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Teaching Music Across the Curriculum

Cross-disciplinary education is in fashion right now, but I have the impression it’s more honored in the breach than the observance, at least insofar as music is concerned.

My vantage point is limited but informative. As readers of this blog know, I have for years espoused using the story of Dvorak in America to sneak the humanities into Social Studies and History classrooms by the back door.

I have learned a few things in the process. One is that the usual obstacle is ostensibly curricular: learning standards and standardized syllabi that must be prioritized. Another thing I’ve learned is that this obstacle is more a smoke-screen: teachers shy away from classical music because they feel they don’t know enough to teach it. That may be true, but it’s remediable.

With a modicum of training, even History teachers innocent of symphonic music will seize the Dvorak opportunity once it’s understood. Because it’s fresh, entertaining, and popular.

All the “Dvorak and America” festivals in which I’ve taken part this year – via the Pacific Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, and most recently the Buffalo Philharmonic – have linked to classrooms with teachers who attended the NEH “Dvorak and America” Teacher-Training Institute hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony two summers ago. In Orange County and North Carolina, the participating educators were Music and Social Studies teachers in elementary and high schools. In Buffalo a month ago, the participating educator was Brenda Cowe, who’s the librarian for the Buffalo Performing Arts High School.

Brenda’s eighth graders studied Dvorak for a period of weeks. They all attended the Buffalo Philharmonic’s performance of the New World Symphony. And, amazingly, they all participated in creating Dvorak films.

Brenda’s “Dvorak Project Page” — http://dvorakproject.wikispaces.com/ — embraces a cornucopia of Americana, including – for instance – exposure to wax cylinder recordings of Native American music in juxtaposition with the “Indian dance” that is the Scherzo of the New World Symphony. Her students also studied the role of Dvorak’s assistant Harry Burleigh in bringing spirituals into the concert hall. They sampled recordings by Burleigh and Marian Anderson. They pondered issues of American identity as explored by Dvorak via Native American culture and “Negro melodies.”

In future seasons, there will likely be more Dvorak festivals funded – like this season’s – by the NEH’s landmark “Music Unwound” initiative. Music Unwound not only supports “contextualized” symphonic programming, but explores the role orchestras can play as a much-needed catalyst for incorporating the arts in “non-arts” classrooms and curricula. It pursues an ideal — integrated arts instruction — that deserves to become common educational practice.

an ArtsJournal blog