Junior music education major Robbie Chaplin plays the clarinet with a visitor at the Instrument Petting Zoo at Explore More Discovery Museum in Harrisonburg. The second annual event in early February, hosted by the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival and partially funded this year by a grant from the Arts Council of the Valley, was started by festival executive director David McCormick. More than 500 attended. (Photos by Macson McGuigan)

Bach Festival’s second annual instrument petting zoo a hit with budding young musicians

Junior music education major Robbie Chaplin spent a recent Friday evening in impromptu duets with a series of giggly children. As the budding musicians “honked” on the recorder, Chaplin played notes back with his clarinet.

Christa Hoover, an instructor in the preparatory music program at Eastern Mennonite University, helps a young musician with a violin.

They thought it was funny and then tried to mimic the sounds by changing the notes and we would have a little back and forth between the two instruments,” he said.

Honking—Chaplin’s own word choice—is an apt, animal-oriented descriptor for various sounds emitted during the second annual Instrument Petting Zoo held Feb. 1 at the Explore More Discovery Museum in Harrisonburg, though event founder David McCormick certainly hopes for more sonorous prospects for the young attendees.

A music educator, professional musician and executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, McCormick says the main goal is to “get kids interested in classical music and in playing instruments.”

A classical string trio at the front door introduced melodious possibilities to young minds. Further inside the museum was the menagerie: violins, recorders, trombones and percussion—available to hold, touch, and play—with the help of friendly volunteers.

More than 500 children and parents attended this year’s event, which was partially funded by an Arts Council of the Valley “Advancing the Arts” grant. Volunteers included faculty, staff and student musicians from Eastern Mennonite University and James Madison University. Kiwanis Club members also helped out at two instrument-building stations.

Hannah Menefee, a senior music education major currently student-teaching in Harrisonburg City Schools, interacted with enough shy children during the three hours that she came up with a strategy: hand the instrument to the adult.

And then there was the little girl who really did just want to hold the instrument and pet it.

“These outreach events show anyone just how fun and exciting it is to play an instrument,” she said. “They’re an easy and fun way for the community to learn about music education outside of the school setting. Not only does it help the children but also the parents learn and engage with their children’s education.”

Faculty from EMU’s Preparatory Music Program offered information about lessons, offered year around, and Bach Festival concerts, held each summer at EMU. “We made a lot of good connections,” McCormick said.

Getting kids hooked on music early is important, says Chaplin, who grew up in a musical family and eventually, played clarinet at Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista, Va., in concert, district and area honor bands. At EMU, he sings with the University Choir and plays in three instrumental groups, as well as in a wind trio he formed with friends.

Exploratory events like the instrument petting zoo “allow kids of all ages to come and try real instruments and get an idea of what instrument they would like to learn,” Chaplin said. “It is never too early to start learning how to play.”

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