New England Conservatory Hosts National Conference On Music Education


NEC Conference
Philip Glass at the NEC Conference
photo by Jeff Thiebauth

In early September New England Conservatory‘s Research Center for Learning Through Music hosted a three-day national conference entitled “Making Music Work in Public Education: Innovative Programs and Research — A National Perspective.” The conference was organized by NEC’s Larry Scripp, Director of the Research Center.

The public forum featured six presentations on a wide range of topics, including a presentation by David Dik of the Metropolitan Opera Guild on the “Creating Original Opera” program, and how it has been implemented in the Lynn, Massachusetts public schools. Larry Scripp described NEC’s “Learning Through Music” curriculum and how it functions in the Nahant and Lynn, MA public schools and the Conservatory Lab Charter School.

Contemporary music and music creation play an integral part in the Learning Through Music program as it has been implemented in the Charter School. Last spring, for instance, the students studied Philip Glass‘ opera Aknahten, learning rhythmic patterns and a portion of an aria. When Glass, who is on the Advisory Board for the Center, came to town for performances of the opera by Boston Lyric Opera, he visited with the students and discussed some of his compositional decisions.

“Students need live composers in front of them,” Scripp emphasized. “First-source experience is very important.” Glass was apparently “astonished” by the clarity of the students’ questions. For instance, in Aknahten, the title character, an Egyptian pharaoh, is cast as a countertenor. In a more traditional opera, perhaps, this role would have been assigned to a tenor or bass, and consequently the first not he sings comes as a great surprise. Scripps was amused by the directness of the children’s response: “Why is this guy singing like a girl?” Glass explained to them that he wanted this character to grab the audience’s attention from the very first note.

Scripps feels that this kind of information “is what [the Charter School] should be about, this real contact with the artistic process, this is learning through music.” Scripp plans to do this with other composers in the future: plans have already been made with Michael Gandolfi. Gandolfi has written an opera, Pinocchio’s Adventures in Funland, for eight or nine singers. These singers will work with the children on inventing their own music, and then they will perform Gandolfi’s opera.

Creating original music plays an important role in the Charter School’s curriculum. During each trimester, the students create an opera around an original theme. Last year, they created fairy-tale operas. They began by studying traditional fairy tales, then made up their own. The children then used their invented text for musical group improvisation. Not only did that help them memorize the words, it allowed them to explore issues surrounding the setting of text. Scripp observed from the children’s portfolios that many of them had discovered how music can heighten the emotion inherent in words.

The Conservatory Lab Charter School opened last year to children in kindergarten through third grade, and expanded this year to include the fourth grade. The School will continue to add a grade a year for the next two years. Students are admitted by lottery, with a total of twenty per grade level. Each student is given the opportunity to take free violin lessons, using an instrument provided by the school.

The NEC Research Center, established in April 1998, researches, develops, and manages Learning Through Music programs through partnerships with selected public schools. The curriculum is directly overseen by the Center at the Charter School, and in the Lynn and Nahant public schools. The Center is also indirectly involved with five other public schools. Scripp’s broad goal with Learning Through Music is to “stimulate varied forms of emotional, cognitive, physical, and artistic development” through “authentic and intensive musical study.” The program also includes professional development for NEC students on the college level.

The New England Conservatory Research Center has formed a consortium with some of the other organizations represented at the Conference: the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s “Creating Original Opera;” A+ Schools in North Carolina; Juilliard‘s Arts and Education Program; and the Ravinia Festival Music Outreach Program.