Pianist Kary Billings' takeaway from Plan-B's Free Elementary School Tour

Kary Billings (Board Chair, Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation) was the pianist on Plan-B’s first Free Elementary School Tour, Sergei Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF in partnership with Gina Bachauer, which was seen by more than 10,000 elementary students. Davis Arts Council and Salt Lake Symphony partnered on various legs of the tour.

The Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation was fortunate to partner with Plan-B Theatre Company on the launch of their Free Elementary School Tour during the 2012/13 season. But the story is much deeper than that. We had offices and performed in the same facility for more than a decade before we really took the time to get to know each other’s work. Plan-B and Gina Bachauer worked together for the first time inside a much larger collaboration, THE ROSE EXPOSED, involving four other companies at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. We were tasked with creating a family-friendly segment of the day’s activities. The result, an interactive staging of PETER AND THE WOLF, was so well received that we expanded the program and toured to more than 10,000 school children, ages K-3, during the 2012/13 season.

The theme of this expanded program was “Storytelling Through Music.” My new friends Jay Perry (a brilliant actor), Christy Summerhays (amazingly talented both as actor and director), and I went to work shaping a new program for the tour. At each school Jay took the role of Narrator, introducing the Piano (Daynes Music Company ensured that a Steinway 7′ grand piano was delivered to each of the 28 schools we toured to!) and explaining the various ways that a story could be told: through speech, visual art, dance and especially music.

First was Copland’s “Hoe Down,” introduced as a party for cowboys where all the people are dancing and having a good time. The children were told to listen for two moments: one, where the pianist (yours truly) would bang on the wood of the piano like a drum, and two, when the music got softer and slower and lower and lower, then there would be a high sound like a bell – that’s when the cowboy kisses the cowgirl! The children would always go “ooh” and groan! Apparently a kiss is even scarier than a hungry wolf! The Narrator then spoke about Mozart, and how he began writing music when he was the same age as the children in the audience. The Pianist then performed Mozart’s famous “C Major Sonata,” with the children listening with closed eyes in an effort to imagine what story Mozart might have been trying to tell with the music.

The major work of the program was Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” a marriage of narration, music and projections. The Narrator first taught the children an action for each character’s musical theme so the children could be an active part of the story. As the pianist played each theme, the children made actions actions as Peter walking leisurely, the duck swimming, the bird flying, the cat stalking, the grandfather stroking his beard and the wolf snarling with pointed ears and mouth. Although the Narrator always reminded the children that the actions were to be silent, it never failed that we heard ducks quacking and wolves hungrily getting ready to attack. Some moments are just too exciting! Numerous students and teachers said it was one of the best assemblies they had had. The students left these assemblies excited about music and theatre, eager to explore other ways these two art forms connect and enhance one another – as were we!

Click here to support Plan-B’s Free Elementary School Tour as part of #GivingTuesday!

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