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Pip Squeaks!

The Tucson Symphony's free Just for Kids series is being taken over by pirates

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So the rockin' holidays are over. The kids are heading back to school, which is just as well, because their holiday toys and treats have lost a bit of their luster. According to every store's ads, items that were must-haves a few days ago have now been demoted to "clearance" status. And flipping through those Sunday ads reveals that the most-exciting array of merchandise now available involves weight-loss paraphernalia and plastic storage bins.

The post holiday blahs are upon us.

But don't despair. Sure to excite the little ones anew, as well as please the adults who accompany them, is a lively musical antidote to those blahs, served up this weekend by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Pip and the Pirate is an installment in TSO's Just for Kids, a six-show series in which various TSO ensembles get up-close with kids, typically from ages 3 to 9.

That's right: Start 'em loving music while they're young.

Shawn Campbell, TSO's director of education and community engagement, hatched the idea for this series about 20 years ago. Campbell says the musical storytelling and interactive experiences result in wide-eyed wonderment from the kids, as well as smiles from their adult chaperones. In fact, one of the most-important features of the shows is the shared experience of kids and their parents or, in many cases, their grandparents, Campbell says.

"We really think this is a special element of Just for Kids. The kids see the adults engaged by the performance and participating by asking questions, so they feel more comfortable participating themselves," she says. "And it's something that can be discussed later between them. Kids this young might find it hard to try to talk about their experiences with their adult relatives, but since they were in attendance, too, there's that common ground which makes talking about the experience easier."

The upcoming event will feature a world premiere. TSO violinist Michael Fan has penned the story and composed the music, which will be performed by the TSO Flute, Viola and Harp Ensemble. Campbell was reluctant to reveal too much about the event, because it is a premiere, but according to the TSO website, the setting is graduation day at the Pirate Academy, and the new graduate wants a big, impressive parrot as part of his pirate paraphernalia. But all that's available is a "pip-squeaker," a decidedly unimpressive bird who begs to become the new pirate's partner. "I'll make you proud," the squeaker asserts.

Ensemble members Patricia Watrous, flute; Anne Weaver, viola; and Patricia Harris, harp, will bring the adventure to life.

Peg Anderson is one of those grandparents who enjoy the Just for Kids series, and she and her grandson Henry are looking forward to this installment. The 6-year-old is a veteran of these fun affairs, having attended since he was 3. Anderson enjoys the shows herself, but one of her greatest joys is watching Henry become engrossed in the experience.

"He's always been a very observant child, and he just gets so immersed in the show, but quietly so. We sit in the front row, although there's a carpeted space where the kids can gather close to the musicians. But he prefers to sit with me.

"I think this program is so important," adds Anderson, who has attended TSO concerts for the 25 years she has lived in Tucson. "Kids are exposed to so many kinds of music, but not necessarily this kind, and they should be. And this is the perfect setting. They get to interact with the musicians, discover how the musical instruments work and how they produce the sound they do, and how versatile they are. One thing I really enjoyed was in one of the shows where the musicians took a simple, well-known song—it may have been "Happy Birthday"—and played it in different styles, a variation-of-a-theme kind of thing. The kids were amazed and delighted. I was, too."

Campbell, who has played French horn with the TSO since she moved here from New York, says the development of the shows is a joint endeavor. "We usually toss around ideas, and then the musicians put it together."

But there will be a different sort of collaboration for the Feb. 4 concert. Tucson author Susan Lowell has collaborated with composer and TSO violist Ilona Vukovic-Gay to create The Great Grand Canyon Time Train. Fellow TSO String Quartet members David Rife, violin; Wynne Wong-Rife, violin; and Mary Beth Tyndall, cello, will join Vukovic-Gay to present this interactive tale.

After Pip and the Pirate and The Great Grand Canyon Time Train, the Just for Kids series will close this season on March 3 with If You Could Talk to the Animals, which will feature the TSO Wind Quintet.

Although the shows are instructive, the intent is not to make musicians out of the little guys, although the shows do often help spark interest in learning an instrument. "This is a kid-size experience where they can have fun and be exposed to a part of the world they really have no opportunity to experience elsewhere," Campbell says. "Early exposure to music has been found to be a critical part of a child's development."

There are two shows, at 10 and 11:15 a.m., with about 250 expected to attend each one. And get this: The shows are free, although donations are accepted.

If you can't make it Saturday morning, the TSO MasterWorks series is featuring Variations on Tchaikovsky on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at Catalina Foothills High School. The MasterWorks series utilizes a 40-member group, which was about the size of the orchestra for which Mozart wrote. These performances feature cellist Mark Votapek.

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