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Concerts In The Park

Text by: Jennifer Hunsaker

I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that valued the arts. When we turned 8, my mother became the piano lesson Nazi, forcing us to take lessons from the nice, local piano teacher and then bargaining to get us to practice. I know it was far more painful for her than us, although at the time I did my fair share of teeth gnashing. My folks' record collection was varied, from Dave Brubeck to Ella Fitzgerald, Boston Pops to Bach. I grew up humming Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring before I knew the words to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

I am also fortunate enough to have grown up in an era when the arts were still a required school subject. In elementary school, I remember sculpting in art class, playing xylophones in music class, and dancing during P.E. I attended a performing arts school for vocal performance in middle school and took dance as an elective. But with the arts disappearing from our schools at an alarming rate, the responsibility again falls to families to expose their children to art, music, dance, and theater on our own time.

Before I had children (the infamous phrase), I expected to tote my kids to concerts and performances in the same way I had been. I remember listening to the 1812 Overture at the Doral Country Club's 18th hole with a perfectly timed firework show. I remember seeing Carmen for the first time and thinking to myself, "Oh! That's where that song if from!" (Check with your local opera company - dress rehearsals at most theaters in Miami cost $3.) And then I had children - three to be exact, ages 6, 4, and 19 months. While they are great boys, if there is something they are expected to pay attention to that they aren't interested in, they have the approximate attention span of celery.

So how to I expose them to the arts without exposing myself to headaches and the need for Prozac? Concerts in the park. Every May, most metropolitan areas, and many not-so-metropolitan areas, begin posting their "Concert Series" listings on their websites. These acts vary from chamber music to jazz, a capella to rock. These events are almost always free and welcome families. There is even one city in our area that hosts "Movies Under the Stars" during which free movies are broadcast on enormous screens, and people are encouraged to come early for opening acts.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

Participating in these events is ideal for families. First of all, they're outside. My boys would live outside all summer if I let them. Going to a park early, laying out a blanket to save a space, and then throwing a Frisbee or playing on the playground is their idea of a good time. Fortunately, they are then tired enough to listen to whatever concert we are there for.

Secondly, concerts in the park are the perfect vehicle for a picnic. It does not have to be elaborate — a loaf of bread, some soft cheese and ham, a few grapes, and some sparkling water if you want to get fancy — but the best part is if someone spills, it's no big deal. Try having that attitude next time you take your children to a restaurant.

Thirdly, you're not sitting next to a bespeckled "patron of the arts" who glares at you for bringing your six-year-old to a cultural event and then remarks loudly about how there should be a minimum age for things of culture. Your children can wiggle and dance, squirm, and even cheer. You can talk to them (quietly) about what they picture in their heads when they hear certain songs. They can lie down on blankets and pillows and fall asleep, if they feel like it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you are supporting local artists and musicians en masse. Outdoor events are a beast to organize, and local organizations will continue to do so as long as the community comes out to support them. My husband and I went to see one of my favorite groups perform at the town square of his city with a population of about 5,000 people. This particular group is comprised of friends of mine from college, and they told me later that they were stunned when it appeared as if the entire city plus the neighboring county came to see them sing. They would go back to do the event in a heartbeat, because the area was so supportive of it.

A word to the wise if you are planning on enjoying your local concert series this summer:

  1. Be sure to bring bug spray. Sunset is when mosquitoes usually come out to feast on your ankles and your children.
  2. Make the evening a non-electronic experience. Confiscate all cell phones, MP3 players, and video game systems. Bring a deck of cards, a Frisbee, or a board game to pass the time while you are waiting for the concert to start. It just may turn out that waiting for the concert is your favorite part of the evening.
  3. Bring more than one blanket. After dark, it is likely to cool off, and you don't want anyone complaining about being cold. Plus if you are picnicking with small children, spills are inevitable.
  4. Talk to your neighbors. You will be spending a few hours together, and you never know when you will make a new friend. They may even share their treats with you.