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Concert 3.2
Sensory Concerts

"The best art always seems effortless" Stephen Sondheim

Sometimes things happen that are so eminently sensible that you just have to say, “Of course! That’s exactly what needed to happen!”

Despite how obvious these things seem, it doesn’t mean that the journey to arrive there was simple or easy.

We rarely see the agony behind the ecstasy!

Bullaburra pianist, Grace Kim, knows more than most about the hard, and often tortuous, work behind any seemingly effortless performance. She’s a piano teacher at the Conservatorium of Music and has performed internationally with major symphony orchestras, winning numerous national and international competitions. She is also the founding Artistic Director of Mountains Concerts and the Blue Mountains Opera Festival.

Recently, however, she may have taken on one of her biggest challenges - one in which she found herself performing in uncharted territory.

In April 2017, she teamed up with equally renowned musicians, violinist Rebecca Chan and cellist Elizabeth Neville, to perform three unique classical music concerts at the Lower Mountains Anglican Parish Church in Glenbrook.

The venue had been chosen because it offered a range of listening spaces for audience members with sensory needs, including a sound-proofed crying room, with a glass wall and an audio feed, so that people could freely move around and make noise, while still seeing and hearing the concert.

From experiences within her own family, Grace had become acutely aware of the difficulties faced by people with sensory issues who often get overwhelmed in normal concert situations.

As a parent, she also knew how hard it is for any parent to take their child to a concert other than the Wiggles.

“You don’t want to have your child disrupt the performance!” she said, echoing the anxiety of parents around the world who opt out of going to live shows while their children are young.

Instead of just traditional seating, audience members in these concerts had various choices, from giant foam crash mats to textured options and ordinary chairs with room to move around them. There were also two break-out rooms. The goal was to create a “relaxed, chilled out, multi-layered experience,” she said.

In the year leading up to the concert, Grace had discussions with psychologist Jane Wearn, and occupational therapist, Josey Sharpe, who specialise in sensory processing disorders. They helped to create an environment in which everyone could control how they calmed down enough to listen to the concert.

“We wanted them to get to the place where they could engage with the music more quickly and we wanted it to be less stressful for everyone. Kids listen in different ways and here they could move around and listen. We wanted to create a space where people were happy to relax and not be judged,” said Grace.

The concert wasn’t, however, just for children. It was a neurodiverse audience of all ages and included carers who were able to see their clients in a different way : “as someone more than their disability”. One carer, of a very intellectually disabled client, said that the client had never spoken, but during the concert said ‘thank you’ in every pause.

Grace specifically designed the musical program for this audience and included repetitive patterns and other engaging musical elements within the classical music format. She wanted to present a concert that was the highest quality in every way. “You don’t need to be a music literate. You know when it’s good. You feel it.”

One of the most important challenges in the year leading up to the performance was to overcome the need for lots of “bums on seats” to make the concert financially viable. They wanted to do three smaller concerts which gave everyone room to move around so that no-one would feel overwhelmed by being too close to anyone else. To facilitate this, Grace applied for and received funding from the Blue Mountains City of the Arts Trust and the Great Walk Foundation.

During the concerts, the main challenge for the musicians was actually playing complex pieces without being distracted by so much audience movement. “The three sessions were different because of the group dynamics. Fortunately, the calibre of the performers was so high that we were able to adapt, modify and revise on the spot to take that into account.”

While the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, the most powerful moment was in the first concert. The three musicians looked out at their noisy active audience, took a deep breath and started playing. “As soon as we started playing it was instantly dead quiet. As soon as we finished the noise started again.” Easy!

The next Sensory Concert will be on 26 August at the same venue. It will feature Grace Kim on piano, Matthew Ockenden (associate principal bassoon, Opera Australia Orchestra), and Teije Hylkema (Principal cello, Opera Australia Orchestra).

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Photo: Third Space Media

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