At most classical music concerts, audiences are expected to be reverentially silent and still - a near impossibility for autistic kids who frequently have sensory issues and can't fully control their speech or movement.
But noisemakers and wigglers are more than welcome at "Chords for Kids," a free concert for families with autistic or special needs children. It's performed by the North Central College student ensemble Concert Winds at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville.
"It was a just a group of friends with an idea," said concert planner and "Chords for Kids" co-founder Susan Maynes of St. Charles.
After learning about a combined classical and operatic concert for autistic children staged in Salt Lake City by Utah Symphony-Utah Opera (which started annual autism concerts back in 2003), Maynes was inspired to try and do something similar locally.
"It was very much a fledgling, grass-roots movement," said Jamie Walden-Mather of St. Charles, who is also an adjunct professor at North Central College. "This was a niche that really needed to be filled."
Waldern-Mather put Maynes and other concert planners in contact with North Central College's director of bands, Lawrence Van Oyen, who was receptive to the idea. The "Chords for Kids" parents group rented the college's Pfeiffer Hall for its first year in 2007, but North Central stepped in to co-sponsor subsequent concerts by donating a campus venue and incorporating the concert into the Concert Winds performance curriculum.
"What we try to do on our end is to create a very understanding and safe environment for kids to come and learn what it's like to be at a concert," Maynes said, noting how the auditorium lights are turned up during the performance. The music repertory is also chosen so as "not to be too loud or too startling."
"We have kids dancing in the aisles, kids bopping up and down in their seats and kids singing or humming along," Maynes said. "And then we have a few who have to go out in the hall for a little bit because it's too overwhelming for them. But nobody's judging them and that's the wonderful thing about it."
Far from being bothered by the din, conductor Van Oyen and his musician students look forward each year to the "Chords for Kids" concert.
It's also a learning experience for the students, since Van Oyen invites medical specialists and parents with autistic children to talk about the disorder and what it's like to have a family member affected by it. The students also meet with audience members after the performance.
"We're hoping (concerts like these) grow," said Van Oyen, noting how other colleges like Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Chicago's North Park University have done or are planning similar concerts after he did a presentation last year at the Illinois Music Educators Association conference.
Van Oyen also shared a bit about what's on the bill for the fourth-annual edition of "Chords for Kids." The repertory ranges from Henry Mancini's "Theme from The Pink Panther." to selections from Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." Last year the concert drew about 300 attendees, and Van Oyen is hoping for more this year.
Vicky Martin, a mother of three in Wheaton, loves taking her family to the "Chords for Kids" concerts.
Whenever Martin's 9-year-old autistic son, Carl, listens to music, "he just lights up like a firefly and just jumps up and down and gets all excited," Martin said. "This is why this concert is so great for him."
Martin is pleased that the "Chords for Kids" organizers also make a point of providing gluten-free and nut-free snacks after the performance, since these food allergies also affect her family.
The concert's free admission is also a boon, since Martin says so many families with autistic kids have to scrimp and save to pay for therapy and other medical expenses.
"As a parent with a child with autism, to be given an opportunity to be able to do something normal with our whole family, it's such a precious gift," Martin said. "Everybody just totally accepts each other and their children for who they are."
'Chords for Kids'
The 4th annual "Chords for Kids" concert for families with autistic children
Location: Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville
Showtime: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 13
Tickets: Free, but reservations must be made by Thursday, March 11, by calling (630) 691-1270. Visit chordsforkids.org for more information.