Tracy Hamilton

Like a lot of parents, I’ve absorbed the message:

Music can make kids smarter.

Learning to play an instrument could increase my daughter’s IQ. Reading music might enhance her math abilities. Listening to a little baroque could help her focus when she studies.

And then there’s just the simple joy of music, of course – whether it makes us smarter or not.

Nola, who just turned six, has grown up listening to her father at shows he plays around town (most recently with his current band, the alt-jazz quartet Royal Punisher). I have a video of her when she was two, playing her plastic recorder and dancing around as Daddy – a talented alto saxophone player – practices.

Nola's Dad, Steve Garcia, is a gifted saxophonist.  Photo by Tracy Hamilton
Don Robin, left, and Estevan Garcia, aka Nola’s Daddy, are half of the alt-jazz quartet Royal Punisher. Nola has grown up going to his family-friendly gigs, like this one at the San Antonio Museum of Art on the 4th of July. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton.

She and I usually have a CD playing while we’re at home or in the car; we’re big fans of the Barenaked Ladies, They Might Be Giants, Johnny Cash and Ray LaMontagne. When she’s with Daddy, he’s often got the radio tuned to KRTU-FM, Trinity University’s jazz station.

Alysson Salazar, 10, from Heartman Elementary "pets" a violin with a YOSA member, who guides her. Photo courtesy of YOSA.
Alysson Salazar, 10, from Heartman Elementary “pets” a violin at the “instrument petting zoo” with a YOSA member, who guides her. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Symphony.

So when my friend Monika Maeckle mentioned a free Mother’s Day concert, a collaboration between the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) and the Youth Orchestra(s) of San Antonio (YOSA), I decided we would check it out. The “instrument petting zoo” before the show was also of great interest.

When she asked if I would write about our experience for the Rivard Report, I didn’t hesitate.

Nola and I haven’t listened to much classical music yet and I had been looking for ways to get her interested in picking up an instrument – beyond the ten dollar ukulele I’d bought her in Hawaii a couple years ago, and the plastic accordion she got for her birthday one year.

We brought along Nola’s neighborhood pal, Victory, and the two girls were very excited as we approached Trinity University‘s Laurie Auditorium on Sunday afternoon – even though they had no idea why.

As we approached, the musicians of YOSA offered a chance to pluck, blow or pound their various instruments but the girls were shy and hung back. We headed outside for a lap around the auditorium to get them energized.

When we returned, the girls (now bribed by the offer of a post-concert treat) picked up delicate rubber mallets and tapped away at a xylophone. Their enthusiasm increased with each note – but too soon, it was time for the show to begin.

Nola Hamilton Garcia and her friend Victory play vibes at the YOSA and San Antonio Symphony Side by Side Concert    Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton
Nola, right, and her friend Victory, play some vibes at the YOSA and San Antonio Symphony “Side by Side” concert. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton.

We picked seats near the front, and watched as adults and youngsters sat side by side on stage, tuning up. I had the girls guess the names of the instruments, and imagine which ones they’d like to play. We had a quick discussion about concert etiquette (no, you cannot play with my phone; please stop kicking the chair in front of you!).

The show began with Akiko Fujimoto, the assistant conductor of the SAS, playing small parts of the chosen piece, Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, while Troy Peters, YOSA’s musical director, offered insight into the composer’s life and frame of mind at the time he wrote his 4th symphony, based on his letters.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony and Youth Orchestra San Antonio   Photo by Tracy Hamilton
Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony and Youth Orchestra San Antonio. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton.

I was fascinated. (Tchaikovsky, gay? Who knew?) I also found Fujimoto riveting, and was glad for the large screen above the orchestra that often trained on her passionate, precise movements.

The girls? Not so much. Victory fell asleep during the first movement, while Nola fidgeted. She demanded that we leave in the brief break before the finale, which was conducted by SAS Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

I told her we were staying, and I was glad we did. Lang-Lessing was theatrical and mesmerizing. Nola watched in spite of herself and even Victory woke up.

In the car, on the way to Halcyon for s’mores (I had promised a treat, after all) we talked about Tchaikovsky’s “weird” Russian name – and that’s when Nola uttered a comment that made me realize that despite the fidgeting and boredom, she had still made a connection.

“On my CD of ‘Peter and the Wolf’,” she said – a Christmas gift from my mother, Nola had listened to it obsessively for weeks, including a track that told the story of composer Sergei Prokofiev’s life – “it says Prokofiev loved listening to Tchaikovsky.”


On Monday night, we read a picture book of Swan Lake we checked out of the library. Nola picked out Tchaikovsky’s name on the cover.

“Mommy, Tchaikovsky!” she said, grinning. I nodded back, wearing my own big grin.

“Wow, he wrote a lot of stuff,” she said as we snuggled up to read. “Can we get a CD of Swan Lake?”

You bet, kiddo. And we’ll be back for more YOSA concerts, too – even if it includes more bribes and fidgeting.

Tracy Idell Hamilton manages and writes Energized, CPS Energy’s blog. She’s a former San Antonio Express-News reporter who covered energy and City Hall, among other beats. Hamilton moved from Southtown proper to the other side of the tracks, also known as Roosevelt Park, in 2008. Follow her on Twitter @tracyihamilton.

Editor’s Note:  It’s not too late to take the kids to an instrument petting zoo.  This Sunday, May 19, the Symphony stages a family friendly concert at 2:30 PM at Laurie Auditorum.  The concert, “a musical trip to Spain with Columbus” as navigated by the San Antonio Symphony, will be preceded by a 1:30 p.m. instrument petting zoo, conducting clinic on the stage and musician meet-and-greet. 

Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group, which owns the Rivard Report, assists the San Antonio Symphony with media and communications consulting services.

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Tracy Idell Hamilton covers business, labor and the economy for the San Antonio Report.