The plot of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is easy to follow: There is a dangerous wolf in the woods. The wolf swallows a duck alive. Child hero (Peter) captures the wolf using wits, cunning and planning. Hunters intervene, but instead of doing what hunters do, they march the wolf to the zoo instead. Each character is personified by a musical instrument. The end. Right?
The pared-down version from Monterey County Pops! has a few more bells and whistles. In a recent performance for La Joya Elementary School, six Pops! musicians performed to a virtual room of 160 kids.
Bruce Dorcy, the French hornist at Pops! has played this musical education program over 1,000 times in schools up and down the West Coast; he says there is an art to the success of their program. They’ve had to rearrange a few things during the pandemic, but retained the format of the 50-minute assembly, which begins with musicians introducing themselves and their instruments. Then they play a sample of a culturally relevant tune for kids to identify. (In the La Joya performance, kids easily recognized the theme of Coco’s “Remember Me” and Frozen’s “Let it Go,” but had a harder time recognizing “The Shire” from Lord of the Rings.)
They move on to their rendition of Peter and the Wolf, which has been shortened to around 15 minutes and is now recorded. It ends with the musicians answering a few questions from students. “The program is very well thought out; the whole point is to keep them interested,” Dorcy says.
They’ve played this program for 20 years as part of Pops’! musical education, and it was renewed by the board just before Covid-19 shut down schools. They shifted the program online, choosing to pre-record the performance and sent out emails to nearly 900 educators in Monterey County to see if they were interested.
“The response was huge,” says Carl Christensen, the musical director and conductor for Monterey County Pops! Huge might be an understatement: They have 18 performances scheduled this spring, with 10 on a waitlist.
The performers say nothing beats live music but there’s a bright side. Flutist Jennifer Candiotti sees more engagement. “The more Zoom-savvy kids will direct questions to individual players. They can do that without disrupting the assembly,” she says.
Oboe player Peter Lemberg says kids can actually see the instruments: “With video, our demonstrations are more important to the kids.”
Zoom assemblies have also allowed Pops! to extend its reach. “If you notice, our name is Monterey County Pops!,” says Christensen. “That means the entire county.” Preserving this model may be important in the future, he says, allowing music and the musicians more accessible to a wider audience.