prev nav.svgnext nav.svgback to top.svg

Sensory Friendly Concert Design

Nathan Irby
The Ohio State University
In April of 2023, students and faculty from The Ohio State University School of Music partnered with WOSU Classical 101 and The Ohio State University Nisonger Center to present the first IMMERSE concert program, held in the new Ross Community Studio. IMMERSE is a sensory-friendly, interactive concert experience in which children with autism listened to live music performed by OSU graduate performance majors. The children then took part in engagement activities where they expressed themselves through music-making, art, and movement.
Organizing partners for the event began meeting in fall of 2022 to discuss the vision and steps for implementation needed to run a successful event. The primary mission of IMMERSE was to present a sensory-friendly concert with the needs of autistic children and their families in mind. Classical music events are often spaces that require silence and stillness from the audience, potentially excluding children and families with special needs who are unable to consistently meet these requirements.
Before the day of the concert, parents received a “Social Narrative” to share with their children to help prepare them for the day. The set of slides provided a step-by-step guide to the day, that discussed the order of the day and what children could expect to see and hear at each part of the IMMERSE concert experience.
The design of the event had two main components—a performance followed by interactive activities. For the performance portion of the event, the IMMERSE leadership team selected repertoire that would not be overstimulating to this audience. For that reason, the pieces selected were soft and relaxing in nature and about 3-4 minutes long, each performed by 1-2 musicians to limit volume and visual activity. OSU graduate students performed Syrinx by Claude Debussy, The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens, Three Pieces (Movement I) by Igor Stravinsky, and Nine Numbers 2 by Jason Treuting. Each performer spent roughly two minutes discussing their instrument and selected repertoire with the children before performing, providing context to the audience for what they were about to experience.
Unique to this performance was the attention to safety and use of space afforded to the attendees. Children and their families were allowed to walk, roll, and even run around during the performance. Some children took this opportunity to naturally move along to the music, while others ran up and down the length of the stage in response to what they were hearing. While some parents felt the urge to grab onto their children and try to quiet them, IMMERSE staff reminded the attending families that they were free to allow their children to respond to the music how they felt fit. WOSU 101 staff provided a table of stuffed animals that children were able to borrow if they needed a companion or two to help them through the performance.

At the conclusion of the performance, children could select one of three activities in which to participate, with a goal of reflecting the music they just heard through visual art, movement, or sound. Each station had a licensed therapist provided by the Nisonger Center and an OSU School of Music music education student to assist children in their activities. The art station provided materials for children to use to color and create. The movement station encouraged children to move, dance, and use silks to represent the sound of Saint-Saens’ The Swan, performed on loop by cellist Lydia Butterfield. The most popular station, percussion, was led by percussionists Hannah Moore and Sam Sherer. Children experimented with multiple instruments while Moore and Sherer took them through several activities including a call and response-style drum circle.
Upon completion of the open activities portion, families were called back together for a culminating discussion and mini performance. Each graduate student performer performed a very short excerpt from their piece, quizzing the children audience members about musical elements of both the repertoire and the instruments. After each performer had completed their recap, families were free to go—but many returned to the activities they had been enjoying beforehand.
At the conclusion of the event, parents received a survey to provide input to improve the event for future years. Parental feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The IMMERSE team partners held a debrief meeting after the event to discuss plans for a future event and what changes would be suitable or needed. Among those changes discussed would be more variety of repertoire. For this pilot event, the planning team had decided upon more mellow music in an attempt to avoid overstimulation; however, both parents and event organizers felt that the music could have included more upbeat and louder options to provide a sense of variety.
The second edition of IMMERSE is planned for January 2024.
Nathan Irby is a Graduate Teaching Associate at The Ohio State University pursuing his PhD in Music Education. Prior to moving to Columbus, Nathan taught middle school band in both Salem, Oregon and Roseburg, Oregon, as well as the jazz ensemble at Umpqua Community College. He was actively involved in several state music organizations in Oregon and was chair of the OSAA State Solo Contest, a member of the Oregon Band Directors Association’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access team, and musical director of the University of Oregon Alumni Band.