Lessons in Our Shared History through Music

Lessons in Our Shared History through Music

By NAfME Member Stephen Holley

Today is April 4th—the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As we all know, this tragic day in our history came to pass in Memphis, TN, my adopted hometown. Playing the same clubs and walking the same sidewalks as some our greatest American musicians, I was struck time and again by the intertwined lessons of history, music, and society. I remember the Lorraine Motel before it was the National Civil Rights Museum and only a shell of a building. I remember my first visit to the Cotton Exchange—once the center of southern cotton economy and the driving force behind one of our greatest treasures, the blues, as well as our nation’s ugliest stain. I recall driving by the empty lot where STAX records once stood, now home to the STAX Music Academy and Museum of American Soul Music.

Music isn’t composed within a vacuum. Composers and songwriters react to a given situation, historical episode, or life event in a number of ways. With that in mind, how does an educator go about employing the content of the song and lyric as a springboard for discussion? Using the music we rehearse and perform as an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of our shared culture and history not only makes great pedagogical sense, it also helps to foster a better understanding of cultures and traditions beyond our own. My time in Memphis made me the musician, and the person, I am today. Music and history are inextricably intertwined in the bluff city, and this is part of the reason I make an effort to utilize music as an original source document to explore our shared past.

Memphis, Tennessee, USA – August 29, 2017:a piano sits abandoned in the middle of the sidewalk, by an old warehouse near the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. iStockphoto.com/EdoTealdi

In this day and age of student learning outcomes, flipped classes, forward-thinking curriculum, and student-centered learning models, I believe a measure of responsibility lies in our hands to support and develop our students in becoming better citizens of the world. To that end, I’ve chosen to use music as a vehicle to impart a number of life lessons to my students. As often as the situation allows, I try to make a point of discussing the “why” of the music in an effort to help my students better understand our shared history through music. Yes, even if that means taking time away from actually playing the music!

The Impact of Story

Utilizing the song as a vehicle for discussion can be achieved in a number of ways, but I find a simple, short recounting of a related story is often the most effective. If I choose to delve more deeply into a subject, there has been many a time when I simply ask the students to put their horns down, to physically focus less on the task of making music and more on the visceral task of understanding the intent of the music and the composer or lyricist. Think of it this way: If a vocalist doesn’t understand, or is unable to connect with, the lyric, they have very little chance of conveying the emotions of the lyric—the emotions inherent to the piece and intended by the lyricist—to their audience.

If an instrumentalist can recognize the pain behind a melody, the joy behind a groove, and the nobility of a fanfare, the performance can only benefit from that knowledge! And your students will benefit, too.

For me, this is absolutely applicable to music sans lyrics, too. If an instrumentalist can recognize the pain behind a melody, the joy behind a groove, and the nobility of a fanfare, the performance can only benefit from that knowledge! And your students will benefit, too. Why do you think jazz musicians learn the lyrics of a standard? So they can identify with purpose of the song, the meaning of the song, the depth of a song.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

How does a song make you feel? Why does the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony make me pause every single time? Why does “Just Kissed My Baby” by the Meters make me shuffle my head from side to side? Why does John Coltrane’s “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” make me grin from ear to ear? I could go on, but we all have our favorites: songs that speak to us, songs that define a time in our lives, songs that bring out a certain emotion. How do we impart a love of music to our students and help them to delve more deeply into the song? Using this method in the classroom will help your students get beyond simply playing the music; it will help your students “be” the music. (Be sure to speak the previous phrase in the voice of your favorite sage, e.g. Yoda, Morpheus, Mr. Miyagi, etc.)

What Is Your Motivation?

In other words, what is your motivation? We hear this as a coaching method for actors when they assume a character, and I believe it’s entirely applicable to music as well. What is our motivation behind playing a particular piece of music or composer? To go a step beyond that, how can we help our students come to a greater understanding of the music vis a vis an increased knowledge of “why” behind the composition? Why was the piece written? What were the circumstances that influenced the composer? How did they feel when they wrote the piece? By addressing these questions and others—by opening the lines of discussion and inquiry with our students—I offer that the quality of our performances will improve, our relationships with students will deepen, and music education will serve as an inclusive model for other disciplines.

Students learn how to listen and what to listen for. This is a skill that is vital, both for musicians and non-musicians.

A colleague and friend, Monica Shriver, teaches several non-major history courses at her local community college focusing on rock, jazz, popular music, and hip-hop. Her approach is geared towards musicians and non-musicians alike. “I explore the cultural components that created the music, the aesthetics of the different styles, and the historical influences,” she shared. “Our study begins by listening first. I encourage the students to take notes while they are listening, and jot down what they hear. This could be identifying sections of the song, instrumentation and changes in instrumentation, solos or parts that are brought out of the texture, lyrics, even something they hate. Then we discuss what they heard. I may do this as a class, or in small groups. Then I put the lyrics up on the projector, and we listen again following along with the words. I may pause to point out something really important, but I try to resist the urge to tell them what to think. Instead, I ask leading questions to help them get there on their own. We also discuss the artist’s word choice, rhyming, inflections or emphasis on certain words or phrases, historical traditions, rhythm and nuance, etc., in addition to the meaning behind the music and how it makes them feel. Students learn how to listen and what to listen for. This is a skill that is vital, both for musicians and non-musicians.”

Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

Gaining Greater Insight

The information we impart doesn’t have to be cutting-edge research to be of benefit! It can be a simple aside to offer greater insight to the music, the lyric, or the composer. Some examples would include:

  • What advice did Miles Davis give Herbie Hancock that inspired Herbie to develop quartal harmony?
  • What was John Lennon really trying to convey in the lyrics to “In My Life”?
  • Where did Beethoven find the theme for the fourth movement of his 9th Symphony, and why did he choose to use it?
  • How did Steve Cropper come up with the intro to “Knock on Wood”?

And it can also have a much deeper level of meaning, as well:

  • Why don’t we hear the music of Wagner at Jewish weddings?
  • Who prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to “tell them about the dream, Martin,” thus changing the direction of one of the most recognized, pivotal speeches in history?
  • Why did jazz originate in, of all places, New Orleans?

Music education should not always focus on the next performance, adjudicated festival, or trip to an amusement park. Music can be, and should be, on the forefront of an education paradigm shift, as music is, at its most profound nature, the bond that holds us together, tears us apart, and defines us as a people. Music is an original source document of our shared history!

Music can be, and should be, on the forefront of an education paradigm shift, as music is, at its most profound nature, the bond that holds us together, tears us apart, and defines us as a people.

How do you go about studying the context and content of music and lyrics in your classroom? Let’s continue the discussion on the NAfME Amplify community page. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

About the author:

GRAMMY® nominated music educator and NAfME member Steve Holley serves as the Producer for the Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School outside Denver, CO. The R&B, soul, salsa, and jazz bands in the CMP have been recognized by DownBeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards over a dozen times, have performed hundreds of gigs throughout the US, and have performed abroad at the Festival del Tambor, Montreux Jazz, and Porretta Soul Festivals in Cuba, Switzerland, Italy, respectively.

Steve holds a BM in Jazz/Classical performance, a MM in Jazz/Classical performance, and an MM in Musicology from the University of Memphis. In addition to being an educator, arranger, performer, writer, and musical entrepreneur, Steve is a sought after clinician with performances and master classes given at the Jazz Education Network, Association for Popular Music Education, and several state MEA conferences. Most recently, Steve has written several articles for In Tune Monthly, Teaching Music, and multiple blogs and newsletters for NAfME and JEN. You can follow Steve on Twitter @SteveHolley_.

You can also follow the Kent Denver Commercial Music Program on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @kentdenvermusic.

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