As a performing musician I’ve participated in dozens of in-school performances over the years with many different organizations all with the same purpose: bringing music and musicians into direct contact with school children. These programs served a dual purpose of providing an arts education infusion into budget strapped schools as well as giving performing arts organizations a greater presence in their communities. The children listened while a group played a string quartet and perhaps gave a short talk about the composer. These programs were well intentioned, well performed, but largely ineffectual in terms of real lasting educational impact and without any assessment models to gauge what the students took away from it. Even if there was genuine student interest and excitement generated by the performance, there was little or no coordinated effort to follow through to deepen the students’ knowledge and understanding of music.
However, all of that began to change for me when I participated in a concert initiative that broke this pattern in an exciting and innovative way by having a sustained presence in the classroom for several weeks prior to the actual performance. It was at the Bontemps School in Chicago as part of the Chicago Philharmonic’s outreach program. Lawrence Rapchak, the Philharmonic’s director of educational projects, spent weeks in the school working with classes developing an original musical narrative based on the life and work of the school’s namesake Arna Bontemps. Rapchak, who is also a fine composer whose works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, showed the students the elements of music composition by using the different styles of music prominent in Bontemp’s life. As the project continued, students began to make connections between the music and the social and historical context of his life.
Ken Freed, a good friend of mine and a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as one of its Assistant Conductors, told me about an exciting and innovative program called Learning Through Music (LTM) that puts music in the center of the public school curriculum and uses musicians as in-class collaborators with the regular classroom teacher. I was particularly attracted to the idea of working with the teachers instead of asking them to baby-sit while my colleagues and I played another drive-by concert. Ken spoke about the influence his orchestra was having with the school children at the Ramsey School in Minneapolis and suggested that Chicago would be a great community to get a LTM program in place.
Because of my own experience with the public schools in Evanston, the first town north of Chicago, Ken and I decided to start there. Evanston is a wonderfully diverse community. It is home to Northwestern University, has a bustling downtown business district and, like many urban areas, a troubled school system. Having had two of my sons attend the Kingsley School, I had knowledge of the school community as well as a good relationship with its Principal, Dr. Mike Martin. Based on Ken’s experience in Minneapolis, the Principal is the key to getting a program established. If you don’t have his or her support, you’re facing an uphill battle.
Ken and I gave Dr. Martin an overview of the LTM approach and discussed how it might work at the Kingsley School. Perhaps the most important aspect of the LTM proposal was explaining the assessment models. All educators are under pressure from the “No Child Left Behind Act”, and it is crucial for teachers to gauge the effectiveness of any new program. Fortunately, assessment is one of the cornerstones of the LTM approach; having the support of a scholarly institution to process the data collected from the in-class work done by the students is crucial. The Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University will be serving in this capacity by providing graduate students as LTM interns.
Of course, any project should have as part of its goals the state guidelines for what students need to learn in a given year. The initial implementation phase of LTM at Kingsley will be geared towards helping first graders just learning to read with special emphasis on supporting the students who need extra help.
The musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic will be an integral part of this collaboration after the initial planning phase is completed and program specifics are worked out.
The people from the Philharmonic who made the Bontemp School project such a resounding success will be directly involved at Kingsley. After some professional training workshops with LTM consultants, the Philharmonic musicians will be a regular presence in the classroom.
So the dialogue has started as the new school year has gotten under way and the pieces seem to be in place for what promises to be an exciting adventure. The goal is to create a program that becomes a permanent part of the school culture. I have no doubt that LTM will make a profound impact on the students at the Kingsley School and help to build bridges between different groups of kids. It is really about community and connectivity. The key to lasting success will depend on its partner’s energy and commitment to following through.
Fortunately there is a growing national consortium of schools involved with LTM who have programs up and running and are eager to share the details of their success stories within their respective school communities. I should also point out that LTM provides guidance and assistance for individuals implementing a program in their area at every step of the way from the initial training to in-school observation and consulting. The model study units I have looked at are terrific, and the clear cut goals were developed with teachers and LTM consultants.
A public school with its own resident symphony orchestra? The idea is to develop exciting projects that are designed for the unique culture of each school and to make learning fun by incorporating music as a starting place. All the research shows that music makes a dramatic difference not only in a student’s ability to learn but in his/her ability to order their world emotionally and develop the ability to find creative solutions for problems.
It is up to musicians to help make sure that each child in school has the chance to play an instrument and that the teacher/mentor relationship is seen as a vital part of a musician’s growth as an artist and contributor to society. The challenges are great but the rewards are even greater for those willing to be engaged in this fascinating process.