The Music Biennale Zagreb has once again created a program for children and youth, but this year in a completely different form. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year that program will move from concert halls, schools, and kindergartens to digital formats. On the first day of the Festival, 18 April, a new website will go live – kidz.mbz.hr – that will offer children of different ages, but also their parents and teachers, a variety of materials, listening rooms and classrooms within a new, broader approach to contemporary music to be used more directly whenever and wherever possible to the delight of all.
The mascot of the MBZ program for children is Svirko, who will guide the children through the interactive and educational content, quizzes, conversations with composers and performers as well as through a series of animated feature films created by music teacher and violinist Lucija Stanojević, produced by Studio Tetrabot, with Nina Čalopek as the program director and concept author.
Lucija Stanojević and Nina Čalopek
Education as one of the central postulates of the Festival
Musicologist Nina Čalopek, concept author, program director and producer of the MBZ for Children program, explained this worthy project in detail:
„The MBZ for Children was created in 2019 as a consolidation of the MBZ’s previous initiatives and projects intended for children and youth. When planning the 2019 Festival, including the content concept and ideas we wanted to have for that 30th edition of the Festival, that is bringing contemporary classical music and all related practices (both auditory and those from other artistic fields and disciplines) closer to all, it was necessary to find new discourses of communication, new ways of describing and narrating the festival content. In that sense, education (one might even say popularization) became one of the central postulates of the Festival. Although it may not have been transparent from the Festival program, education was the thread that subtly connected all stages of planning and selecting a program as well as the basis of the manner of presenting the festival program.
The Music Biennale Zagreb is – in the best sense of the word – an old festival, a festival of great tradition, a festival-sage that must always be up to date, but it must also somehow remind us of anthological pieces and composers as well as preserve and recreate the new music heritage. I myself have often likened it to a museum, a locus of safeguarding, storing, knowledge, inspiration and learning.
Thus, in 2019, we decided to put more emphasis on children’s programs that have always existed in one form or the other – maybe not continuously or in an equal measure – even in the earliest editions of the Festival. In 2019, the Festival consisted of four programs, lasted for two full months and – in collaboration with the Jeunesses Musicales Croatia that provided its network of partner educational institutions – reached approximately 4000 children from the city of Zagreb and the surrounding area.
Sadly, this year, COVID-19 messed up our program plans, but in a way also gave us the opportunity to be bold and devise new formats of artistic and educational content for children and youth, and their “big” ones, in a digital world that increasingly surrounds us. So, the program has moved from concert halls to the online platform (kidz.mbz.hr) where the contemporary music content for kids will be provided and available on a permanent basis, even outside the festival dates, hopefully also to children outside Zagreb.
The website content will be published on the first day of the festival, 18 April. Although only the first phase of this ongoing project will now be presented, it should and could be continuously upgraded.
Viewing room, listening room and classroom
The content on the platform will be grouped in three categories: viewing room, listening room and classroom. We are currently preparing an animated feature films for the viewing room. Screenplay was written by music teacher and violinist Lucija Stanojević, and was created in collaboration with the Tetrabot Animation and Design Studio.
The episodes will cover a variety of topics, from general questions such as what contemporary music, graphic score or atonality are or the roles of a composer or a conductor, but will also offer children interactive material they could immediately use to try to create instruments, perform or even compose. In the listening room, we will provide –
so far just four – compositions by Croatian composers plus some additional materials that we hope will facilitate children’s listening or at least help teachers explain it easier. In the classroom, we provide content “for those who want to know or learn more.”
The platform also follows the local cultural scene, in particular Croatian contemporary music for children and youth that it compiles and transfers, although we are available for all potential collaborations and new projects. The greatest challenge, that I believe we have not found a solution for at this initial stage, is how to encompass a really wide age spectrum, from babies to youth and adolescents. In this first phase, the content will primarily be aimed at preschoolers and children in the first grades of elementary school, but we are already devising new projects primarily intended for those most difficult to reach, younger adolescents.
In the age we live in, everyone, not just children, have attention problems. Children do not listen to anything today; they think they do, but their attention is only focused on chorus or a few seconds to the first forward on YouTube or some other digital channel on which they find music content. The information on whom they are listening to, who the author is or what the title of the piece is, disperse and come down to a brief euphoric experience. One wonders if this is really listening, but also how to coax, prepare, encourage children to listen, even repeatedly, to more demanding music. This is precisely why I would like to continue working with older age groups.
The goal of the platform and this type of program design was to offer continuous and long-lasting content that will covey contemporary music to the youngest ones in an appropriate, interesting and fun way. However, we can hardly wait to go among the children with our programs again – in concert halls, children’s parks, schools or kindergartens. During this edition of the festival, we plan to have four workshops that will be based on the platform content (primarily the films), two of which were created in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art where all little participants can also be interpreters in the concert program together with the adult impro-collective.
We talked about Svirkaonica, a contemporary music workshop for children over the age of four, with its leader Lucija Stanojević, violinist and teacher, who is also a co-author of the MBZ for Children program.
You are a music teacher who uses unconventional teaching methods in her class. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the standard music education dominant in Croatia? What should be changed and why?
I am a music teacher, a violin teacher, leader of the string orchestra and chamber music at the music school in Jastrebarsko, but I also lead music workshops for children, lately in a venue called bOravArt. I also use unconventional methods in my teaching, although I would rather say that I am adding my own stamp to the curriculum as, I believe, many of my colleagues also do.
The violin is a wonderful instrument to see and hear, although not the best one for beginners. The inability to play a beautiful, ear-pleasing tone, reliance on hearing, unusual body positions while holding the instrument, slow pace of progress, are all challenges that teachers, students – and parents – face. That is why I invent new, interesting content such as games and listening materials that are not directly related to playing but intrigue children, activate their sensors and motivate them to continue learning. The age we live in is chaotic, fast-paced and full of fears, children lack self-esteem, they are confused, something is constantly required of them, and they are losing their identity due to all the content available. I am in no way minimizing the importance of the “serious” aspect of education, but a child must first and foremost be a child. Children need pencil, fine motor skills, a variety of materials to work on, physical activity and art schools like music schools have the potential to balance theory and practice.
Croatia has one thing that few other countries have, and that is the music school system. Many children have the opportunity to attend state music schools that offer good programs for a decent fee, unlike countries where art is privatized and education expensive.
One of the shortcomings of our type of education is that the curriculum equates all students. Despite their efforts, some children simply fail to comply with the curriculum requirements for a particular grade. Such children are, unfortunately, “punished” by a poor grade and the message that they are not good enough. And then we get an adult who carries their dissatisfaction and lack of self-esteem to other segments of their work and life, and music becomes a bitter reminder that they failed, instead of enriching their lives. We definitely need to have a curriculum, but it would help a lot if schools could have a functional program, A and B, so that children who do not intend to go to music high school could attend an easier, B, program.
We would then get an adult who appreciates art, has a musical background, can participate in conversations about music when in company without shame or bitterness, and who might support their future child, student or friend in their music dreams. We would also need more music kindergartens, preschool programs that would “prepare the ground” for children, get them used to public performances, provide them a foundation to start playing and attending solfeggio classes – as well as more music and art classes and physical education classes in elementary schools.
What is the status of contemporary music and other genres such as pop, jazz and rock in today’s music education in Croatia?
That depends on the instrument (its history, presence in certain genres and its features), as well as the openness and affinities of the teacher. We, the teachers, are not all-powerful, and despite our best efforts cannot reach every child, regardless of the musical style we are trying to illustrate; a lot is also related to their family life, which is more than obvious when it comes to children. However, if we offer children the wealth that music has, if we give ourselves the opportunity to try some new style, even on the most basic level, we can be satisfied because we have at least tried.
There are many rockers and pop musicians among children, and not so many jazzers or those in contact with contemporary music. Again, I want to repeat that we lack programs A and B. I also think that the workshops and the appearances of musicians who are in other genres can also broaden the curriculum.
How do children react to contemporary music?
When I present it to them, I always find an example of something that might intrigue them to continue to listen, to explore or even to find ways for them to produce something similar. Every period in the music history includes composers who are more or less interesting to children, and the same applies to contemporary music. It is difficult to generalize their reactions: some find it weird right away and think that it is not music, and some are interested in it right away and want to hear what is going to happen next. That is all right as music itself evokes and calls for a reaction. I wrote two years ago that contemporary music might be a good introduction to music in an educational sense as it offers something different; it offers a lot of improvisation and freedom that is unfairly left out in the classic approach.
Contemporary music provides an opportunity to explore the possibilities of instruments as well as our own bodies in regard to space in which we are and the people around us. There is less room for error, but even if it does happen, it becomes a part of a creative performance, which, of course, does not mean that just anyone can perform contemporary music. On the other hand, if for example Beethoven’s music is performed in the “wrong” way, with notes he did not write or a phrase he did not formulate, it could take the composition in a different direction and would no longer be a Beethoven. Children should be offered a variety of content and be given a chance to discover what they like and do not like.
What will be happening at the Svirkaonica workshops you lead at the MBZ?
Svirkaonica workshop or contemporary music workshops for children will be a sort of a journey, an invitation, an exploration and filling of the “travel bag” that children carry with them their entire lives. We will compose, play, make, perform, conduct, dance, discover everything that can be used to produce sound and music, but also how to turn the space in which we are into a concert hall. The aim of the workshop is – music for all. So, children with some music education are just as welcome as children without one. I am certain we all would enjoy it!