Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Kehn hits new note with music for kids

If you get an e-mail from Conrad Kehn (BM ’96, MM ’00) you’ll see a quote from pianist and poet Cecil Taylor that reads, “You practice so that you can invent. Discipline? No! The joy of practicing leads you to the celebration of the creation.”

The quote helps you understand who Conrad Kehn is and what matters to him. And one thing that matters a lot to him is creativity. More specifically, he’s passionate about helping kids be more creative through classical music.

To Kehn, the world desperately needs it.

“Our pockets are full and our souls are empty. We’re driven by material things. Everyone is on psych meds,” Kehn says. “Creativity makes complete people; if we spent more time on the creative side of life, we’d be creating whole people. Being able to be creative and think in creative ways is good for any career. We’ve got to be more entrepreneurial. We learn how to play but not how to find a life.”

 So this is why today, you’ll find Kehn, an adjunct music professor in the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, on his latest quest to get creativity in front of kids.

This summer Kehn was in Vail, Colo., as part of a program started by John Deke of the New York Philharmonic called Young Composers. It lets kids write stories and draw illustrations about people in a pretend village and then put their stories to classical music and perform for audiences.

“I just think it’s great because it has a literary piece, a visual aspect and the musical element, too,” says Kehn, who got Deke’s permission to spread the program around Denver.

Kehn has resources to make good headway. He’s one of the founders of a Denver-area nonprofit called The Playground (, a chamber ensemble dedicated to modern music. Last year, the ensemble reached nearly 1,500 students with 14 grade-school events. Kehn plans to use members of the Playground to broaden Young Composers.

He met with officials from Denver Public Schools (DPS) in August to discuss the program as an after-school option.

“There is interest from DPS, but things move slow there,” he says. “We’re researching how other schools have started after-school programs.”

Kehn says he’ll take the program “anywhere there’s a youth program and interest.”

“I think it’s perfect for kids, they’re not encumbered with adult responsibility and they’re free to create,” he says.

Kehn adds he’s worried about the future of classical music and says while the music will never die, the audience for it just might.

“The message we’re communicating [about classical music] isn’t effective,” he says. “Classical music hasn’t created any sense of adventure. In the 20th Century, it was harder to listen to. But if it becomes too adventurous, the donor base complains and all the while, youth is uninterested.”

Kehn believes the music establishment needs to target youth more and work harder to change what people think of classical music in general.

“They need to know it’s alive and people are still making it now, today,” Kehn says. 

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