Whether it’s through music, theatre or sculpture, children can express their creativity and learn the importance of collaboration and empathy
When Matthew Loden became the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s chief executive officer last year, he was already well aware of his new home’s broad cultural tradition. But the former Philadelphia Orchestra co-president only gradually realized how the city’s diversity could help build the organization’s attractiveness, particularly among young people.
“More than 40 per cent of Toronto’s population was born outside the country,” Loden says. “That’s an extraordinary pool of musical talent and interests to draw from and build on.”
Under Loden’s leadership, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, through its youth orchestra and similar initiatives, is seeking to find new ways to fill latent demand for arts, during a time when educators are under pressure to supply STEM and career-oriented teaching.
Loden, who has devoted much of his life to preaching his love of music to youth, appears to have found a good fit for his talents. Every season, the symphony's curriculum-based concerts focus on special programs that celebrate diversity.
In 2017, the orchestra commissioned and performed Eliot Britton’s Adizokan, a show that included Indigenous vocals, electro-acoustic, orchestral music, dance and film. More recently, the orchestra mixed in beats from the Korean song Baby Shark into a Mozart concerto.
Getting kids’ attention
Grabbing the attention of overstimulated children, who are bombarded by YouTube and social media, isn’t easy. But technology can also help a child learn more about the arts.
“Access to the arts is easier than ever and kids are being exposed to various forms at an earlier age,” says Adam Smith, director of audience engagement and education at The Toronto Consort, which performs beautiful but often lesser-known music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
“The arts are always evolving, so why wouldn’t interest in it evolve right alongside?”
The Toronto Consort has refined numerous strategies to build interest among users, many of which draw upon the strength of its 500-year repertoire, which spans the years 1150 to 1650.
“We are lucky to be living in a country with rich cultural diversity,” Smith says.
“But there is one connection that unites everyone: human experience. To me, developing culturally sensitive young adults begins with empathy.”
One surprisingly effective path to building interest among youth is through their parents. For example, the Toronto Consort’s Early Music Collaboration Lab for Seniors and Youth fosters intergenerational connection through fun, co-learning experiences.
“We sing together, laugh together and, more importantly, build community together,” Smith says. “It’s all about providing opportunities to build a personal connection.”
Kids hunger foran antidote tothe fractured,high-pressuredenvironmentthat we live in.— Matthew Loden, CEO Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Interest begins with parents
Rachel Weiner, spokesperson for the Gardiner Museum, agrees about the importance of uniting generations.
“Interest in the arts is often shaped by parents,” Weiner says. More of them “want kids to have hands-on creative encounters that enable them to tap into their creativity and imaginations.”
Diversity is also central to the Gardiner’s operating philosophy. The museum’s 4,000-piece collection includes pottery from the ancient Americas, blue-and-white porcelain from China and Canadian ceramics that represent a broad range of domestic geographies, cultures and time periods.
One of the museum’s key strategies for attracting young people is to give them a chance to learn by doing through school programs, children’s clay classes and weekly family days.
“Clay is such a playful, tactile and accessible medium, which allows kids to experiment and give shape to their ideas,” Weiner says. “We are constantly evolving, responding and [initiating] new programs that encourage children to connect.”
Offering lifelong benefits
Providing youth with greater access to culture can provide huge payoffs down the line, according to Anna Stanisz, director of creative learning and programs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
“Exposing children to art sharpens their observational skills and empowers their free expression,” she says “[It] gives us hope that as adults they will be able to respond to life’s challenges in a similar and unbiased fashion.”
At McMichael, teaching children about diversity is also important. For example, First Nations artists play a key role in its Signature Studios initiative, which provides in-school, process-oriented workshops led by professional instructors in partnership with established artists.
The collection also includes works by five generations of Canadian artists ranging from the Group of Seven to some who are still active today.
Welcoming all abilities
Arts can also help people connect the dots, a skill that is especially useful in today’s fractured society.
“Parents are seeing more career potential in creative industries,” says Allen MacInnis, artistic director for Young People’s Theatre.
“The arts are [also] more welcoming of all abilities than many other organized activities for young people.”
MacInnis also recognizes the ability of the arts to bring people together.
“Many art forms foster, indeed require, collaboration,” he says.
“They are thus an ideal meeting ground for people of diverse backgrounds, making them an ideal platform to encourage respect of other cultures.”
Loden agrees. “Kids hunger for an antidote to the fractured, high-pressured environment that we live in,” he says.
“[Music], which is like a team building sport, can be a sanctuary.”
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