Conductor Tom Jensen leads an Inside the Orchestra performance. (Andrew Randall/CPR)

It’s a tradition for many symphonies to play a few concerts each year that appeal to young listeners. Inside the Orchestra is different.

The Denver nonprofit has a sole mission: to play high-quality orchestral concerts for children. Their Tiny Tots program surrounds dozens of toddlers with a professional orchestra for a unique introduction to classical music.

The conductor faces the crowd. The brass and percussion sections sit behind the audience. It’s a visceral first encounter with live classical music for many young listeners.

Executive director Shelby Mattingly hopes Inside the Orchestra will change the lives of toddlers around Denver.

At a recent Tiny Tots concert, the musicians kept the toddlers in the audience engaged by keeping the music selections short.

Inside the Orchestra bassist Jim Vaughan encouraging a potential musician. (Photo: Tyler Hicks-Wright)

“We have some really interesting pieces of music that most people would say, ‘Oh there’s no way you’re going to play that for a room full of 3-year-olds.’ And we have so many people tell us after the programs, ‘I can’t believe how engaged my child was,’” Mattingly says.

Jensen often leads the musicians in pieces that orchestras rarely perform for children. He pointed to Darius Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur la Toit,” or “The Ox on the Roof,” which is full of sounds inspired by Brazilian music. He says his audiences love it.

“For Darius Milhaud to be a on a kid’s radar is pretty cool,” Jensen says.

Inside The Orchestra often performs for K-12 students at schools that have had to cut funding for arts programs, or cut music programs entirely, conductor Tom Jensen says.

An impromptu violin lesson at Inside the Orchestra’s instrument petting zoo. (Photo: Tyler Hicks-Wright)

“Going into the inner city schools where kids have never seen an oboe, never seen a French horn, never seen a violin before — and chances are never seen live music before — turning those kids on to a live performance for me has been the most rewarding,” he says.

Inside the Orchestra partners with musicians around the city who offer discounted music lessons. They also check back with teachers and parents after a performance to find out which pieces connected with young listeners and fine-tune the program.

Mattingly says cultivating future musicians is important. Cultivating future classical music fans also matters.

“If we want a culturally vibrant city and state we need to teach our children how to appreciate the arts,” she said.