Houston Symphony Instrument Petting Zoo Impact


by Bernadette Verzosa

INSTRUMENT1Holly Sansing can pinpoint the moment of the awakening. She witnessed the elation on her son Zachary’s face when he blew into a bassoon for the first time.
Zachary was 11 years old then and enamored with the bassoon and other wind instruments. He had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and like many autistic children, he had demonstrated musical talent. So the family decided to attend a free Houston Symphony Family Concert at St. Bernadette’s Church and they were able to experiment at the Instrument Petting Zoo.

“The best part was the opportunity to try out all the instruments you can only look at with your eyes at a music store. Instruments are fragile and you are not normally able to handle them until junior high and then only if you decide to play in band,” says Sansing. “This allowed my son and other children to try multiple instruments that could be sanitized between playing.”

Zachary’s interest in music was ignited. He also picked up a French horn and started walking around the church with it. “He would play a note, pause, listen as if he was following the sound with his eyes. He took the French horn under archways, on carpet, in different areas and I knew what he was looking for. He has a very keen ear and perfect pitch,” says Allison Conlan, Coordinator of Education and Community Engagement.

Conlan arranged for Zachary to meet the principal bassoonist and oboe players. He has chosen to pursue the oboe instead of the bassoon because of its smaller size. The young boy also took the stage at Jones Hall as guest conductor of a holiday family concert alongside Conductor Robert Franz.

“Allison has been so kind to foster my son’s love for music. He now wants to play in the symphony as his career choice,” Sansing says.

Photos by Michelle Watson & Chinh Phan



Zachary is among the thousands of Houston area children each year who blow, strum, bang or somehow play the Houston Symphony’s musical instruments. The Instrument Petting Zoo is set up at family concerts, schools, festivals and community centers. Some of the instruments that kids can touch and play include the violin, viola, cello, flute, trumpet, trombone, French horn and the marimba.

INSTRUMENT10 “I have a soft place in my heart for kids and seeing how a simple note can affect their life,” says Conlan. “They play the instrument and they create music. They have ownership and a sense of confidence. They walk out with conviction that they did something better than they thought.”

INSTRUMENT12“The reason for having it is to create magic,” says Roger Daily, Director of Education and Community Engagement. “When a child discovers that they can create a sound, that they have the building blocks necessary to make music, you can literally hear doors opening. There are only a few gifts that one can give a child to last a lifetime – music is absolutely one of them.”
Daily has managed the Houston Symphony Instrument Petting Zoo for more than a decade. Many families return years later with stories about the impact of the Instrument Petting Zoo. “One young lady had a natural gift, embouchure or lip formation that allowed her to hit extremely high notes on a trumpet. I spoke with her Dad, who asked for recommendations for what to do next,” Daily recalls. “Nine years later, the girl stopped by the table and let me know that she had become a successful trumpeter and it all started at the zoo.”

INSTRUMENT4The Instrument Petting Zoo is brought out around 25 times each year. It’s part of several programs at Jones Hall including family concerts, holiday performances, Theatre District Open House and the Day of Music. It travels with the orchestra to different Houston area neighborhoods for the Sounds Like Fun! free concert series. The Houston Symphony also works with music teachers to bring it to classrooms and special events.
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