Frank Babbitt  

Learning Through Music - From Invention to Implementation

Frank Babbitt
September 20, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

The final installment in this series of articles about how individual musicians can become vested in a program of ongoing in-school education initiatives, is an article from Lyric Opera of Chicago violist, Frank Babbitt.

Frank guides readers along each step of the path he traveled to design and implement an in-school educational program modeled on the Learning Through Music curriculum and assessment frameworks developed by Dr. Larry Scripp at New England Conservatory's Research Center. With the Research Center's help, as well as guidance from musicians that have already implemented the program, Babbitt is putting his inaugural season into place this fall.

- Drew McManus

As a performing musician I’ve participated in dozens of in-school performances over the years with many different organizations all with the same purpose: bringing music and musicians into direct contact with school children. These programs served a dual purpose of providing an arts education infusion into budget strapped schools as well as giving performing arts organizations a greater presence in their communities. The children listened while a group played a string quartet and perhaps gave a short talk about the composer. These programs were well intentioned, well performed, but largely ineffectual in terms of real lasting educational impact and without any assessment models to gauge what the students took away from it. Even if there was genuine student interest and excitement generated by the performance, there was little or no coordinated effort to follow through to deepen the students’ knowledge and understanding of music.

However, all of that began to change for me when I participated in a concert initiative that broke this pattern in an exciting and innovative way by having a sustained presence in the classroom for several weeks prior to the actual performance. It was at the Bontemps School in Chicago as part of the Chicago Philharmonic’s outreach program. Lawrence Rapchak, the Philharmonic’s director of educational projects, spent weeks in the school working with classes developing an original musical narrative based on the life and work of the school’s namesake Arna Bontemps. Rapchak, who is also a fine composer whose works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, showed the students the elements of music composition by using the different styles of music prominent in Bontemp’s life. As the project continued, students began to make connections between the music and the social and historical context of his life.

The resulting performance featured the students of grades 4th-6thwho had created every aspect of the performance including the music, storyline, choreography and all the costumes, as well as painting scenery. It also featured the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic. It was truly memorable event as all the weeks of preparation resulted in a powerful combined performance by the children and the orchestra. Sadly, there was no long-term plan to build on the success of the Bontemp program. The excitement and energy that had been generated had no further outlet once the orchestra packed up their instruments and the children had gone home. That was true… until now.

Ken Freed, a good friend of mine and a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as one of its Assistant Conductors, told me about an exciting and innovative program called Learning Through Music (LTM) that puts music in the center of the public school curriculum and uses musicians as in-class collaborators with the regular classroom teacher. I was particularly attracted to the idea of working with the teachers instead of asking them to baby-sit while my colleagues and I played another drive-by concert. Ken spoke about the influence his orchestra was having with the school children at the Ramsey School in Minneapolis and suggested that Chicago would be a great community to get a LTM program in place.

Because of my own experience with the public schools in Evanston, the first town north of Chicago, Ken and I decided to start there. Evanston is a wonderfully diverse community. It is home to Northwestern University, has a bustling downtown business district and, like many urban areas, a troubled school system. Having had two of my sons attend the Kingsley School, I had knowledge of the school community as well as a good relationship with its Principal, Dr. Mike Martin. Based on Ken’s experience in Minneapolis, the Principal is the key to getting a program established. If you don’t have his or her support, you’re facing an uphill battle.

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