Every live music performance mandates its own, often unwritten, expectations of conduct for its audience depending on the venue and style of music. On the more restrictive end of the spectrum, audiences at a symphony might shush a patron for unwrapping a peppermint. On the opposite and more extreme end might be a rock band in a stadium, where the music is hugely amplified and the crowd is even louder.
Neither of these is particularly friendly for people with autism or high sensory needs, says Maria Lambros, founding executive director of Our Joyful Noise. Loud, crowded venues are difficult to navigate as are restrictions on certain movements and behaviors. These barriers, says Lambros, can consequently “steer kids away from music.”
But, she says, “there are little things you can do to be more sensory aware” at a music event. She set out to do them at Azure Family Concerts, a sensory-friendly concert series. In Lambros’ vision, tickets would be free. “All behaviors,” she says, “would be welcome.” There would be a “chill-out room” and a dancing area, and every child would receive a plush toy to hold during the concert. The music would be diverse and not overly amplified. And there would be no drums. Most importantly, says Lambros, there would be “no shushing allowed.”
On a rainy afternoon in December, musical group Trio Jinx’s three Peabody-trained musicians (Ledah Finck on violin, Louna Dekker-Vargas on flute and Yoshiaki Horiguchi on bass) performed “A Trip Around the World” at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation as part of the Azure series.
Around 50 people attended, collecting their programs, taking their free stuffed monkeys and finding a seat in one of BHC’s event rooms. Laura Gottlieb and her 18-year-old daughter, Felicia, who attends high school at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, arrived a few minutes early. “We’ve been to all of them,” Gottlieb says. Her daughter enjoys the shows because “she doesn’t have to be so quiet. They let you get up and dance.”
Gottlieb likes that “you don’t have to be a certain way. You can be however you want to be. You can have high needs or low needs, whoever’s in the mood to go. It’s for anyone: You don’t have to be in a box.”
The trio opened with an Eastern European folk song, followed by a song about the jungle. “Listen for tigers and birds,” Finck told the audience.
By the fourth song, many kids were dancing with their stuffed monkeys and the colorful boas that volunteers had passed around. One child lay down on the floor; two toddlers collided while dancing and were prompted to apologize by their parents. The music played on.
A small girl in a red dress and kitty ears ran for the stage but was halted by a volunteer. The girl looked up, expecting to be admonished. Instead, the volunteers smiled and redirected her to the dance floor next to the stage. “You can run around over there,” a volunteer says.
Another volunteer offered Felicia a pink boa. She took it and joined in the dance. The concert featured a world-premiere performance of composer Gu Wei’s “Varadero.” Wei attended the show and told the audience his work was “inspired by the beaches of Cuba,” the most beautiful he had ever seen. Wei, a pianist, even joined the trio for one song, “Concertino,” by Erwin Schulhoff.
While playing, Wei was unexpectedly joined by an audience member. Four-year-old David Stewart stood up, walked over and sat down on the bench next to him. Not every classically trained musician would embrace the idea of an unplanned, mid-performance duet. But Wei, without missing a note, took David’s hand and showed him the keys to play.
According to David’s mother, Zoe Stewart, this was David’s first time at an Azure concert. She says she didn’t know what to expect, but she heard all behaviors were welcome. They meant it, she surmised. Stewart says she didn’t expect David (who takes piano lessons) to get on stage, but David’s hands-on interest appeared welcome to the group.
“I enjoy working with kids,” Wei says. “I teach piano. We are all Peabody students here in Baltimore. I heard about the Azure series, and I got excited about the concept. I asked if we could be part of the program, playing the piano or writing a piece.”
Composing and performing for this audience “was really meaningful,” he adds.
David says he joined Wei on stage because the music “was good.” “I was very proud of your great music,” his mom told him.
Erica Hobby attended the concert with her two children, including 9-year-old son Jonathan. It was their first time at an Azure series, and her son says he liked that the audience didn’t have to sit down. Jonathan, who had somehow amassed three stuffed monkeys, danced with them and two boas during the concert.
“Who knew they would be so great for dancing?” Hobby says with a laugh. Jonathan agreed. He says he enjoyed the musical variety. “I loved that they played all different songs.” “I liked that I didn’t once have to get up or worry,” Hobby adds. Not having to worry about the acceptability of certain behaviors “takes the pressure off. I could just relax and enjoy. Whatever’s happening is fine.”
When you have a child with special needs, she says, “it’s not often you can say that.”