old into their performances. I thought it was an important moment for them but I had to get special permission to take them. I understand that when you're paying $80 a seat, you don't want a 6-year-old interrupting the performance. What this says to me is that we need a new approach. We simply haven't provided families with the right environment.
"At most classical concerts, you'd expect your kids to sit still. Well, that's not going to happen. At Imagination Symphony, we don't care what the kids do. They can eat, they can dance in the aisles. As long as they experience and absorb the music, everything else will take its course."
Muenzer family tradition Interestingly, Muenzer is not the first member of his family to start a musical venture. Ten years ago, his parents founded the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra as a musical contribution to the community in which they live. Muenzer has been the principal trumpet player since the orchestra's inception. Each season, the group stages one concert for kids, which he has conducted for the past five years.
"The Park Ridge concerts were immensely satisfying," Muenzer says. "People in the audience were always wondering where else to go with their kids." Following in his parent's footsteps, Imagination Symphony began to take shape.
"The board of the Park Ridge organization didn't want to take the risk of rolling this out citywide, so I thought it was time to do something better and different," he says. "I sense there's a lot of interest for this type of thing."
"The kids' concerts are always fun," says Gregory, a third-grader who has been playing violin since he was 3. "Sometimes you get to go up on stage. Sometimes you get to walk up the aisle and run back to your seats. The music's good, too. It's just the music I'm used to."
Building young audiences Muenzer acknowledges the importance of young audiences to the vitality of the classical music industry.
"Of the people who regularly buy concert tickets, approximately 70 percent have played an instrument at one time," he says. "Today the audience is static. I'm concerned that we'll see our audiences continue diminish as fewer kids have contact with instruments at school. If we could help change the tide in any way, even change people's perceptions a little bit, that would be a great thing.
"We're going to play some exciting bits from great classical music. The kids might not even know they're hearing ‘real' pieces of music, and that's fine. As long as they find it exciting and energizing, we'll have succeeded."
"The Little Wizard" by Imagination Symphony will debut at 3 p.m., Oct. 19 at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $12 for children; $16 for adults, or $12 per person for families of four or more. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at (312) 902-1500 or at the Athenaeum box office. For more information log on to www.imaginationsymphony.org.
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