Ten-year-old Amanda Levin of Milton, Mass., has never played an oboe before.
"Place your hands around the black sheath," instructs Dearbhla McHenry, a senior at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston. "First press this finger and then that finger. Start with the top one. That's right. And stay a little loose with your mouth."
Amanda touches her lips to the reed and blows. "Very good!" says Ms. McHenry. Amanda smiles in modest triumph.
This is no ordinary music lesson. The scene is an "instrument petting zoo," part of the conservatory's sixth annual Family Day to introduce children and parents to instruments, concerts, and classes. Billed as a chance to "meet the creatures that tweet, growl, and hum in the orchestra," the event drew nearly 1,000 parents and children, some as young as 3.
"It's a nice way to check things out," says Susan Magocsi, Amanda's mother, as the two join another line to try a clarinet.
As public schools continue to cut music programs, many students have no exposure to instruments. To fill that void and stimulate interest in orchestral music, symphony orchestras and conservatories across the country are sponsoring open houses like this one.
"This enables students to see what instrument triggers some excitement," says Linda Granitto, director of NEC's preparatory school. "It's also a way for parents to get familiar with what's possible in starting children in music."
As little hands clutch bows, finger strings, and press valves on three-quarter-size instruments, it's hard to tell who is enjoying the experience more - children or adults. "Ooooh, a cello - look at this!" exclaims a father as he guides his son and daughter to the string section.
Whatever a student's ultimate choice of instrument, Tom Copples, a trumpet major at the conservatory, makes a case for this kind of hands-on exposure, however brief. "It introduces them to music," he says. "You have to start at an early age."