Brown Bag discusses value of history in music education

By Thomas Infante
Arts & Entertainment Editor

Students and faculty from the College gathered in the Mayo Concert Hall on Friday, Feb. 10, for the second Brown Bag discussion of the semester.

Entitled “Social Justice, Music and Education,” the presentation centered on the recent efforts of Assistant Professors of music Colleen Sears, coordinator of music education, and David Vickerman, director of bands, to raise awareness for social issues within the context of musical compositions.

Sears and Vickerman believe that most music education curriculums are largely ignoring the social and historical context of the music being performed. Without that knowledge, the students feel less connected to the music and their education.

Sears and Vickerman advocate for increased focus on social and historical issues in music education. (Jason Proleika / Photo Editor)

Alongside the Institute for Social Justice in the Arts, they began to integrate their ideals into the College’s music programs. In March 2015, they organized a performance of Ted Hearne’s “Katrina Ballads,” which Hearne described as “portraying the experience of seeing it unfold from a distanced position, as an American.”

They also developed a performance called “New Morning for the World” with the College’s wind ensemble, which contains excerpts of famous speeches by prominent civil rights leaders.

Recently, they have been working with the wind ensemble on a composition called “Of Violence and Peace,” which, according to Sears, “includes music written as statements on the horrific, violent events in the Civil Rights Era, Nazi Germany and the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.”

The College’s wind ensemble will perform this composition in Kendall Hall on Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.

“We feel like we have to address these painful issues, but we don’t have to give up hope,” Vickerman said. “Music has the power to bring forth social change.”

After finding success with their efforts at the College, Sears and Vickerman believed their programs would also work within a high school setting. They began to reach out to local high schools, hoping that one of them would be interested. Eventually, they partnered with Montgomery High School.

“We were fortunate to have support from the teachers and administration of the school,” Vickerman said. According to Vickerman and Sears, many high school administrations were reluctant to include any politicized material in their music curriculum.

“We have the privilege of location in higher education,” Sears said. “K-12 teachers are very hesitant to include material that may overtly challenge political or social beliefs.”

Evidently, the focus on social justice hit somewhat close to home at Montgomery High School. Within the past year, there had been two incidents of hate speech at the school, including one in which racial slurs were spray painted on the band room wall.

While working with the school’s band director, Adam Warshafsky, Vickerman and Sears wanted to choose a piece with historical significance that is still easy enough for a high school band to play. They chose “Walking into History,” a piece based on a group of people known as the Clinton 12: the first black students in Tennessee to attend the previously all-white Clinton High School after the decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

To educate the students about the historical and social significance of the piece, Sears and Vickerman led four hourlong discussions that aimed to meaningfully connect the music to the students’ lives.

In the first discussion, they presented them with a famous quote from Leonard Bernstein, which reads, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

The students were asked to discuss the quote, and they concluded that there has to be a better way to respond to violence, Sears said.

In the second discussion, the professors showed the students pieces of a Clinton 12 documentary and found that the students were able to easily relate to their situation.

“The students acknowledged the bravery that it must have taken for the Clinton 12,” Vickerman said. “In the same situation, many of our students said that they would be extremely hesitant to change schools.”

 For their third discussion, Sears and Vickerman set up a video chat with JoAnn Boyce, one of the Clinton 12 students. The students asked her questions, especially in regard to the societal parallels between Boyce’s adolescence and the present day.

Boyce acknowledged similarities between racial tensions in the past and present, and she said much of it is due to the hateful rhetoric used in modern politics.

“I hope that young people recognize these issues and are willing to address them,” Boyce said. “I hope that they can be the shoulders that we can stand on moving forward.”

In the final discussion, the students were asked to connect racial issues to their own lives.

“One Indian student said that when she was in South Carolina, people were yelling at her to ‘Go back to your country,’” Sears said.

They spent the remaining time rehearsing the musical piece and found that they were better able to connect with the piece because they now understood its historical context.

Afterwards, the professors had the students creatively reflect on the project by putting together essays, poems, art pieces and music.

“I have never had such a hands-on lesson in any other class in high school,” one student wrote. “This composition is the first that I have felt truly connected with after eight years in band.”

 According to Sears and Vickerman, not all of the feedback they received was positive. One community member wrote to the school that he was “subjected to a politically motivated, one-way presentation” when he was just there to see his kid perform.

“In education, there is a tendency to silo certain subjects from one another,” Vickerman said. “In many music curriculums, the historical context and the focus on instrumental proficiency are separated, but the discussion of these topics fuels the performance of the piece.”

Sears and Vickerman are proud that they were able to achieve what they called “proof of concept” with their curriculum’s efficacy.

“The students we worked with were very respectful of one another,” Sears said. “Many were relieved to be having this type of discussion.”