American Classical Orchestra’s CMK – Classical Music for Kids

Two hundred fresh-faced, well behaved, grey-flanneled kindergarten to second graders file into the auditorium of St. Ignatius Loyola School filled with anticipation. It looks like a Bemelman’s drawing. The occasion is a presentation of Sergey Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf arranged for chamber orchestra by American Classical Orchestra’s Founder and Artistic Director Thomas Crawford.

The school’s music teacher Emily Hudson has already screened a more elaborate Classical Music for Kids (CMK) version created when the pandemic hit in collaboration with WNET. Narrated by Thomas Crawford, the utterly enchanting piece utilizes nine musicians and two wonderful, professional actor/mimes, Catherine Costa and Bill Bowers. Fluent trade-off of characters make it seem like a full cast. Props and costume pieces are highly imaginative. Choreography is magical.

Bill Bowers (bird) and Catherine Gasta (duck) in the video

The video is free to all registrants on PBS Learning Media throughout the country. Ancillary materials include an introduction, meeting the musicians, a media gallery, and a teacher’s guide. All are curated separately for grades kindergarten through second, third through fifth, and sixth through eighth. To date 75,000 schoolchildren have watched the program in their classrooms, hundreds of thousands on PBS Learning Media. CMK is hoping to continue the relationship with a second film. Peter and the Wolf Collection on PBS Learning and Peter and the Wolf 30-second promo reel for schools.

Left: Mitch Kriegler, Sarah Davol, Wendy Stern

The mobile iteration I attend today features seven musicians, each with a headpiece to indicate their character. They are: violinist, Karl Kawahara – Peter; oboist, Sarah Davol-the duck; flautist, Kathleen Nester, the bird; clarinetist, Mitch Kriegler, the cat; bassoonist, Stephanie Corwin, grandpa; and French horn, R.J. Kelly, the wolf. ACO Conductor /pianist Thomas Crawford narrates.

Musicians are joined by mime/actor Catherine Gasta who repeatedly listened to the piece choreographing her multiple roles, “in order to hit musical accents.” She travels with the company. “We encourage the kids to mime along with me. They get excited about how much I’m taking up the space in order to include them.” (Running among them and/or up the aisles.) Education Director Mae Miller welcomes classes, then demonstrates a gesture for each character. The bird flutters, the cat flatly extends its paws, Peter swings marching arms. She stands at front to the side so that students can mimic.

Patrick Mahoney (in his headpiece)

“Early in the morning, Peter opened the garden gate and looked out over the beautiful green meadow…” Crawford starts with light tale-telling style. The hero wakes, stretches, dresses, pulls a piece of fruit from a tree and coltishly runs out to find his friend the bird. Flutter, flutter, quick tilted head, craned neck, blinking eyes, silent chirps. Duck decides to take a bath in the pond. OOOOO cold! Arms bent to form elbow wings, she waddles out arching and bowing, thoroughly scrubbing herself all over, sniffing under her wings…

Catherine Gasta and the kids

Cue the stealthy wolf, in this case slithering down stage stairs to the auditorium floor. There’s a chase. Poor duck doesn’t get away and is greedily gobbled down in a single bite resulting in evident heartburn. Kids make growl faces and claw the air. Oddly there’s nothing ominous about the event.

You know the story. With help from bird, Peter captures the beast. “Don’t shoot! Don’t Shoot” he cries. “Take it to the zoo!” (A good lesson.) Some hunters exude bravado, others trepidation. Gasta whirls to indicate change of characters. The animal, carried in a celebratory parade, is decidedly unhappy. Grandpa warns Peter things might not have turned out so well. (Another good lesson.) A crowd cheers. The mime/Peter runs up and down aisles high-fiving kids.

Next, each musician talks about her/his instrument and demonstrates what it can do. The difference between sounds of a single or double reed is met with giggles. Kathleen Nestor shows a piccolo after playing her flute. “Now would this be higher of lower, do you think?” French horn player R.J. Kelly details consulting with wolves – space wolves, in fact – in order to get his character right. He plays a lullaby, then the theme from Star Wars. The brass sounds like two completely different instruments. Kids jump with grinning recognition.


Lastly, the children are encouraged to ask questions. (Miller circulates with a microphone.) Gasta is asked how she plays so many characters. “You’re silly!” The thespian indicates a way kids can make butterflies with their fingers and hands. Drinking from an invisible cup, she points out the need to “give objects not there, their own space.” Two hundred little hands follow suit. The mime talks about telling a whole story “all by yourself. You don’t need costumes or props.” “Do you talk at home?” she’s asked. “Do you wear that every day?”(A reference to classic mime apparel.)

A teacher wrote: “We loved the mime. My class had a discussion about how important it is to use our actions and expressions instead of words.”

A parent wrote: “Seraphina really loved today’s performance of Peter and the Wolf. She told me about it right away when I picked her up. ..But the best was tonight when she put on the music for Peter and the Wolf and acted out the entire story – along with the music – the way she said the mime did today.”

Several students inquire the age of instruments and are responded to with both that which they see and an instrument’s origin. We’re told there’s a prehistoric flute at the Museum of Natural History, but “the oldest instrument in the world is the human voice.” The musicians are good with their admirers.

All three sections together last about an hour.

Founded in 1984, the ACO is dedicated to preserving great music literature of the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic eras. Fifteen years later, the orchestra transitioned to period instruments. (Prokofiev concerts utilize modern ones.) Thomas Crawford recalls that “literally within the first bar” of the first concert after conversion, he had to step down off the podium to collect himself. “I was so shocked by the sound of these instruments,” he said of the organic, natural blend he heard, “that it basically cancelled all the work I had done” up to that point.

“This is a passion. It’s like the difference between plastic flowers and real flowers,” he says. “People who hear the period instruments can hear a difference within seconds. It’s a sound that can’t be put back in the bottle.” Orchestra members share feelings about the authenticity of playing with the organization:

Thomas Crawford and Sarah Stone; Thomas Crawford

Long time subscriber Mae Miller joined as Education Director and the two put their heads together to cultivate wider interest, including that of children. For many children, CMK programs constitute a first exposure to classical music. “If you’re seven years-old, it’s necessary to create a format that’s entertaining as well as informative,” she reflects.

Specializing in the 17th, 18th, and some 19th century composers, the ACO has presented concerts featuring Bach, Mozart, Handel, Hayden, Vivaldi, and occasionally Beethoven. “I struggle with his temperament,” Crawford notes smiling. For CMK concerts, he dresses as the featured composer and offers a short biography. Famous musicians including Polish pianist Janina Fialkowska and violinist Stephanie Chase have been guests.

Mexican recorder virtuoso Horacio Franco, lead a series of Vivaldi and Bach concerts alongside Thomas Crawford who was dressed as Vivaldi. Franco, I’m told, wore his own leather pants, open-chested shirt, and silver sneakers to which the children undoubtedly related. “The Magic Recorder” toured 30 schools until stopped in its tracks by pandemic shutdown. Miller tells me 80 percent of students in elementary school are given recorders as their first instrument. Some learned short tunes beforehand and played with the master.

Children with Horacio Franco

Public family concerts included one “Magic Recorder” presentation that featured The Norwalk Youth Symphony as well as an ACO Chamber Group replete with harpsichord and baroque bass. Recorder students played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the 9th Symphony (with Franco). Miller tells me they offered “an instrument petting zoo” which is to say kids could touch and actually try modern instruments that were then wiped down between uses. Reaction to the cornucopia of instruments, especially a wide range of recorders, was terrific. Here was something a child could hold, with which they could make a sound.

I’m taken back to childhood Saturdays when my brother and I were driven in from New Jersey to attend Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with The New York Philharmonic. (Fifty-three of these were mounted and broadcast over fourteen years. Many can be found on YouTube, all in a packaged set.)  The introduction to classical music was entertaining and enlightening, soft-sell of an intimidating genre, replete with a pretzel after. As arts programs are being cut like crazy in schools, recreating such a series would add immeasurably to the cultural horizons of our young people. Heads up foundations and patrons – a worthy beneficiary!

In addition to public “adult” and family concerts, the ACO performs for kids at hundreds of schools in New York, Connecticut (where it was first based), and New Jersey as well as libraries which make excellent venues to present CMK programs.

For commitment to enriching the cultural life of children, ACO/CMK was a recipient of the Early Music America’s “Bringing History Alive” award. For the program, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Music: Jefferson at Monticello,” ACO received the “Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth” award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Further information and to discuss performance fees:

To learn about ACO:

ACO at Alice Tully Hall with period instruments

Adult concerts coming up- though everyone is welcome:

March 2, 2023, the American Classical Orchestra will perform Healing Bach
Church of St. Vincent Ferrer
Lexington Ave. and E. 66th Street
8 p.m.: Concert; 7:15 p.m.: Tom Crawford’s Pre-Concert talk.

May 18, 2023, at 8 p.m.
Alice Tully Hall
Schumann – Spring Symphony
Sarasate – Carmen Fantasy
Grieg – The Mountain Thrall
Rachell Ellen Wong, violin 
To purchase tickets.

All photos courtesy of ACO
Top photo: Francis Liu, Mae Miller, Mitch Krieger, Catherine Gasta, Stephanie Corwin, Thomas Crawford, Wendy Stern, Sarah Davol, R.J. Kelly

About Alix Cohen (1769 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.