The little boy approached the podium with reluctance. Connor Dougherty, 11, was about to try his hand at conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Like any kid that age, Connor, who has Down syndrome, was a little overwhelmed — which he expressed by promptly bending over at the waist, turning himself into a right angle of uncertainty and doubt.
“Don’t tell the orchestra,” said DSO music director Leonard Slatkin softly, bending over to hand the child the baton, “but it’s really very easy. Now just stand up.”
And Connor did, smiling shyly at the burst of applause that elicited. Then he lifted his baton and led the DSO through a rousing version of the “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The event was a first for the orchestra, but reflects a growing trend among Detroit cultural institutions, from The Henry Ford to the Detroit Institute of Arts, that are reaching out in ways they never have before to people who traditionally got short shrift at museums or orchestras.
The occasion in question was a field trip for about 14 kids with developmental disabilities, all in wheelchairs, from Macomb’s Glen H. Peters School. (Connor, who lives near Lapeer, doesn’t go to Peters. But a family friend, knowing how infatuated the little boy is with music, invited him and his father along.)
Recognizing that the kids’ reactions might be a bit more exuberant than the Orchestra Hall norm, the DSO arranged for children, teachers and parents to attend a morning rehearsal, a behind-the-scenes event tailored just for them.
The experience, said Connor’s father, Jim Dougherty, was huge.
“Leonard Slatkin actually gave Connor the baton,” said Dougherty, “and he won’t let it go. It’s been weeks now, and he takes it to school. He takes it to bed. Ask him what he wants to be and he’ll say a conductor.”
DSO musicians have been playing in hospitals and nursing homes for years, of course. But Caen Thomason-Redus, DSO director of community and learning, said the orchestra had been searching over the past year for ways to bring more-marginalized populations to Orchestra Hall.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra performs a special concert for children with special needs in memory of Nathan Suida, a special needs youth who loved music, at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. Daniel Mears
“We realized we need to be much more proactive,” he said, “which meant creating an experience dedicated to people with special needs.”
He and Laura Duda, a music therapist formerly at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and now DSO manager of community engagement, are already at work planning a second event.
“Our goal,” Thomason-Redus said, “is for the DSO in a couple years to be known for this both nationally and internationally.”
This targeted outreach is part of a nationwide trend, but Jennifer Czajkowski, DIA vice president for learning and interpretation, said it’s exploded of late.
“A number of museums have been doing small, under-the-radar programs,” she said. “But in my experience, there’s been a big increase in interest in the last four or five years.”
In conjunction with Wayne State University and the Michigan Institute of Therapy Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit has designed an art-therapy program for veterans. The Henry Ford works with the Autism Alliance of Michigan to make museum and Greenfield Village visits more welcoming for children and parents.
And the hearing impaired benefit from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History’s partnership with the National Alliance of Black Interpreters, which provides sign-language translations at many events.
For its part, the DIA has worked with the Veterans Administration Hospital since the late 1990s and is now in discussion with Beaumont Hospital and Wayne State to see what programs could serve other populations.
The DIA has long brought special-needs groups in for tours and studio-art classes — in-house experiences that were always somewhat easier for a museum than a symphony orchestra.
Ongoing DIA programs include Minds on Art, a partnership with the Michigan Alzheimer’s Association, and Community Group Programs aimed at veterans, alternative schools and cognitively and physically challenged adults.
Benny Richard, who lives at Piquette Square — subsidized housing for formerly homeless veterans — is a fan.
Last month, Richard was working on a sculpture in the museum’s studio-art classroom with other Piquette residents. “I really enjoy this,” he said. “The classes let me exercise my creative and intellectual side. I love it.”
Back at the DSO, composer-in-residence Gabriela Frank said she was dazzled by Connor’s reaction during the rehearsal for the Peters School kids.
“When the music came to life,” Frank said, “Connor came to life. He just unfolded his body. Before that he wouldn’t even look up. Research suggests music can do this,” she added, “but it’s one thing to read about it and another entirely to actually see it.”