Friday, January 9, 2015

Portland Gets a Little Friendlier (To the Senses)

Throughout my time in elementary school, my classes would take field trips that were designed to be, of course, both fun and educational. We would go to the Nevada Museum of Art or the Wilbur D. May Center or, as we got older, places more connected with our local history, like Fort Churchill or Virginia City. Every so often, we got to see performances by the Reno Philharmonic, which was really swell. The large, underground theater was a dark expanse of anticipation, swinging legs that dangled from oversized seats with armrests, awaiting the moment when we would hear the fusion of more instruments than we had ever heard at one time.

But the parents of one of my classmates knew this experience would be too much for their child. He has autism, and the loud noises, unfamiliar environment, and the need to sit still for an extended period of time made the theater essentially untouchable.

Here in Portland, however, this inaccessibility to music and theater for kids on the spectrum—and their parents—is waning, thanks to people like local jazz musician and composer, Ezra Weiss, and organizations like the Northwest Children's Theater.

Along with being a musician and composer (and professor at Portland State University), Ezra Weiss is also a father of two sons. It's important to him that his children have weekend experiences that stem beyond the television, which is why he scheduled the monthly show he presents at Cedar Hills United Church of Christ on Saturdays at 3 p.m—just after nap time. It is this sort of parent-children-friendly logic, galvanized not only by his experience as a parent, but also through his work as an educator and work with the Northwest Children's Theater, that prompted him to make these afternoon concerts welcoming for those on the autism spectrum or with any sort of restlessness or sensitivities. These concerts are “sensory-friendly.”

Weiss notes that the theater is probably the largest room a little kid has been in, and in that room, they're surrounded by more people than ever before. Sometimes the transition from everyday life to this...large world can be daunting. So organizers do what they can to smooth things out, like keeping lighting and volume levels even, making sure there is plenty of room for movement, and keeping performances about an hour long.

If you've ever heard Weiss and his bands perform and you're thinking, “I'm not sure that jazz, with all it's energy the best way to keep kiddos calm and relaxed,” you're right, and don't worry. 

Weiss knows his own group is “too fiery” for what he's trying to accomplish, but he is starting with jazz, since he knows musicians to fit the bill, and then he hopes to expand out to other styles.

“I'm looking for musicians who come from a very heartfelt place,” Weiss says, “not so much a cerebral approach. Not a lot of bashing, nothing abrasive, but some nice, swingin' music.”

And what parents seem to appreciate most is knowing that they and their children are welcome.

“If you go to a symphony concert, your kid had better be quiet,” says Weiss. But it's not like that here. These concerts are meant to be welcoming and flexible, and they are designed knowing that children aren't always going to sit still with their mouths closed. That's just not how it works.

Pretty neat, right?

Please, please, for more information about this and about the FREE sensory plays put on by the Northwest Children's Theater that are coming up, check out the original article from Artslandia, where I came across this story.

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