A Young Puppet’s Guide to the Orchestra

Portland Columbia Symphony’s ‘Meet the Instruments’ series pairs puppets and players to introduce kids to classical music

Halloween was nigh, and Nicole Buetti thought the kids in her Los Angeles neighborhood might enjoy some scary music. But the creepy tunes she was blasting out at the haunt turned out to be a little too scary for some of the younger children. One friend suggested that Buetti — a composer, music teacher, erstwhile emo band member, and bassoonist — create a slightly less intense children’s CD for Halloween. 

After releasing My Halloween, bubbling with catchy kids’ songs, in 2008, she and her partner–who both worked in the movie trailer business–wanted to make the music even more accessible to children. Like so many nascent songwriters, they realized that the then-new YouTube might be a good place to post the songs–which meant providing a visual element. Some of her own favorite kids music came from Jim Henson’s classic Muppets series. Why not make a puppet who could sing their songs? 

Put together a composer with a post-Halloween idea, a passel of puppets, and the Portland Columbia Symphony. Add YouTube and instruments. Voila!
Nicole Buetti & Nirks

Off to the garage she marched, scrounging for materials. One foam Nerf ball, one feather tuft and an improvised eyeball later, Vincent the cyclopean singing puppet was born. Shortly thereafter, he and his song, written by Buetti, made his YouTube debut. “It kinda spun out of control from there,” she recalls. “My father played a big role. He said, ‘Stop just writing about Halloween.’” 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


There followed a homegrown production company (In a World Music), a menagerie of fellow puppets called The Nirks (named after the creators, Nicole and Dirk Montapert), a series of science-related videos, a ginormous YouTube following. And, beginning this weekend, a new 16-part series of original videos introduces elementary school-aged children (and kids of all ages) to the instruments of the orchestra through fun songs, stories, and personalities, with Buetti’s original compositions performed by musicians from the Portland Columbia Symphony. The first episode premiered today, with subsequent episodes released weekly through mid-June.

Meet the Instruments is a project I have been wanting to do for a long time,” says Buetti, who now lives across the Columbia River from Oregon in Vancouver. “Thanks to the support of PCSO and a few generous donors, I have the opportunity to combine my love of puppetry with my commitment to music education and my passion for music.”

From Puppets to Planets

Although she’s not formally trained in puppetry, combining that art form with original music wasn’t such a stretch for Buetti. “I used to drive my family crazy,” when she was a kid herself, she remembers, turning household objects like staplers into talking characters who she’d voice herself. She’s long used a giant stuffed panda to assist in adjudicating young students who come to audition with her. Animals, real or otherwise, can make delightful tension dissipators. And although she and her husband don’t have kids of their own, “we’re children ourselves,” she laughs. “It’s a fun way to reach children and feel like I’m contributing that way. But even if nobody was watching, I’d still be doing it,” she confesses. “This is what I do when I’m not performing or teaching or composing. It turned out to be a good way to keep me busy in a pandemic,” which torpedoed her performances with PCSO.

Buetti’s ear-friendly music has been played around the world, including recently in Portland’s Celebrations Works series. In 2013, she was appointed Composer in Residence for the Assisi (Italy) Performing Arts Music Festival. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra featured her Odyssey in 2018, and PCSO played it in 2019; the latter’s wind players performed her Reflections of Assisi last month.

But she has other passions, too, like education and science. The Halloween music and video proved so popular with kids on YouTube that they decided to make more puppet characters, and more educational videos featuring the Nirks, including the web series Meet the Creatures and Meet the Planets and other science-related series aimed at young teens. “My father had told me, ‘Write what you know,’” she recalls. “I know space, I know music. Kids love outer space and I do too. ” 

Buetti supplies the voices, and the puppets do their thing in front of a green screen that allows them to appear in virtual settings that Buetti creates digitally. “I try not to talk down to the kids in the songs,” she explains. “I want to inspire kids to ask questions and learn more about astronomy. In the Meet the Planets song, Jupiter says ‘I’m a big gaseous ball.’ I’d love kids to ask their parents, ‘What’s a gaseous ball?’ It’s a fun way to learn.” 

The videos proved so popular that they kept making more — and picking up viewers (35,000 subscribers from around the world, and more than 31 million views) and awards, including How to Home School’s Best Homeschooling Curriculum and Resources Award (2020), Creative Child Magazine’s Parent’s Pick Award (2018) and Educational Album of the Year (2017).

Although we live in an age of digital magic, and The Nirks reach kids via screens, Buetti believes the puppets’ lo-fi appearance makes them more approachable than animations. “They are real physical creatures — not animated,” she explains. “Young kids with big imaginations believe that these creatures exist. Kids write Vincent letters. So where animation does the imagination for you, with puppetry, kids’ imagination takes over and can take them all sorts of places they want to go.”

Meet the Instruments

If puppets can make scary subjects like Halloween and science less frightening, even fun, surely even hoary old classical music wouldn’t be immune to their charms. Buetti had long wanted to combine her passion for puppets with her musical ardor, and introduce kids to the orchestra, but “I never really had the organizational means to get all those musicians together,” she says. 

Then came the pandemic. When Portland Columbia Symphony shut down live performances, executive director Rebekah Phillips was looking for ways to keep the music flowing. When Buetti told her about her Nirks works last summer, Phillips saw an opportunity for the orchestra.

“So many kids first get hooked on classical music by seeing it live, whether they’ve taken a field trip to the concert hall or have a guest ensemble performing at a school assembly,” Phillips says. “These are critical components to forming positive associations with the arts, but this year, because of the pandemic, they’re completely absent. We thought, what better way to reach them than with puppets functioning as their friends and peers? And we couldn’t be happier to get to draw on our own well of talent right here in the orchestra to make this opportunity a reality for kids both locally and across the globe.”

With help from Autzen Foundation and OnPoint Community Credit Union, Buetti and PCSO were at last able to pull off her long-sought pairing of puppets and classical music. 

“It’s all very lighthearted, fun and catchy, she says. “We’re taking the stuffiness out of classical music.”

It’s especially timely now. “A lot of kids don’t get access to symphony concerts or get a chance to get close to the music,” Buetti says. “Portland Columbia Symphony used to have our Symphonic Safaris, where kids would get to march through and discover the instruments, and we can’t do that anymore. There are not a lot of accessible programs for kids about musical instruments unless schools do it, and with Covid, we can’t.”

Geared toward elementary school students, each five- to seven-minute Meet the Instruments episode pairs a PCSO musician with a puppet that they’re teaching to play it. Vincent returns as the host who asks questions to both teacher and student, exploring what makes their instrument unique. Then the duo plays a little duet together. The opening episode introduces the series, and the final installment includes a big orchestral piece that features both puppets and orchestra members. 

“I wanted to make it something that featured the orchestra in a way that the kids could identify the different instruments and really hear what each section sounds like,” Buetti explains. 

She recorded all voices (save one candy corn cameo from her husband), and the PCSO musicians recorded one at a time, socially distanced, in a studio. With the sessions hampered by February’s snowstorm, Buetti has been scrambling to complete editing and mixing. She says the musicians have been really enthusiastic about both the music and the project itself, even suggesting ideas that she’s incorporated. “One wanted to dye her hair to match her puppet,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun when they get involved like that.” The next episode, featuring flutist Liberty Broillet and her puppet partner Miss Chevious, drops next Friday.

Providing that kind of easy, fun, free familiarity with instruments for many kids otherwise unlikely to have such exposure might well help classical music institutions address their troubling lack of demographic diversity — and extend the gift of orchestral music to many more Oregonians. Buetti hopes other organizations and schools can pick up on the idea and use the videos (all available on YouTube) in educational and community outreach settings. She also hopes to get vocalists to come in and sing the songs with Vincent. And she’s submitting the series for consideration to a learning app to bring the music and the message beyond Oregon. 

Meet the Instruments has already helped one classical musician achieve a goal she never thought possible. “Some musicians wait all their lives and never get the opportunity to perform as a soloist with a live orchestra,” Buetti muses. “I never imagined or even tried to sing with an orchestra, since I’m not a singer. But Vincent gets to sing with a real, live symphony backing him up. It’s a crazy world.” 

Portland Columbia Symphony’s Meet the Instruments premieres on YouTube Friday, March 12, with new episodes appearing through mid-June.

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About the author

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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