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San Francisco Symphony & Exploratorium Generate STEAM Heat in Music for Families Concerts

January 21, 2016

MFFExploratorium2-by-Kim-Huynh.jpgFor many years, educators talked about STEM learning – science, technology, engineering and math.  The disciplines that would be necessary for success in the 21st century.  Lately, though, STEM has become STEAM – the extra A stands for “arts.”  And to conductor Edwin Outwater, who curates the SFS’s Music For Families series, that makes all the difference.   “It shows that finally, after all these years of talking about the arts, even in the tech industries the arts are becoming more important,” he says. Outwater, whose official title is Director of Summer Concerts, oversees the SFS’s yearlong commitment to Family Concerts.  The arts, he points out, have always been linked with technology.  “When I was a fourth grader, I loved music, but I was really drawn to the gadgetry of music.  I’d see kids walking around with clarinets and I thought they were really amazing technological devices.  Which of course they are.”

Remember that in the first half of the 19th century, the most sophisticated examples of human technology were arguably the steam engine and the grand piano.  So a curiosity about one thing can easily lead to the other.  Or as Vivian Altmann, Children's Educational Outreach Program Director at the Exploratorium, puts it, “we live interdisciplinary lives. Inspiring people of all ages to open their minds to this fact is exactly why this Exploratorium/SFS collaboration is not only relevant, it’s natural.”

This season’s concert series began with a program on how instruments physically make sound.  “The Exploratorium staff brought straws onstage,” Outwater recalls, “and taught everyone how to make oboes by cutting double reeds into the straws.”  He pauses, and laughs. “They make an unthinkable sound.  The staff does such a good job of mixing humor and science.  It’s very San Francisco.”

As the Exploratorium’s Altmann points out, though, “it goes beyond just being curious about how the oboe player makes a sound with her oboe and how that vibration travels to our ears. It’s also about what transforms that sound into music. How does that music make us feel? How do we respond?”

These are big questions – questions that provoke critical thinking, even (or especially) in young minds.  They are not the exclusive province of science and technology.  But if it’s science and technology that engage those young minds, then both institutions are eager to go there.  “This close to Silicon Valley, there’s a delight in science and technology,” Edwin Outwater explains, “The new iPhone is like a new rock album or the new Star Wars movie.  We try to capitalize on that delight.” 

This suggests an intriguing question: will a younger generation, raised on digital, portable, wireless technology, respond differently to programs like this?  “People are people,” Vivian Altmann asserts, “and having genuine human experiences that don’t involve modern, digital technology is always going to be compelling. Especially if they’re surprising, counterintuitive, and just plain fun.”   Sharon5cropped2-(2).jpg

One popular activity that took place in the lobby prior to the first concert in the series, on December 5, was called “Talk To The Wok.”  If you hold a plain old Chinese wok up to your face and speak into the center of it, the metal wok amplifies your voice, like a naturally-occurring microphone.  Altmann recalls a similar project that involved light instead of sound.  It involves two mirrored, wok-shaped pieces that fit together like a flying saucer, with a little hole in the top – something called the Mirror Mirage.  “When a tiny plastic object (in this case a little plastic frog) is placed in the center of the lower mirrored dish,” she explains, “one sees what’s called a ‘real image’ that seems to float just above the small opening in the top mirrored dish.”  She says that almost every kid assumed it was a hologram or a digital projection, and reports that they were all stunned and impressed to learn that this 3-D image, in midair, was created with just two parabolic mirrors.  “The real trumps the digital,” she concludes; “because in a generation that takes technology for granted, something so viscerally experiential and so simple becomes the true surprise.” 

The SFS/Exploratorium series aims to spark that sort of curiosity and sense of exploration – for its audience, and maybe even for its conductor and curator. “For me,” says Edwin Outwater, “it’s a chance to work with new partners on stage. But it’s something I do a lot, because I learn a lot.”

Music for Families, If you go:

Joshua Gersen conducts the San Francisco Symphony’s Music For Families concert, 2 pm Feb 6. Edwin Outwater conducts Music For Families, 2 pm Mar 5. Vladimir Kulenovic conducts the Music For Families, 2 pm Apr 30. Davies Symphony Hall (415)864-6000 sfsymphony.org