Sensory-friendly symphony concert Friday modifies for people on autistic spectrum
By Treva Lind
May 22, 2023
Music by the Spokane Symphony will lead off a little softer Friday evening. Lights in the auditorium won’t go abruptly to dark, but rather stay low.
In the lobby, audience members can check out weighted blankets or weighted vests along with fidget toys. Ushers will expect, and tolerate, some movement in the aisles.
Such steps are among approaches in the symphony’s first “sensory-friendly family concert” 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The performance is designed to be enjoyed by people on the autism spectrum.
The sensory-friendly performance is the first of two free family concerts that evening. The subsequent 7 p.m concert doesn’t have the sensory-friendly approaches but also offers music geared to children.
“We believe that music belongs to everyone,” said James Lowe, Spokane Symphony conductor and music director. “Inviting families into our home at the Fox is an integral part of our work to bring music to the widest range of people – especially our children.
“I am particularly proud to have designed a sensory-friendly concert that emphasizes the expansion of our philosophy.”
Shira Samuels-Shragg, the newly named Spokane Symphony assistant conductor, will lead both family concerts. They’re part of the symphony’s education program to introduce children to the joys of orchestral music. Each features 45-minute programs that include works from Ludwig van Beethoven, John Williams, Mason Bates and Edward Elgar.
Lowe and symphony leaders also received input from Central Valley School District speech pathologist Heidi Farr, who works at Sunrise Elementary School. Farr and her husband are season-ticket holders and attended a launch preview a year ago in April. That’s where she met Lowe.
She is a communications expert and has extensive expertise working with people who are diagnosed with autism.
“He and I were chatting, and I had told him what I do, that I’m a speech pathologist and I work with kids, and he stops,” Farr said. Lowe immediately asked how to get in touch with her for ideas on a sensory-friendly performance.
Farr said she’s worked with Lowe and various symphony members in a year-long process to create Friday’s concert.
“The way I approach it is, and the way you approach therapy in general with kids is, you assume they already can,” Farr said. “Then you consider what supports would they need to make that happen? In this case, with a sensory-friendly performance, it’s just that they just need a few tweaks to their environment to access the music and the space.”
That includes dimming the house lights to be at about 25%, she added, and other steps to avoid surprises.
“Sometimes, if you have a sensory overload, to have a sudden, darkened room like that can be surprising,” she said. “Their anxiety might go up. With all the accommodations, they’re really to mitigate anxiety and to help create a predictable environment where people can come and access something new.”
The calm and quiet beginnings and endings also are key, Farr said.
“Often, individuals with sensory needs, they don’t do well with surprises or unexpected transitions,” she said. “It’s just too much to process too quickly, and it’s hard to cope.
“People who are neurotypical are able to make those quick transitions sort of emotionally and sensorily; our brains have sort of automated to that so we’re able to cope with sudden change. People who have sensory needs that are hypersensitive, that feel things a lot bigger than others, have difficulty with that transition.”
She plans to stand toward the back of the orchestra but face Samuels-Shragg, to give the conductor hand signals for feedback on the audience, to perhaps tamp down the music or a thumbs-up that they’re enjoying it.
Farr also will talk to musicians at a tech rehearsal and to ushers in understanding that the sensory-friendly audience probably won’t be perfectly quiet.
“We’re adjusting the house rules, as one of our accommodations, that it’s OK if the audience members need to chatter a little bit. It’s OK if they need to get up and move. It’s OK if they need to hum or rock a little bit to feel that they are rested and they are in a safe space,” she said.
“They need to move. They need to make a little bit of noise to feel what we call at rest, at baseline. And that’s OK.”
The musical program was selected with an energy profile in mind, so the cadence begins and ends with calm and quiet music. Among the program offerings are “Hedwig’s Theme” from “Harry Potter” by Williams, Philharmonia Fantastique by Bates, and “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. .
The music selections are familiar, said Samuels-Shragg, who also recently made her conducting debut for the Corpus Christi and South Bend symphonies. She graduated with her master’s of music in orchestral conducting from the Juilliard School. Originally from Los Angeles, Samuels-Shragg currently resides in Texas.
Samuels-Shragg said everyone needs to have access to a live orchestral performance.
“It’s not just neurodivergent people who can feel excluded from concert halls,” Samuels-Shragg said. “Our institutions of orchestras have a history of feeling inaccessible to a lot of people. I think the Spokane Symphony in general does a terrific job of making their orchestra concerts a really integral part of the whole city.
“This sensory-friendly concert is such an additional step in making sure any person can experience a live orchestra.”
Families will be encouraged to use a link on the symphony’s website if they want to listen ahead to the performance’s music. Free tickets are available on a first-come basis with no limitations on the number of family members.
Early registration is encouraged as performances are expected to be at capacity. Registration for the sensory-friendly concert is at www.foxtheaterspokane.org/event/sensory-friendly-concert and the family concert is at foxtheaterspokane.org/event/free-family-concert.
The family concert will include the recognizable First Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, along with Philharmonia Fantastique, a 25-minute concerto for orchestra that incorporates an animated film about a magical sprite’s musical journey through various orchestra instruments.