Traveling the USA with Music

Mountain majesties and rolling rivers have inspired composers for centuries. Why not your students? Help them make cross-curricular connections when you explore how composers

  • may be inspired by natural beauty or
  • draw from a region’s indigenous music, instruments, and dances.

The Virginia Chamber Orchestra (VCO) offers a streaming video, student activities, and lesson plans for Wonders of Geography: A Music Atlas of America. “In a time when funds are short,” MENC member Debra Lindsay says, “the VCO has provided another resource for elementary/middle school general music and choral teachers.”

Performance, Discussion, and Student Demos

The video combines footage from live concerts, discussions with an NPR music critic and a geography professor, students demonstrating sound effects on various instruments, and video of five regions of the United States:

  • Southwest (including the Grand Canyon)
  • Northwest (including Mount St. Helens)
  • Midwest (the Mississippi Region)
  • Northeast (including the Appalachian Mountains)
  • Southeast (including the agricultural Black Belt)

The VCO produced the Wonders of Geography program with the Fairfax Network.

Lesson Plans

Lindsay and fellow MENC member Cynthia Carlton have developed new lesson plans based on Wonders of Geography:

Cynthia Carlton’s 4-part lesson plan uses the VCO online video to cover

  • geographic influence on music
  • different genres of music (suite, symphony, hymn, etc.)
  • what a chamber orchestra is
  • composing

“These lessons for 5th and 6th grade students incorporate critical listening skills and the development of musical vocabulary, including tempos, dynamics, and expression. It has been my teaching style to connect music with student understanding of their world, so the creation of these lessons was right up my alley! Kudos to the VCO for providing this resource, which creates a marvelous musical link to US geographical features.”

Debra Lindsay developed five lessons:

  • Four focus on “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and have students singing, dancing, playing recorder, and performing an Orff arrangement.
  • The fifth asks students to listen to and discuss Ferde Grofe’s Mississippi Suite and sing an arrangement of “Father of the Waters” with lyrics.

Lindsay suggests pulling the “Simple Gifts” series together in a grand performance with some students dancing and singing and others performing on the Orff instruments and recorder. “Teachers can choose a few of the Orff parts for accompaniment and still provide a good learning experience,” she says. “I can also envision the ‘Simple Gifts’ arrangement being used for choral concerts or festivals.” She recommends expanding the instrumental parts to accommodate a large choral ensemble, e.g., 8-10 of each instrument to accompany a 600-member choral ensemble.


VCO Website:

VCO Wonders of Geography Student Activity Guide

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:
Geography and Music—Making a Connection

From Debra Lindsay:

  • Wonders of Geography—A Musical Atlas of America
  • Let’s Play “Simple Gifts” on Our Soprano Recorders
  • A Simple Dance to “Simple Gifts”
  • “Simple Gifts” Orff Arrangement
  • “Father of the Waters” from Mississippi Suite 

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.

Fairfax Network, created by Fairfax County Public Schools, produces programs for student audiences, K–12, nationwide.
—Linda C. Brown, April 20, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (