ROCO launches its 1st musical children’s book, part of continued efforts to increase access to classical music

Courtesy of ROCO

Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale set in China, The Nightingale by Kevin Lau is a piece that Alecia Lawyer, ROCO Founder and Artistic Director, calls “seriously Peter and the Wolf worthy.”

ROCO commissioned Lau’s trio for violin, clarinet, and piano and debuted it in 2018, along with commissioned illustrations by artist Amy Scheidegger Ducos, which were projected during the World Premiere performances.

“It was such a good piece that we performed it multiple times, and I realized that it could be an amazing children’s book,” said Lawyer.

Composer Kevin Lau / Courtesy of ROCO

That idea was realized when The Nightingale was released this past December as an interactive, multi-media storybook, featuring music and adapted text by Lau, illustrations by Ducos, and narration by Emmy Award-winning Houston journalist Miya Shay. ROCO will officially launch and celebrate the book with a free performance on Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30am at Houston Public Library.

While Lawyer says that ROCO did not initially set out to create a children’s book, Lau’s piece naturally aligned with the organization’s passion for fostering collaboration and access to classical musical.

“All of our art is purposeful but based upon relationships,” Lawyer said, alluding to the personal collaboration between Lau and concertmaster Scott St. John, whose love of Disney led to the fairy tale-inspired commission.

“Our number one value is access,” she added. “We love multi-generational audiences. What better way to encourage this than a children’s book?”

In its book format, The Nightingale combines music, art, literacy, and technology through the use of QR codes that allow readers to choose-their-own reading experience. Through three different QR codes, adults and children can listen to narration and music, music with page-turn prompts, or music only, while reading.

ABC13 news reporter Miya Shay / Courtesy of Twitter

ROCO has long-utilized and experimented with technology in an effort to increase accessibility to concerts and recordings of classical music.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdowns, which led many arts groups to develop virtual performances, ROCO had already begun live streaming orchestral concerts on its website in 2013, expanding to Facebook in 2018. It continues to live stream performances, and to archive audio for on-demand listening, on multiple platforms.

Other initiatives to increase classical music access have included the ROCO App, launched in 2018, and ROCO on the Go, pioneered in 2020 with Buffalo Bayou Park “as a response to the pandemic and reaching audiences who were spending more time outside,” according to Amy Gibbs, ROCO’s Managing Director.

The only music project of its kind in the city, ROCO on the Go has curated playlists for numerous Houston landmarks – essentially creating a site-specific soundtrack, accessed by using a smart phone to scan a QR code at that location. Its most recent QR code was placed at James Driver Park in Harris County Precinct 2 and was created in collaboration with Spectrum Fusion, which serves neurodiverse adults.

“Their members curated a playlist of their own favorite pieces from ROCO’s library for the fully inclusive park, which is designed to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities,” said Gibbs.

Courtesy of ROCO

The release of ROCO’s first children’s book, The Nightingale, is a continuation of such efforts to take classical music outside the concert hall and to offer listeners multiple entry points for enjoyment.

When asked if ROCO hopes to publish more music-inspired children’s books or a book series, Lawyer says there are no definite plans at the moment.

“I am always open to new music and new ways to connect young and young at heart,” she said. “I won’t say ‘no,’ but it isn’t necessary to make it a new endeavor.”

Instead, she says that ROCO aims to continue to engage the community through both book and musical versions of The Nightingale. The ensemble will premiere a new arrangement of the piece for chamber orchestra in a free concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre on September 29, as well as turn it into a coloring book – an idea from a Kinder HSPVA student, said Lawyer. ROCO has also added Braille to the book’s pages, with plans to bring that edition for visually impaired readers to The Lighthouse of Houston in coming weeks.

At the book’s April 1st launch at Houston Public Library, the first 50 children in attendance will receive free copies, and ROCO says it will donate copies to library branches citywide and to the Barbara Bush Houston Literary Foundation.

“Let’s dig deeper and not bigger with this one as a through line to as many communities as we can,” said Lawyer.

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