The Music of Washington's World

Music from Pre-Revolutionary America is a great tool for making curricular connections. Students can follow the colonists’ growing revolt against the British Empire and gain understanding of African slaves’ lives through traditional songs.

The Virginia Chamber Orchestra (VCO) offers a streaming video, student activities, and lesson plans for History Notes: The Music of Washington’s World. “In a time when school funds are short,” NAfME member Debra Lindsay says, “the VCO has provided a valuable resource for elementary/middle school general music and choral teachers.”

Performance, Discussion, and Drama

In the video, student hosts travel to several 18th-century sites:

  • Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, for an 18th-century ball and a conversation with General Washington;
  • Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia, to hear 18th-century hymns sung by the West Potomac High School Colonial Singers;
  • Mount Vernon, where the United States Army Old Guard introduces them to music as a form of communication on the battlefields of the American Revolution.

The VCO performs concert music popular in Washington’s time. Historians David Hildebrand and Larry Earl introduce students to a new understanding of 18th-century America revealed through music.

History Notes: The Music of Washington’s World was produced by George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and the Fairfax Network. The VCO collaborated for the orchestral music.

Lesson Plans

Lindsay and fellow NAfME member Cynthia Carlton have developed lesson plans based on The Music of Washington’s World:

Cynthia Carlton’s 4-part lesson plan (grades 6–9, adaptable for grade 5) uses the VCO online video to cover

  • How news traveled in the 1770s, protest songs, and parody
  • William Billings’ song “Chester” about the desire for freedom from British rule
  •  A variety of music ensembles and music styles (e.g., solo, chamber orchestra, slave songs, psalm singing)
  •  18th-century entertainment (e.g., dances, ballad operas, theater, symphony)

Carlton also includes the traditional choral score for “Chester,” crossword and double word puzzles, and a lyric sheet assignment as part of a Billings biographical study.

“Bringing our nation’s history into the hands of young people through the study of music is a fascinating insight into our cultural and historic past,” says Carlton. “This streaming video is full of interesting facts and musical examples.”

Debra Lindsay developed two lessons:

War and Washington (grades 4–7, adaptable for grade 8) uses the streaming video to teach the parody song “War and Washington.” Students

  • Learn the history of the composer and the song,
  • Sing and play the song on the recorder, and
  •  Participate in an Orff group performance.

Lindsay includes a music score, recorder fingerings and assessment, and an essay test in her lesson materials.

“Air” from Water Music has a 6-note simplified arrangement for recorders and other C instruments of this Handel piece. Students can then play along with the VCO’s performance (click on “Water Music by George Fredric Handel” in the lower right-hand column).

Lindsay suggests sharing her learning activities with classroom teachers and inviting teachers or the administration to your classroom for mini-performances. “Any time you can share how you masterfully integrate social studies and music, you’ll be enhancing your educational reputation as well as promoting the arts,” she says.

These lesson plans are also available on the VCO website.


Traveling the USA with Music describes another VCO collaboration (Wonders of Geography: A Music Atlas of America) connecting geography, natural beauty, and music and includes lesson plans. Resources are also available on the VCO website.

VCO Website:

History Notes: The Music of Washington’s World

The Musical Side of Thomas Jefferson, also produced with the Fairfax Network.

Lesson Plans in NAfME’s My Music Class; search for “Virginia Chamber Orchestra.”

From Cynthia Carlton:  Inspiring Composer in Colonial Times

From Debra Lindsay:  The Music of Washington’s World—“War and Washington” and “Air” from Handel’s Water Music

Carlton and Lindsay have also written lesson plans for the VCO’s video: The Musical Side of Thomas Jefferson.

By Cynthia Carlton: Music in the Life of Thomas Jefferson—A Serious Hobby

By Debra Lindsay:
• A Walk through the Video The Musical Side of Thomas Jefferson 
• The Musical Side of Thomas Jefferson (Lesson 2)
• The Musical Side of Thomas Jefferson (Lesson 3)
• The Musical Side of Thomas Jefferson (Lesson 4)

Cynthia Carlton recently retired from teaching general music at Cunningham Park Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia.

Debra Lindsay teaches general music, chorus and drama at Crestwood Elementary
School in Springfield, Virginia. She is the Virginia MEA’s Music In Our Schools Month chair.

Fairfax Network, created by Fairfax County Public Schools, produces programs for student audiences, K–12, nationwide.
—Linda C. Brown, April 11, 2012, © National Association for Music Education (