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Tunes and Toons for Teens: Nurturing a Personal Relationship with Classical Music

Guarneri Hall NFP is thrilled to share the imaginative animated video that Tunes and Toons for Teens (TTT) participant and Chicago Public School 8th grader Santiago Vera has produced, based on music by Barriere and Ravel, as the first round of the TTT program draws to a close.

What is Tunes and Toons for Teens?

Guarneri Hall NFP launched the Tunes and Toons for Teens program last fall as part of its mission to find new ways to promote access to classical music for young people. Drawing on the technological capabilities of Guarneri Hall and the artistic leadership of resident ensemble NEXUS Chamber Music, TTT would be a novel way to build relationships between  professional classical musicians and young TTT participants. The program was conceived in early 2020, when Guarneri Hall NFP Artistic Director Stefan Hersh along with the Co-artistic Directors of resident ensemble NEXUS Chamber Music, Brian Hong and Alexander Hersh, began brainstorming an innovative way to connect young people with old music. A grant opportunity from the From the Top Foundation made the TTT idea a reality.

The concept behind TTT is simple: Participants, who are recruited from public schools, are asked to create an original story based on a piece of classical music they have chosen. They are  then guided through the process of creating an animated film based on their story and the music. Part of what sets this project apart is that professional classical musicians are involved throughout, ultimately collaborating with the participants to plan and record the musical soundtrack for their animated videos.

The target participants for TTT are  young people who might not have much previous exposure to classical music, and no tuition is charged to eliminate financial barriers to participation. The program provides the opportunity for participants to develop an intimate connection to a specific classical work through the creation of a piece of art that is uniquely theirs and to build relationships with working classical musicians who serve as mentors and role models. As participants then share their videos with their peers, they will connect more young people to classical music in a way that resonates.

The Plan Before the Pandemic

Tunes & Toons for Teens logo

With funding in place from the From the Top Foundation for animation software and staffing, the initial team could flesh out details for a pilot year and add new members. Guarneri Hall NFP Creative Director Michael Grittani was recruited to provide technical support. Columbia College sophomore and Music Business major BelleAime Robinson volunteered as an intern, completing the team and ultimately playing a major role in the effort.

The program was to start in May 2020 and finish in September 2020, in connection with the NEXUS Chamber Music Festival. Participants were to have been given free admission to the NEXUS Chamber Music Festival concerts, where they could hear the artists who were providing the music for their soundtracks in live performance.

TTT meetings were to be held at Guarneri Hall with a computer station for each participant. The participants were to be workshopped through the storyboarding process as a group, with discussion around the art of storytelling and the process of using music as a source of inspiration for events in the story.

Each participant would learn to use the software provided to create an animation and would be allotted computer time to develop their individual videos with technical help from the TTT team onsite. As work on the videos progressed, participants would collaborate with the NEXUS artists on music and would eventually be involved in the soundtrack recording sessions, audio editing, and embedding of final soundtracks into their videos.

A Quick Shift

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, NEXUS Chamber Music festival events were reprogrammed to be virtual, and so was the TTT program. The TTT launch was postponed until fall 2020 with weekly Saturday meetings scheduled through December 2020. The changes involved substantive compromise: participants would need to have internet access at home and would have to attend the final audio recording sessions in Guarneri Hall remotely. 

Recruitment, already difficult for a brand-new program, became an even bigger challenge. Public school educators who would have been key referral sources were understandably overwhelmed by their own need to quickly set up virtual learning environments for their students. Because of the challenges, the revised version of the program went forward but in minimalist form. 

Zoom class with video creator Santiago Vera, bottom right. Also shown (clockwise from top left) are TTT team members BelleAime Robinson, Alexander Hersh, and Stefan Hersh.

A high point of this year’s program was the recording session where Chicago Public School student-participant Santiago Vera remotely directed the creation of sound effects from NEXUS Artists Brian Hong and Alexander Hersh. Santiago demonstrated a high degree of initiative and imagination as well as admirable facility with the software, managing all audio and video manipulations in his lively video without any help from the TTT team.

A Silver Lining and New Opportunity

The unexpected and sudden change to a virtual program altered some critical aspects of the original TTT plan. At the same time, a long-term opportunity was illuminated: With some adaptations, including funding for computers and high-speed internet, its creators realized that the TTT program could be successfully delivered at a distance—anywhere in the world.

Guarneri Hall NFP is now actively developing the virtual iterations of the TTT program for places in the US and elsewhere where there is potential for impact on young people and their communities. In places where there is limited access to classical music and inadequate resources to support conventional music education programs, TTT can provide a viable, low-cost way to introduce a new generation to the joys of music, storytelling, and the arts.

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