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Grammy-winning String Quartet to Offer ‘Sensory-friendly’ Virtual Performance

Welcoming Event Aims to Connect Patrons With Autism, Sensory Issues to Arts

By Jessica Weiss ’05

Members of Parker Quartet

Photo by Olivier Roller

Today’s performance by the Parker Quartet, presented by the Artist Partner Programs at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, is part of a commitment to be inclusive of all audiences.

A rhythmic clapping game, unfettered movement and a conversation about what music feels like in your body will all be part of a virtual performance at the University of Maryland today by the Grammy Award-winning string ensemble Parker Quartet.

It’s the latest in a series of “sensory-friendly” events being presented by the Artist Partner Programs at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, which means they’re designed to be welcoming and comfortable for patrons with autism, sensory sensitivities and other disabilities.

Acting Executive Director of The Clarice Erica Bondarev Rapach said the events reflect a commitment to providing an array of artistic experiences that are as inclusive as possible.

“The performing arts are an opportunity to create space for fun, connection, community, learning and growth for all audiences,” she said. 

The Clarice formed a cross-departmental team last June to explore how to make the arts more accessible and sensory-friendly in the virtual environment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team has since undergone training and collaborated with campus and community partners including nearby Kenmoor Middle School, the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium and xMinds to plan events. 

The first was a bucket drumming class for students from Kenmoor. The team then worked with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider to help them transform their regular performance into a sensory-friendly event for Kenmoor students. Wednesday’s performance is The Clarice’s first online sensory-friendly event that’s open to the public. 

Jessica Bodner, who plays the viola in Parker Quartet and is a faculty member of Harvard University’s Department of Music, said the group has enjoyed working with the Artist Partner Programs at The Clarice on comprehensive “Know Before You Go” materials and guides sent to guests before the event. These include instructions on computer controls, key word definitions and pictures and introductory videos of the musicians.

“It’s a really wonderful thing to prepare for,” Bodner said. “We have a lot of experience doing outreach for many ages and we always prepare, but this has had to be a new level of intentionality behind it.”

Bodner said the group is especially looking forward to talking with guests about the music and encouraging them to use vivid words to describe their feelings as they watch and listen. The quartet will present clips of performances of works by composers Debussy, Schubert, Szymanowski, Bartok and Beethoven. 

“The way people experience music really varies from one person to the next, and there’s so much growth and discovery in that,” she said. “We’ll all learn from one another.” 

Guest Experience Coordinator Paige Cook, who is part of the sensory-friendly working team (along with Assistant Artistic Administrator Tyler Clifford, Production Coordinator Beth Ribar, Graduate Assistants Lauren Floyd and Katie McCarthy and Assistant Director for Community and Campus Engagement Jane Hirshberg), said she is looking forward to welcoming guests Wednesday and sharing together the joy of live music.

“The most important thing is that our guests know they have freedom in the ability to express themselves in any way they see fit,” Cook said. “We want to allow people to be people and to enjoy the music and space.” 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.