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Conducting a Historical Inquiry

Mike Lawson • Commentary • May 1, 2002

Our school was about to close and be merged with the other two high schools in our district, due to declining enrollment and budget pressures. Before the baby boom necessitated multiple high schools, our school was the original high school for the town. This lineage provided us with a history covering more than 125 years. As director of bands at the time, I wanted my students and the community at large to know at least a little bit about the history of bands at this school before it was dissolved.

I did some homework of my own, going through old yearbooks, scanning old newspaper clippings, talking to former band members and, when possible, former directors. This process proved to be time-consuming but intensely rewarding. The more I found, the more I wanted to know.

Already resolved to have the students learn something of the band’s history, I decided that telling them wouldn’t be enough. These students would have to experience the discovery process first-hand in order to take a greater interest in the band’s history. In this way, they could take ownership in their own band heritage.

With surprisingly little convincing, I made the assignment. The band was divided into groups of five to eight members, with each group bearing responsibility for researching a four-year period of time, covering the most recent period in the band’s history. Work was to be done outside of class (Homework in Band? Imagine that!), and the findings of each group would be presented in a poster format at our final concert. Each group would be graded as a unit and presentations would be made to the band on the two days after the concert, which were also the last two days before the end of the grading period. In addition to their work, I assured them that I, too, was doing this research and that I would also present my findings.

The response was tremendous. The kids really got engaged in the project and the audience was extremely grateful for the additional information. Everyone gained some perspective on where the group had come from, and a record was created to inform those in the future. Perhaps most importantly, however, was that the students gained a sense of pride from this knowledge, and curiosities were piqued such that many students had further questions to ask and went in search of the answers.

I present this not as a pat on the back for coming up with a more academic way to grade kids in band, or for making productive the last few months of a school doomed to closure. I instead present this idea of students engaged in historical study as a task in which all performing ensembles can participate – regardless of the status of the school. The study of history in music education is important for us all.

Having students engage in historical inquiry is far more effective than a presentation done for them. While the act of researching may not be a purely musical activity, I must argue that the outcomes of students actively engaged in understanding the history of the world around them in a cooperative manner with their peers are not at all contradictory with the desired outcomes espoused by many performing groups.

A history project such as the one I propose can also be used in partial fulfillment of the national standards for music education. The often overlooked content standard #9 refers to “understanding music in relation to history and culture.” In particular, achievement standards B and C lend themselves quite well to an ensemble history project. These goals are:

B. Identify sources of American music genres, trace the evolution of those genres and cite well-known musicians associated with them.
C. Identify various roles that musicians perform, cite representative individuals who have functioned in each role and describe their activities and achievements.

Perhaps your band is performing a Sousa march and is looking into Sousa’s life and times. Wouldn’t it help the students to also be able to see what was happening at the same period of time in the history of their own school band? Maybe they would find that Sousa himself came to the school. This turned out to be the case for our school, and we certainly weren’t alone. The roles of representative individuals referred to in the standards need not be international symbols such as Sousa. They could be local figures as well. In some cases, an historical study could reveal that a national figure had a background in the local school band or orchestra. Only research will uncover such gems.

Students were surprised and proud to learn that Sousa performed twice at our high school in the 1920s. Students also discovered that the school marching band greeted then-Vice President Nixon on a campaign stop in 1960. Another highlight was that Gene Krupa came and gave a clinic and concert in 1964. That the school jazz band rose to regional prominence by the late ’70s was another notable discovery.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that in 1967 the band and chorus had earned the distinction of winning the high school state music sweepstakes through excellence in both large ensemble adjudication and solo and ensemble settings. At the time, this feat was an even greater honor since it pre-dated class distinctions for high school size. Ironically, this event, validated by the finding of a plaque long since packed away, was remembered only by a few former band members. It seems that the newspaper and yearbook were more enthralled by a strong varsity basketball team that year than a superior music department. We all learned through this episode that there is truly nothing new under the sun. The difference became, however, that students engaged in historical study were exposed to this knowledge and brought it back to the light of day.

As mentioned earlier, encouraging curiosity and further study are also goals that are met through a history project. The questions raised by my students were just as sophisticated as those of any professional researcher. These questions included: Why didn’t band directors stay for very long in the 1980s? Why were (and are) there so few minorities in the band? What prevented the band from gaining full recognition for its achievements? Issues of advocacy, minority, enrollment and director attrition are all areas of concern for the profession, and they are ones which could benefit greatly from historical research. Perhaps our students can help us answer some of these important questions.

The need for historical research in music education is strong, and the use of local history projects can motivate students to be more engaged with the historical context of the music we perform. History projects can work in conjunction with the national standards, and can encourage lifelong learning. Furthermore, historical study need not interfere with music rehearsing. In fact, doing work outside of class and in groups can increase interpersonal bonds and pride in the ensemble and enhance musical understanding. For all these reasons, I encourage directors of performing ensembles to undertake history projects as we did. We all need to find our roots.

David Ferguson is an instructor of trumpet and music education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was the Director of Bands at Stephen Decatur High School in Decatur, Ill., from 1994-2000, where he directed concert, symphonic, marching and jazz bands. In addition to his high school duties, he taught elementary band and strings as well as seventh-grade general music. Ferguson earned a B.M. in music education with jazz emphasis from Millikin University, an M.M.E. from the University of Illinois and is presently completing an Ed.D. in Music Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Commentary appeared on pages 18 – 19 in the May issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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