The SLSO Hosts Sensory-Friendly Concerts for Area Students
For most children who attend a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra education concert with their classmates, it’s an exciting field trip adventure. They arrive by the busload, join thousands of other enthusiastic children on the busy sidewalk as they make their way inside Powell Hall, marvel at the scale and grandeur of the foyer and auditorium, and thrill to the sound of almost 100 SLSO musicians playing together on the stage. It’s an experience they remember for the rest of their lives.
Students on the autism spectrum, or with sensory challenges, might be overwhelmed by such an adventure. These students generally have fewer opportunities to engage with the arts than their peers, which is why last month, SLSO musicians, staff, and volunteers hosted two Sensory-Friendly Education Concerts at the Jewish Community Center, in partnership with Special School District of St. Louis County. While the SLSO performed Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, extra care was taken to provide a safe, friendly, and judgement-free experience.
Paula Berner, a retired teacher from the Special School District of St. Louis County, collaborated with the SLSO on preparing for these concerts, which the SLSO hosted regularly in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Berner said, “Providing the opportunity for these students to experience the SLSO and the power of live music in a safe environment can have a meaningful impact—not only on the students, but their teachers and the musicians as well.”
Hosting the concerts at the Jewish Community Center provided easy accessibility for nearly 100 students who used wheelchairs or walkers. The SLSO created a materials to prepare students and teachers for the experience, and also provided a quiet room for students who became overstimulated, as well as self-regulating toys. St. Louis storyteller Bobby Norfolk brought the story to life with his colorful acting, which was made available to students with hearing impairments through an American Sign Language interpreter.
More than 600 students from nine schools attended the concerts, bringing with them almost as many teachers and support staff. The environment and educational atmosphere gave students an ideal place to practice social skills like patiently waiting for the concert to start, fine and gross motor skills like handing tickets to volunteers and navigating to their seats, and communication and coping skills like requesting to use the quiet room. The concert environment also let students experience live music and discover their personal reactions to the music and overall experience.
SLSO musicians, staff, and volunteers learned too, receiving their own instruction about what to expect from their audience. They learned what it’s like for a child with disabilities to experience the world, why children with sensory disorders can become overloaded, how overload can manifest in various behaviors, and how to respond appropriately. They learned just how rare these types of carefully-designed school field trips for students with special needs are. They’re so rare, in fact, that this event attracted a research team from Saint Louis University to evaluate and add to the body of published research the impact of both the concert and training on staff, volunteers, and musicians. However, the most important result of the concert was the impact it made on the students, connecting them to the power of music.