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Musication Camp: Teaching kids to appreciate live music

John Ellis
John Ellis

Audience misbehavior is on the rise around the world. Singers Drake and Adele were both recently hit by flying cell phones launched from the crowd, and pop singer Harry Styles was pelted with chicken nuggets on stage last month. Some people think this decline in audience etiquette—grown adults acting like pre schoolers—might be a byproduct of the pandemic. For others it’s simply a question of educating listeners about how to appreciate good music starting from a young age.

At Musication camp in the Prospect Lefferts neighborhood of Brooklyn, they are starting practically at the very beginning. Settling the kids in for their daily concert, camp director Jeremy Zmuda reminds the audience how to behave.

“It is concert time,” he tells the kids. “That means we have our listening ears on. So as soon as the lights go off our friends are gonna play. One, two, three.”

On this particular day, the concert features saxophonist John Ellis, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer JK Kim. The music is swinging and sophisticated, and the audience is surprisingly engaged. Even during the bass solo.

Musication was created by guitarist and educator Jeremy Zmuda in an effort to give children aged 3 to 6 a chance to interact with various styles of music using a direct and non-pandering approach.

“We wanted to present these different forms of music in a real authentic ‘adult’ way and see the reaction,” he says. “I’m always surprised about how much kids this age can absorb, not only through music but the way we talk to them. I’ve always tried to find a balance of treating kids with respect. Of course we’re their elders but we don’t always have to simplify things for them.”

John Ellis, Vicente Archer and JK Kim perform for kids at Musication Camp
c/o Musication Camp
John Ellis, Vicente Archer and JK Kim perform for kids at Musication Camp

For saxophonist John Ellis, there are lessons to be learned from young audiences.

He tells me, “You should have the experience of playing for kids I think if you’re a musician of any kind just because of what they reflect back to you and how it forces you to see things differently. They’re the most honest; you have to try to connect with them all the time. You can feel yourself losing them very quickly. It’s so fresh - you really kind of re-see it through their eyes.”

Speaking to some of the audience members after the show, the enthusiasm is palpable. A young listener named Marcy says she’s already a fan: “My favorite kind of music is jazz.”

For another listener named Noah, it’s less about the genre and more about the instruments. “I liked the saxophone,” he says. “Really cool, loud sounds.”

Musication camps run in Brooklyn throughout the year and if these kids are any indication of the future of music listeners, there may be still hope after all. Not a single chicken nugget was thrown during the concert.

Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.