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What the embattled NEH does for education: a case in point

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are endangered by impending Congressional budget cuts. Few people know what these agencies do – which is to say, it’s little appreciated how vitally they contribute to American lives, and how disproportionate their contributions are in relation to their very modest budgets.
A pair of events in eastern Pennsylvania earlier this week are a case in point. For Black History Month, two elementary schools in semi-rural communities not far from Philadelphia – North Coventry (Pottstown) and East Vincent (Spring City) – hosted programs on Dvorak and “slave songs.” The participating student orchestra numbered 70 players, grades 4 through 6. The participating student chorus numbered 60 singers, also grades 4 through 6. In each school, the audience (in the gymnasium) numbered 375 students, grades 3 through 6. Many parents also attended.
The featured soloist was Kevin Deas, an internationally prominent African-American bass-baritone who regularly appears with our major orchestras. Kevin is both an exceptional artist and an exceptional human being; he was eager to take part for a nominal fee.
The program began (without a word said) with Kevin, from the back of the gym, singing “Sinner, Don’t Let This Harvest Past.” He slowly paced forward, passing alongside hundreds of transfixed children seated on the floor. Subsequently, he sang “Deep River,” “Goin’ Home,” and Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (in Dvorak’s arrangement for baritone, orchestra, and chorus) with the student musicians.
The hour-long program, which I hosted, also included discussion of Dvorak and his African-American assistant Harry Burleigh. Burleigh (like Foster, a Pennsylvania native) acquired “slave songs” from his blind grandfather. He sang them frequently for Dvorak. It was partly Dvorak who inspired Burleigh to turn them into concert songs which he famously sang (becoming a model for Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson).
Kevin sang “Swing Low” and “Wade in the Water” in Burleigh’s arrangements. He talked about the message of the spirituals. He shared his own experiences as a black concert artist. We also heard a recording of Burleigh himself singing “Go Down, Moses” in 1919.
An epiphany of sorts (for me) was moving from Kevin’s loamy baritone in “Goin’ Home” to the 60 earnest, piping voices assigned the second verse:
Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life just begun
The 130 student musicians radiated pride and excitement. Their teacher, Cliff Hall, had prepared them for many months. Cliff was a participant in last summer’s “Dvorak and America” NEH Teacher-Training Institute, hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Each of the teachers (grades 3 to 12) that we trained during the three-week institute created a project. This week’s concerts comprised Cliff’s project. It could not have taken place without an NEH. Cliff himself writes: “The performances have started a dialogue in the community — ranging from parents waiting to pick up their children, to the comments section in area newspapers. Here is the true value of supporting the Humanities – we are both stimulated and informed; we acquire a platform to develop new attitudes and perspectives about our society.”
Janice Houck, a local professional photographer, snapped these images.
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