By Justino Gordón-LeChevalié
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) has a long and celebrated history of engaging with teachers and students, dating back to the first education concerts in 1921 under Music Director Rudolph Ganz. Since then, the institution has placed music education at the center of its mission—entertaining students through concerts and field trips, introducing the orchestra into classrooms with visits from musicians, and building lasting relationships with teachers.
As classrooms have evolved with the continued expansion of the digital age, the SLSO has met the moment, adapting programming to meet today’s students and teachers. The results are staggering. In the 2022/2023 season, the orchestra’s education programming engaged more than 330,000 students and teachers worldwide—a 33 percent increase from the previous season. The orchestra engaged students through a combination of in-person programs, digital classroom initiatives, and a growing emphasis on support for music educators.
The rethinking of music education programs, especially since the monumental shifts schools experienced due to COVID-19, has paid dividends. Not only did the SLSO engage with more students and teachers in 22/23, but did so across geographic boundaries, reaching 49 states and nine countries across several continents.
Jessica Ingraham, the SLSO’s Director of Education, attributes the success to a change in the SLSO’s relationship with teachers.
“Educators are one of the SLSO’s biggest assets,” she said. “We put teachers at the center of our programs because they are the ones interacting face-to-face with students daily. Our goal is to provide meaningful resources for teachers, who in turn inspire and encourage their students to participate in music.”
One such resource is Digital Tiny Tunes, which in the 22/23 season introduced Giraffes Can’t Dance, a classroom-ready presentation for Pre-K and Kindergarten students. This interactive video, based on the book by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, invites young learners into Gerald the Giraffe's world as he discovers his rhythm, with music from Camille Saint-Saëns’ timeless Carnival of the Animals as the backdrop. Filmed using state-of-the-art equipment, the SLSO enriches each digital project with a combination of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and visuals tailored for the target ages, and comes with custom-made lesson plans for teachers.
Music teacher Amy Hughes, who teaches music more than 1,000 miles away in Kissimmee, Florida, applauded the program.
“Digital Tiny Tunes has opened up opportunities for young students around the world to see a professional orchestra in a way that is geared towards them,” she said.
The SLSO's digital rendition of Peter and the Wolf has rekindled discussion around Sergei Prokofiev’s classic. Teaming up with the Endangered Wolf Center, the SLSO’s retelling invites students and teachers to contemplate the ecological significance of wolves, contrasting the entrenched narrative perpetuated by the musical tale—all done through the whimsy of Prokofiev’s score paired with footage from the Endangered Wolf Center.
Katie Jones, an elementary music educator in Wentzville, praised how the program brought a fresh perspective to a foundational classical piece. The comprehensive package includes a video, classroom activity set, and a deeper dive into Prokofiev’s compositional choices, encouraging students to reconsider the musical theme for the wolf.
“Expanding classical content with other real-world settings such as the Endangered Wolf Center is a wonderful connection to help students engage with music in their world. I hope we'll continue to see more digital collaborations like this in the future,” Jones said.
These digital offerings are free and easily accessible on the SLSO’s website, providing a treasure trove of resources for educators and students alike. The ease of integrating these interdisciplinary lessons has led numerous educators to adopt the SLSO’s digital programs as a convenient, ready-made classroom tool.
Placing teachers at the center of programming creates a ripple effect. It is projected that teachers, on average, reach more than 100 students each. By contrast, a musician visit to a school—bound by time constraints—may only reach 25 students in one single class.
Teacher resources and professional development, available in the virtual space as well as in person, have become a cornerstone of the SLSO’s education programming, complementing decades-old offerings like field trip concerts and the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
The blend of traditional and digital education programs underscores the SLSO's commitment to nurturing a culture of creative expression and music appreciation at all stages—from those hearing orchestral music for the first time to experienced educators looking to pass on their love of music.
Justino Gordón-LeChevalié is the SLSO's Communications and Publications Coordinator.