“Let’s listen, let’s see if we can find a flute!” says Maryann Nagel excitedly, putting a hand to her ear.
Children hush, searching through the rows of seats in the Reinberger Chamber Hall, tugging at their parents’ sleeves.
George Pope appears in the back of the auditorium, a colorful cape full of red, green, blue and yellow flurrying around him. Completing the costume is a brimmed hat with a long feather: the child-friendly Zorro.
He whips out a silver flute, which matches a small, discrete hoop earring in his left ear, and flows down the steps in long strides, his red cowboy boots lightly stepping on the old carpet.
The children gasp, their eyes widening.
Nagel’s expression exaggerates those of the children. Once Pope joins her on the small stage, Nagel, the host of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Musical Rainbows, says excitedly, “He’s the Pied Piper!”
Nagel remembers her first show, “The Pied Piper.” Just a kid, she wasn’t exactly a born star, and didn’t get the lead in the play. Instead, Nagel was a mouse.
“I was chronically shy,” she admitted.
Standing on the small community theater stage and performing for the play, she breathed in her first gulp of inspiration for her future career. “It was a way for me to be somebody else that’s not myself,” she said. “I kind of hide in characters.”
Growing up, she was involved with Singing Angels, a children’s choir. Later, she studied acting in St. Louis.
Now 58 years old, Nagel is an experienced local actor and the struggle of getting by is all the more real. She knows that her job is not what the glamorous stereotype suggests. “Let me tell you, you can’t be a diva, that’s for sure, because people will talk,” says Nagel.
The last kind of performer the Musical Rainbows program would want is a diva. With 10,000 preschool children attending on a yearly basis, the hostess has the important duty of staying patient during the show.
Ultimately, the Musical Rainbows program’s goal is to make people feel comfortable in Severance Hall, according to Joan Katz Napoli, the director of education and community engagement.
However, the motivation for Musical Rainbows goes beyond just advertising. According to a PBS article by Laura Lewis Brown, music education enhances all other forms of learning. Research has suggested that music education also raises IQ and test scores.
This could only help the majority of Cleveland’s public schools. Only six out of 27 Cleveland schools were even close to Ohio’s average test scores in math and reading this past year, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings.
The Cleveland Orchestra developed its Musical Rainbows program to give back to the community and aid in education. In the nearly 18 years that Nagel has worked as the host of the concerts, she considers the greatest success of the shows to be when former Rainbow kids take their children to see the performances, which Nagel claims “happens a lot!”
Nagel herself came from a big, middle-class family. Bright blond hair frames her features, and small crows feet deepen around her young blue eyes as she talks about her childhood. She understands now better than ever the monetary struggles of raising a family off of little money. “The hassle is, you live from job to job… you have to be very frugal.”
It’s similar to her childhood life. Back then, her family would save money where they could.
In “The Pied Piper,” Nagel’s mother sewed her mouse costume.
“My mom made it,” said Pied Piper George Pope, tying his colorful cape around his neck.
He plays piercing flute notes, trilling behind the curtains before the Nov. 8 show, while other Musical Rainbows employees sit in a small lounge.
Backstage becomes a clubhouse for the grownups.
Donnie, a husky tech man, sits in an old beat-up chair quietly. As a member of the Teamsters union, he was hired by the Cleveland Orchestra to help operate today’s “Funtastic Flute” concert. He’s gruff, and a little grumpy when he says, “It’s been a long week already. And I’ve got two more shows.”
Sandy Jones, manager of education and family concerts, sits next to Nagel, with a pair of orange glasses dangling around her neck. She chats with her friend like they are teenagers.
Nagel sits nearest to the door, giggling over her cup of tea. The tea steam winds upwards, spreading the smell of a half-peeled orange into the rest of the dimly lit room.
Still peeping away at his flute, Pope stands near a coat rack, his business-casual garb hidden underneath the Pied Piper costume.
Years ago he performed in the same building, but a different music hall: Pope perched himself in a row of flutists in Severance, playing with the full Cleveland Orchestra. He’s built quite the resume, having performed with over 10 other orchestras. His flute playing was hailed by Fanfare magazine as “clean, arrestingly vigorous and beautiful.” But here at Musical Rainbows, the toddlers wouldn’t have words like that to describe his rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
Costing only about $500 per performance, the Musical Rainbows shows are of a low price to the Cleveland Orchestra, endowed by the Pysht Fund and sponsored by PNC. Because of its low maintenance but valuable service to local communities, Musical Rainbows has served as a model for other orchestras’ children’s programs.
“The Funtastic Flute” is a part of concerts which feature different instruments including: “The Triumphant Trumpet,” “The Cheerful Cello and Vibrant Violin,” “The Cool Clarinet” and “Heavenly Harps.”
Out of those, only the clarinet and harp-themed shows remain for the season.
On Nov. 8, there were two back-to-back performances of “The Funtastic Flute.” The first one was open to anyone for the price of $7 per ticket, and the audience consists primarily of families, day cares and some schools. The second show was free, underwritten by PNC, and is part of the Grow Up Great program. In this show, inner-city Cleveland schools receive free tickets and bus passes. According to Joan Katz Napoli, the Grow Up Great concert had an audience where “the vast majority is kids who might not otherwise have gotten here.”
“The profile of the crowd is different at 11 o’ clock,” Katz Napoli said, talking about the second show.
It wasn’t hard to see the difference. The first show’s audience consisted of mainly families, their children dressed in their Sunday’s best. The second show was performed in front of children and their teachers, mainly wearing jeans and t-shirts. “Honestly, we don’t care,” said Katz Napoli, about the students’ clothes.
“We’re the lucky ones who get to come down and see the kids experiencing music for the first time,” she says later. “It’s such a happy tradition.”
It’s almost 10 a.m., and the audience files down the steps. A girl with cheetah print leggings and a red cardigan stands near a row of seats. A little boy lumbers down with a too-large yellow flannel shirt tucked into black dress pants. A tiny infant crawls around on the steps towards the front, wearing a brown and pink beanie.
“Big steps! Big steps!” says a parent patiently waiting for her daughter’s little legs to cross the span of a single stair.
Volunteer ushers, who work at PNC, compliment the children’s outfits on their ways to being seated. Nagel and Pope work tirelessly on stage to keep the children captivated.
When Pope picks up a piccolo, Nagel asks, “Anyone want to guess what that is?”
“Flute! FLUTE!” the children yell.
“It’s a tiny flute, called a piccolo,” says Pope.
Close enough, for a toddler.
Nagel has the children stand up and dance to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” wiggling their fingers above their heads. It’s a wonder how the woman on stage, so far away from the rows of kids, can keep everyone interested.
“There’s more dancing and silliness going on,” she explains before the show. “That’s acting.”
As with all of her roles, Nagel finds a way to hide in the character she creates for Musical Rainbows.
Yet, here at Severance Hall, she doesn’t seem struggle with hosting thousands of children.
“You don’t talk down to them,” says Nagel, about the children in attendance. “You sort of bring them up to a level, but you also have to make it fun.”
There’s one more song left in the concert. “Show me with your eyes you’re listening!” says Nagel.
The kids look at her, and the sounds of background conversation get quieter. “We have one more piece.”
Pope reprises “Yankee Doodle,” and the children march in place, none of them able to keep time like Nagel does on stage. When the show is over, the majority of the audience leaves. Toddlers and infants stumble across the steps, their puffy winter coats serving as crash pads for when they inevitably fall to the ground.
A clear block of students, seated on the left side of the room, stay in their rows and wait for the next Grow Up Great performance, which will begin soon.
These children wear jeans and t-shirts instead of Sunday dresses. They were noticeably quieter than the other children, and had teachers looming just a few seats away.
Most are busy absorbing every grandiose detail of Reinberger Chamber Hall. These kids, on their Grow Up Great field trip, are amazed and a little intimidated by the building surrounding them.
“These are kids whose parents will probably never be able to afford to take them to an orchestra,” said Nagel.
Outside, school buses begin to line up in rows near the parking garage.
Wrapped in her bright and cheery Musical Rainbows host character, Nagel waits for the audience to fill for the next and final show, joining her friends in the clubhouse backstage. But this isn’t just another gig to help pay the bills.
Even when she sings “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to the children, her blue eyes light up. Despite the fact that she claims to be taking on another role, there’s a quality to her smile that says something else.