Education Station: Musical Storybooks | Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
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Education Station: Musical Storybooks

Education Station: Musical Storybooks

“Gerald felt so wonderful his mouth was open wide. ‘I am dancing! Yes, I’m dancing! I AM DANCING!’ Gerald cried” (Andreae & Parker-Rees, 2012). The narrator beams, holding out the storybook for everyone to see as the quartet begins to play a jaunty rhythm. The children excitedly shake their paper giraffes, making them dance along with the music. Giraffes Can’t Dance is just one of the many Musical Storybooks being performed in community venues across southwest Michigan. 

Along with other well-loved titles like The Story of Ferdinand and Because, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra integrates music education and literacy all while keeping it a fun, memorable experience for the audience. Brenda Swanson, Education Coordinator, has been performing musical storybooks with the Symphony since she joined the team in 2021. “The kids just absolutely love it,” she says. “When they already know the story and then we put music to it…it’s a whole new level. They watch and listen like our musicians are rockstars.” This excitement has fueled the program for over 25 years. 

Bill Caskey, Branch Manager of the Alma Powell location of Kalamazoo Public Library, has been with the program since the very beginning. “It started as Music and Make Believe several decades ago as a collaboration between KSO and the Kalamazoo Public Library,” he says. Since then, the program has only grown, while community partnerships with local libraries and schools allow the program to reach audiences free of charge. Caskey couldn’t be happier. “We feel great about that, seeing the program spread. As a librarian, story time is near and dear to my heart. It’s all about the engagement with children.Engagement isn’t always a simple task. 

It’s not always easy keeping little ones attentive. Cindy Cross, Assistant Director of Education, thinks it’s more nuanced than it seems. “Kids are engaging [with the music],” she says. “They might not look like they’re paying attention, but they are. They’re soaking it in.” Caskey agrees. “That’s what makes Musical Storybooks so special. Children have the opportunity to still be children, but to experience all of these rich musical elements and learn about things from dynamics, to instrumentation, to pitch It’s a really positive experience.Musical theory is only one element of how Musical Storybooks impact young minds.  

According to Cross, music can teach lessons about self-awareness and emotional regulation. At the Huss Project we did Hum and Swish. We tried to do a social-emotional exercise about how music impacts our emotions. The lesson reached through the music and presentation without explicitly saying it. Parents came up to us and talked about how they noticed that they felt calm, that their kid was so happy interacting with the music. The children’s reactions at the end of a performance speak for themselves. 

Kids can be very enthusiastic about the experience, and this has led to some funny interactions. Swanson recalls an especially heartwarming moment. “We did Last Stop on Marketing Street. At the end, all the kids went up to the musicians to have them sign their books.” Apparently, these enthusiastic reactions aren’t uncommon. “Last year I had a little boy... He said ‘thank you for commanding your musicians for us,’” Cross laughs. “I think he meant conducting.” Luckily, it’s not only the children who enjoy the experience. 

"Music belongs to everyone. These kids get to see their adults interacting along with the music. That can really make an impact."

~ Bill Caskey, Kalamazoo Public Library

Despite their child-friendly design, Musical Storybooks attract more than just young audiences. Peter Butts, Children's Librarian at Three Rivers Public Library, says he noticed the shift right away. “Early on, we realized the Musical Storybooks were popular with all ages. Even when we were forced to set up in the parking lot at Memory Isle Park the first year, we had a loyal following of local seniors setting up folding chairs alongside the strollers.” Bill Caskey thinks this cross-generation learning is something to be celebrated. Music belongs to everyone. These kids get to see their adults interacting along with the music. That can really make an impact. The program is designed to be enjoyable, regardless of your age. [Musical Storybooks] can fit a wide audience. We create music that adults like to listen to too. It’s grown-up music, just in shorter chunks. You’ll hear real music played by real professionals” (Cross). 

The future of the program continues to look bright. Three Rivers Public Library has been collaborating with the KSO since 2020. Last year, a new partner joined the mix: The Huss Project. The Kalamazoo Symphony will present several times this summer: Three musical storybooks -- Hum and Swish, Giraffes Can't Dance, and The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!-- in the children's garden on a newly created stage (Butts). With two of these performances under the Symphony’s belt, staff are ecstatic at the response. Crowds are the largest yet, and steadily growing. The final performance, The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! will take place on August 12. The experience will be unique, with audience participation and drumming instead of the traditional musical accompaniment.  

Expansion isn’t the only next step in the program’s future. Two new musical storybooks are in the works, with exciting collaborations both inside and outside the KSO. Keep on the lookout for upcoming announcements as these offerings become publicly available. No matter how the program evolves the mission remains the same: Musical Storybooks bring adventures to life, connecting literacy and music for audiences of all ages.  


Thank you to our community partners who make Musical Storybooks possible.

Musical Storybooks are sponsored:

Lake Michigan Credit Union logo


Interested in hosting a Musical Storybook? Contact Cindy Cross at for more details. 

 Musical Storybooks at The Huss Project  Musical Storybooks at the Zoo  Musical Storybooks in a library  

From left to right: Audience listens to a performance at The Huss Project | Narrator holds up Carnival of the Animals during a performance at Binder Park Zoo | Child and adult participate at a library performance of Giraffes Can't Dance.

Andreae, G., & Parker-Rees, G. (2012). Giraffes Can’t Dance. Cartwheel Books. 

Tags: education, kso, Music Education, musical storybooks