The Civil Rights movement produced a treasury of songs whose messages and musical quality continue to move audiences today. Here are the stories behind just three of these, all composed and notably performed by musicians of African-American descent:
1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing"
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is also known as the “Black American National Anthem.” The words, by poet and later NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson, were set to music by the poet’s brother, John Rosamund Johnson. The brothers hoped the song would help heal the wounds inflicted on the African-American community by generations of brutality.
James Weldon Johnson also served as principal at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1900, students there gave the song its first public performance in observance of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
In 1919, it was adopted as the official song of the NAACP, and black church choirs across the South made it a staple of their repertoires. One person at the time described it as a “collective prayer.” By the 1930s and 40s, people hungry for freedom around the world were singing it, and it became an iconic song of the American Civil Rights movement.
Johnson and his brother went on to write hundreds of songs for Broadway theaters. His rich treasury of individual work includes the 1927 collection God’s Trombones, featuring resonant, hymn-like poems such as “The Creation,” which retells the bible creation story in resonant, contemporary language.
In recent years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has figured in Juneteenth celebrations, and has been covered by artists across the musical spectrum, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Melba Moore, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the now-famous Wattstax concert in 1972, soul singer Kim Weston sang it and brought the audience to its feet after they had sat in stony silence during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 2018, Beyoncé performed it at Coachella for a largely white audience, a remarkable moment that helped raise awareness of the song’s key place in history.
The fact that its lyrics alternate between being solemn with the knowledge of suffering and weariness, and being joyful with determination and hope for the future, is one reason it speaks to new generations.
2. “Freedom Highway"
“Freedom Highway” is a song written specifically for a moment in time, to honor the Civil Rights struggle as it unfolded. It commemorates the freedom marchers across the segregated South in the 1950s and 60s, particularly those who in 1965 marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the way to Montgomery: “Marching freedom’s highway, I’m not gonna turn around.”
Roebuck “Pops” Staples, leader and patriarch of the gospel group The Staple Singers, recalled the creation of the song just weeks after that historic march, in which protesters—including now-Congressman John Lewis—were brutally beaten by state troopers and an armed and angry mob on “Bloody Sunday.” Because of that march, Staples said, “words were revealed and a song was composed.”
Staples made those remarks when introducing the song at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church on April 9, 1965. The church reverberated with the thundering righteousness of the song, which evokes the moral certainty of those involved in the fight for freedom and equality. The performance was recorded live and preserved for the future on an album reissued in 2015 as Freedom Highway Complete.
The Staple Singers were the “First Family of Gospel.” “Pops” and his children Pervis, Yvonne, Cleotha, and Mavis worked together beginning in the late 1940s, building a blues-inflected, folk-gospel style drawing on the rhythms of Pops’ Mississippi Delta youth and driven by Mavis’ powerful soul vocals. The singers became close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and commemorated him after his death with “A Long Walk to D.C.”
Pops died in 2000, Cleotha in 2013, and Yvonne in 2018. Pervis left the group as a young man, but Mavis has kept up a solo career. Now past her 80th birthday, she issued the 2019 album We Get By. Additionally, she remains a staunch activist who sees the situation in the world today is very similar to the 60s.
3. “We Shall Overcome”
The simple but powerful lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” speak not of oppression, but of hope: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.” To this day, the song is one of the most recognizable of all those that defined the Civil Rights movement.
It has become an anthem of peaceful protesters all over the world. It has been song in Soweto Township in apartheid South Africa, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and most recently by protesters in Hong Kong fighting for autonomy from China’s authoritarian government and in the United States at #BlackLivesMatter protests.
The origins of “We Shall Overcome” lie in a folk song (“I’ll be all right some day”) sung by American slaves. Its melody—both somber and soaring—is close to that of the spiritual “No More Auction Block.” In the hands of Methodist minister and gospel composer Charles Albert Tindley, himself the son of slaves, it became “I’ll Overcome Someday.” It was that version that became the basis for the one we know today.
Tobacco workers in the 1940s began using the song during labor protests, its first political usage. They sang, “We will win our rights someday.” Zilphia Horton, a Tennessee music director and labor supporter, began teaching it in workshops.
Folk singer Pete Seeger, sometimes erroneously credited as the song’s author, learned it from Horton. Seeger codified the title as “We Shall Overcome,” added new verses, and led it at numerous protests and rallies. In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heard Seeger perform it at one of Horton’s workshops.
On March 31, 1968, just days before his assassination, Dr. King used “We Shall Overcome” as the anchor and refrain of one of his most powerful speeches, saying, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Despite centuries of injustice and limited opportunities, African-Americans have made countless contributions to science, medicine, public service, and the arts, among many other areas. American music, for example, would be far less rich, innovative, and memorable without the creative work of black composers.
Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Florence Price were gifted musicians. Additionally, their lives exemplify the obstacles 20th-century people of color had to overcome regardless of profession. Here’s what you need to know about their lives and work:
Around the turn of the 20th century, Scott Joplin’s innovations in syncopated ragtime music made him one of the most acclaimed and influential American pianists and composers. His “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” are now staples of the popular repertoire.
Later audiences rediscovered this “King of Ragtime” through the use of his music in movies such as The Sting. The 1973 production won multiple Oscars, including one for Marvin Hamlisch’s adaptation and orchestration of Joplin’s music into its score.
Joplin was born into a family of musicians in about 1867, probably in northeast Texas. He grew up in Texarkana and studied piano in his early teens. He performed in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and two years later studied music at a segregated school in Missouri. After his early work made him famous, Joplin moved to St. Louis.
Hoping to reduce the prejudice shown by some critics to ragtime because of its African-American origins, Joplin published an instructional series called The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano. His ambitions as a composer of more traditional music led him to compose the opera A Guest of Honor and the ballet Rag Time Dance.
Before his death in 1917, Joplin’s multi-genre operatic theater piece Treemonisha, whose African-American themes prefigured George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, was presented in a small-scale version. Critics have noted Treemonisha’s vivid blending of influences from Richard Wagner to Giuseppe Verdi to Tin Pan Alley. Notable recent stagings include a 2019 production at East London’s Grimeborn music festival.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington composed the score for Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, which was also the film debut of then 19-year-old singer Billie Holiday. Revered as the most talented American jazz composer and conductor of his day, Duke Ellington wrote thousands of scores and is largely responsible for the distinctive sound of the Big Band era.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1899 to a middle-class family that encouraged his artistic ambitions, Ellington studied piano at age 7 and began performing in ragtime bands in his teens. Working in New York City from 1923, he eventually assembled a 14-piece orchestra. Ellington’s band became a fixture at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s and ‘30s, and he hired musicians who were themselves major figures in the development of jazz.
This group of musicians became a wildly popular touring ensemble, appeared in multiple films, and went on the road in Europe from 1933 to 1939. Ellington’s music, and swing and jazz in general, were popular among anti-Nazi German youth. As a result, he was among the many black performers banned from working in Germany after the mid-1930s.
However, at that time, the Cotton Club was an all-white establishment as far as patrons were concerned, and black musicians had to enter by the back door. While on tour in the United Kingdom in 1933, Ellington’s troupe was turned away from several hotels, and he suffered many other such slights on tour in the United States. This inspired him to begin working on behalf of the NAACP’s fight for racial justice. His extraordinary talent and personality forced white critics and audiences to take African-American music and performers seriously.
By the late 1930s, Ellington had begun composing long-form pieces, and the 1940s saw him compose a string of fast-tempo hits and pieces rich in tonal color. Ellington also expanded his talents into theater scores, including the 1964 production My People, a tribute to the Civil Rights movement. Ellington’s band continued touring the world with him for many years. Many of the same performers remained with him for four decades or more. His regal demeanor and charm continued to draw audiences until shortly before his death in 1974.
Florence Price is one of the few African-American female composers of symphonic music whose work achieved significant recognition from white audiences during her lifetime. She was the first black woman to have her work performed by a well-known orchestra. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E minor. One critic wrote that the piece was “faultless” in its passion and restraint.
Many of Price’s hundreds of classical compositions were anchored in the tunes and rhythms of classic African-American spirituals. They were performed throughout the United States and Europe. Marian Anderson, one of the world’s great contraltos and herself a breaker of color barriers in a segregated society, included Price’s song “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord” among the pieces she sang at her famous 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music as a child under the guidance of her mother, a schoolteacher and pianist. She went on to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, a rare opportunity for a black woman in those days. Before returning to Arkansas to marry, she spent two years teaching music at Clark University in Atlanta.
Back in Arkansas, she continued to teach and compose. However, because she was African-American, she was refused admission into the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association. Despite the international reputation she earned, her work was knocked well-known in the decades after her death in 1953.
In 2009, the new owners of Price’s summer home in Illinois discovered a long-lost trove of her manuscripts. At that time, musicians began to edit, share, and record them, to the delight of new audiences.
Music has a way of strengthening a sense of community as it uplifts people’s spirits and brings them together to enjoy an experience transcending the borders of language. Today, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the world, people sheltering in place are rediscovering how music can create a joyous shared event even when they are physically apart.
With about half of the world’s population under lockdown or quarantine by the beginning of April 2020, professional musicians and singers—and everyday people of all ages and backgrounds—have found joy in using Zoom, Skype, and other types of video and audio technology to make music together while safely socially distanced.
As Italy went under lockdown orders, citizens began to sing to one another across their balconies, leaning out their windows, or standing on their roofs. More and more viral videos showed these scenes repeated across Spain, France, India, Israel, the United States, and many other countries.
Online orchestras and ensembles that are unable to perform together in the same space have harmonized online through the medium of 21st-century technology, while star-studded benefit galas featuring socially distanced performers raised money to help first responders, patients, and those who had lost jobs and homes in the lengthening shadow of the pandemic.
Why we need music now
Musicologists and psychologists point to the desire to bond with other people through music as a central human attribute. Human beings seem to possess an innate need to make connections with others—the kind of face-to-face connection that social media, phone calls, and even video chats can’t provide.
Yet when you add music to the online mix, people tend to feel closer. Music can be a powerful counterweight to the widespread feelings of social isolation and alienation, particularly in the present crisis.
Research has demonstrated that humans produce more oxytocin, known as a “bonding” hormone, during choral singing or when otherwise sharing music. And with increased oxytocin levels come increased feelings of comfort, safety, and peace.
Popular music unites the world
One World: Together at Home was one of the most-watched—and most moving—benefit concerts in recent memory. While raising money to support food banks and affordable housing, as well as treatment and vaccine development at the World Health Organization, the live-streamed April 18 concert touched the hearts of people all over the world.
Favorite artists such as Lady Gaga, Elton John, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez, John Legend, Billie Eilish, and Lizzo created moving moments for viewers, who saw them in a
new and personal way as they performed from their homes.
The eight-hour production, curated by Lady Gaga and produced by the group Global Citizen, is thought to be the largest musical fundraiser held since 1985’s Live Aid, which supported African famine relief. One World: Together at Home ended up raising more than $127 million for coronavirus relief efforts.
Technology democratizes great opera
The Metropolitan Opera in New York, shut down like all other performing arts venues in the city, held its virtual At-Home Gala concert on April 25. The four-hour event featured more than 40 of the biggest names in opera performing via Skype. The event supported the Met’s fundraising campaign to keep its company’s future secure.
Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted and performed on the piano from his Montreal home. Performers included American soprano Renée Fleming, who sang “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello, with her Virginia garden visible in bloom in the background.
Soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov performed from Vienna, with Netrebko delivering a passionate version of Rachmaninoff’s reworking of Georgian folk melodies. From her warm yellow-walled living room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, soprano Lisette Oropesa performed “En vain j'espère” (“I hope in vain”) from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, with pre-recorded accompaniment by renowned pianist Michael Borowitz.
In addition to its artistic quality, the entire production drew rave reviews for the high quality of its technical support, showing how some of the best minds today are stepping up to creative challenges that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
Alone, a beloved singer brings people together
Another remarkable performance set a record for the largest audience to simultaneously view a classical music live stream on YouTube. On Easter Sunday, tenor Andrea Bocelli gave a Music for Hope concert from Milan’s Il Duomo cathedral. Alone except for his socially distanced accompanist at the organ, Bocelli sang sacred pieces composed by Gounod, Mascagni, Rossini, and others, and concluded by standing alone outside on the cathedral steps.
As Bocelli sang the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the camera soared up and out over the architecturally stunning cathedral and across the cityscape of Milan. Bocelli said that he believed in the power of music to bring people together, and his performance touched millions around the world, particularly those in northern Italy enduring some of the most sobering days of the pandemic.
There is a variety of jobs for music teachers out there, from band and choir directors, to academy and university instructors, to vocal coaches, just to name a few. One thing all these types of music instructors have in common is the variety of professional organizations available to support them in broadening their networks and keeping their skills sharp. Here are a few of the best known and most respected.
1. MTNA – Close to 150 years of networking and advocacy
The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is one of the oldest professional groups for music teachers. Established in 1876, MTNA aims to make music study more accessible while highlighting the value of music to the general public.
The organization’s 20,000+ members have access to extensive professional development programs, conduits to new performance opportunities for their students at every stage of proficiency, and numerous opportunities to meet fellow teachers, leaders in the field, and potential mentors. Members may also join active forums meant for specific group subsets, such as college professors or independent instructors.
Membership includes a subscription to the organization’s flagship publication, American Music Teacher, as well as an online journal and access to a professional certification program. Members can additionally take advantage of discounted
conference and programming fees.
Though MTNA works in-depth at the local, state, and national levels, members must typically join at the state or local tier to participate in national programs.
Any state chapter may request MTNA funding to pay for the commission of new work from a specific composer. From among these commissions, the national organization selects a recipient of its annual Distinguished Composer of the Year award. Also, the MTNA Foundation Fund accepts donations in support of programs that foster the study and teaching of music, as well as its appreciation, creation, and performance.
2. NAfME – A comprehensive teaching and learning resource
Like MTNA, the National Association for Music Education, or NAfME, is more than a century old. Founded in 1907, the group has grown to become one of the largest arts-centered nonprofits in the world. NAfME’s focus is comprehensive, making it the sole organization of its kind devoted to every aspect of music teaching and learning.
NAfME works to ensure that music students at every level have the resources and access to instruction with highly trained and responsive teachers while promoting rigorous standards for the teaching and learning of music. Like MTNA, NAfME works at multiple regional levels—local, state, and national—and has built a depth of experience and engagement among its members.
Members have access to numerous professional development opportunities, and membership is open to teachers working in any type of organization and in any capacity. Teaching Music magazine is only one of NAfME’s publications aimed at working instructors.
NAfME’s members share a concern for diversity, inclusion, and access in the music profession. The organization’s noteworthy advocacy efforts include its regular visits to lawmakers to educate them on the importance of music funding.
NAfME’s wealth of online resources, such as webinars and other Internet-based development content, is especially useful as the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the teaching and learning of all subjects.
In addition to its value to professional instructors, NAfME offers several resources for students and parents, many of them freely available on the NAfME website.
3. ISME – Promoting music as everyone’s cultural heritage
The International Society for Music Education, or ISME, is the leading global organization devoted to music education. It works to enhance the appreciation of the role of music in creating a vibrant, meaningful cultural life for all the world’s people.
Affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its non-governmental organization, the International Music Council, ISME maintains a presence in more than 80 nations. A significant part of its mission focuses on championing the right of every person to an enriching and accessible music education, promoting wide-ranging scholarship in the field of music, and upholding the values of diversity and respect among all cultures.
ISME traces its beginnings back to a UNESCO conference in 1953, which ended with participant representatives pledging to promote music education over the long term. Today, the organization, headquartered in Australia, continues to emphasize this mission, functioning as a global networking site for music teachers looking for ways to celebrate the diversity of the world’s music and preserve it as a valuable part of humanity’s cultural heritage.
Members can join ISME under any of several categories that meet the needs of individuals, students, current and retired instructors, and groups.
The 2020 World Conference was slated for Helsinki in August, but due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the event has been canceled. Even in the face of this unavoidable outcome, organizers are committed to publishing all previously accepted full papers as part of its conference proceedings and repurposing the content of accepted presentations as virtual educational opportunities.
Folk songs serve as a repository of musical and cultural history in countries around the world and are among the favorite ways for children and adults to learn music appreciation. In addition, it holds a place in music education through approaches like the Kodály Method, a system of music instruction named for its founder, the renowned 20th century Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály. It relies heavily on folk songs as teaching instruments for musical concepts and basic skills. The idea is that teaching children folk songs from their native lands and those of people throughout the world transmits a rich cultural heritage, along with a knowledge of rhythm, lyricism, structure, and form.
Folk songs encompass rural and traditional music that originated in a particular region and that were passed down orally from one generation to another. They have also been collected by musicians and music historians, such as Kodály and his colleague, composer Béla Bartók. They devoted years of their lives to traveling the Hungarian and Romanian countryside to collect thousands of traditional ballads and songs.
Similarly, the collection known as the Child Ballads is an anthology of English and Scottish folk music dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and amassed by Harvard professor and folklorist Francis James Child. It features numerous pieces, and modern musicians have adapted many for contemporary audiences. One example is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.”
Here is a look at a few traditional folk songs that continue to be appreciated to this day:
The haunting English folk song “Greensleeves,” which dates from sometime in the 16th century, first became a registered ballad in 1580. Its simple and expressive lyrics proclaim the singer’s longing for “Lady Greensleeves,” and he laments that she spurns his affections. For the past four centuries, scholars and the general public have been fascinated by and have speculated over the song’s origins.
One theory ascribes the composition of its lyrics, tunes, or both to King Henry VIII, in reference of his mistress and later queen, Anne Boleyn. Most historians and musicologists dispute this idea and instead date the song to the later Elizabethan era. This is in part because “Greensleeves” contains Spanish or Italian musical elements that were unlikely to have reached England until the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Patriotic Irish musicologist and historian William Henry Grattan Flood included the song in his 1905 book on the history of Irish music, in which he claim that it was of Irish origin. However, Flood was known for attributing numerous elements in anything that he fancied to Ireland, often with no supporting evidence.
“Greensleeves” is a unique tune, and its reprise is grounded in a melodic and harmonic formula called romanesca. This composition uses a descending descant musical formula built on sequences of four recurring bass chords that create a fluidly-rolling tune. Romanesca was common for singing poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries.
2. “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”) is among the best-known French folk songs and a staple of French children’s music programs. The repetitious lyrics tell of a dance on the Saint Bénezet bridge in Avignon, during which “handsome gentlemen” and “lovely ladies” dance all around while moving in the opposite direction from one another, then reverse direction. Scholars trace the song to the 15th century.
The bridge itself is named for a young shepherd who purportedly received a call from heaven to build it, and it was created over the River Rhône in the 12th century. In the late 1600s, a flood swept most of it away, although four arches still stand. These remains are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” and its idea of dancing on a bridge has been discredited by historians, who point out that it was more likely that people danced under it on an island in the middle of the river. Scholars state that the song was first titled “Sous le Pont d’Avignon,” meaning “under the bridge of Avignon.”
3. “A Csitári Hegyek Alatt”
“A Csitári Hegyek Alatt” (“Under the Csitári Mountains” in English) is among the most popular Hungarian folk songs and composed in a style that approaches a traditional mode structure. The song’s lyrics relay a sad tale grounded in themes of love and jealousy.
Kodály included “A Csitári Hegyek Alatt” among his special arrangements of key Hungarian traditional pieces, although he added an additional verse. Additionally, the enduring popularity of the song is evident through its frequent covers by contemporary artists who perform it in various styles, such as the British band Oi Va Voi in their album Laughter Through Tears. Andor Kovács and Gyula Kovács made a jazz version of the song’s tune for their 2000 album Guitar-Drums Battle.
Getting young students to put in the needed hours of practice to achieve skill in musicianship can be challenging for parents and teachers in the best of times. During a period of social crisis and upheaval of familiar routines, the task becomes even more daunting. With social distancing, quarantines, and society-wide lockdowns becoming a feature of life during the coronavirus pandemic, kids may be learning virtually, with a family member’s guidance, or even on their own.
Regardless of the situation, experts in music teaching and human psychology have a few tips that can prove helpful in both normal and abnormal circumstances.
1. Provide the comfort of a routine
A sudden lack of routine is confusing for children, particularly when coupled with a natural fear of the unknown. Parents need to provide as much of a sense of structure and normalcy as possible, pediatric psychologists say, as a routine tends to foster a greater sense of stability and security. It also helps in keeping frustration and boredom at bay.
Experts recommend setting up a daily schedule that works for everyone in the household and sticking to it (to the extent that any of us can at present). Although it may be tempting to let kids oversleep when school is out, it’s better in the long run to boost their ability to focus and stay on task with a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Parents should also strive to work in scheduled meals, homework time, playtime, and of course, music practice time.
2. Respect a child’s agency
Other tips from the time before social distancing remain good advice, particularly this one: Give your child a sense of agency and control over his or her music practice.
Let kids help decide on the right number of practice hours at this time, as well as when practice needs to take place. Nagging and punishment—especially when everyone is under stress—is seldom if ever effective in encouraging attentive practice, and it can discourage a child’s engagement with music lessons.
You can help provide perspective by helping kids research how successful musicians of the past and present have kept up their practice schedules. It also helps to offer a special reward when your child sticks to a self-regulated schedule.
3. Foster respect for the gift
Spur inspiration by showing children the musical gift they possess. Help them understand that nurturing that gift is both an obligation and a privilege that relatively few people enjoy.
Great teachers in all fields of music do everything they can to instill in their students the idea that music is a gift that needs to be shared and that they owe it to themselves and others to allow that gift to blossom through diligence and determination.
If you’ve had your own struggles with staying focused and on task, share those with your child, and try to be honest about addressing regrets for less-than-diligent efforts as well as examples of achievement.
4. Build in healthy physical breaks
While you may not be able to maintain a picture-perfect lifestyle right now, remember that there are plenty of things you can do to help kids burn off excess energy and stay physically active.
In most communities under lockdown, healthy outdoor exercise is allowed and encouraged, provided it does not involve contact sports or violate safe social distancing requirements.
Unless someone at home is ill, it should be safe to take walks, runs, and bike rides. Additionally, this physical activity will set kids up to be more focused when it comes time for settling down to indoor music practice. Another option: Bust out some lively music at home and let kids dance all over.
5. Break for screen time—and music
While many families put strict limits on children’s screen time, experts say it won’t hurt—and may provide additional distraction and comfort—to relax those limits in the present crisis. In allowing for more screen time, try to suggest some fun and educational websites that offer opportunities for music appreciation.
YouTube can be a minefield of inappropriate content, but several enriching and deeply moving musical performances are widely available on the platform. These include thoughtfully produced, socially distanced performances by renowned individuals and ensembles. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for example, offers a #SongsOfComfort series in which he plays Antonín Dvořák’s “Going Home” theme and other masterpieces especially suited to our present moment.
Another example of inspiring and socially distanced masterworks includes the Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala performance of “Va, pensiero,” the poignant anthem sung by the Hebrew slaves in Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. The Met’s April 25 broadcast of this and other performances also shows the inspiring level of technical creativity human musicians and conductors can achieve when circumstances call it forward. Each musician’s and singer’s performance was recorded individually and united on one soundtrack and screen, anchored by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in his living room.
The Met’s other At-Home Gala performances include Jules Massenet’s "Méditation" from the opera Thaïs, the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and the aria “Ombra mai fù” from Serse by George Frideric Handel. This last performance is particularly meaningful since it was a tribute to Met violist and youth orchestra conductor Vincent Lionti, who died of complications from the coronavirus on April 4.
6. Go easy on kids—and yourself
Finally, experts in all fields of family psychology advise being gentle and compassionate toward yourself and your child. Every day is a new day, and if your carefully planned routines are only aspirational on certain days, it’s to be expected sometimes.
Adults have lost a lot of social anchors themselves, and the more love and understanding families can show one another in time of crisis, the more it will strengthen relationships—as well as everyone’s ability to achieve as musicians and as human beings—now and long after social distancing has served its needed purpose.
The artistry shown in a violin performance is highly individual and subjective. Most musicians can achieve competence in playing the instrument. However, if you have shown the interpretative sensitivity, technical virtuosity, charm of personality, or striking originality of expression that moves them into a class by themselves.
Here are short biographies of four outstanding performers whose dedication and talent have moved audiences over the centuries.
1. Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini (1782 - 1840) is perhaps the first musician who can be considered a virtuoso of the instrument. He remains venerated by violinists and the general public alike. His charisma garnered him a cult-like following during his lifetime. His impact on the entire later history of how the violin is played, and how violinists perform on stage, cannot be overestimated.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Paganini debuted as a performer the year he turned 11. As a young man, he toured Lombardy while also getting entangled in a number of romantic escapades. At one point he pawned his violin to settle his gambling debts. Biographers record the story that a French merchant then gave him a Guarneri in recognition of his talents.
Paganini was also a gifted composer. His 24 Capricci for Solo Violin remain staples of the classical repertoire. From 1828 onward, he undertook tours of England, Scotland, and the Continent, amassing a personal fortune in the process. It was Paganini who commissioned the great French composer Hector Berlioz to create the symphony Harold in Italy, although the virtuoso considered the work unchallenging and never performed it.
Paganini’s technique called on a wide-ranging scheme of harmonics and his talent for playing pizzicati. He made up his own innovative methods for tuning and fingering, and displayed a genius for improvisation. A whole raft of legends grew up around this Romantic-era figure, including one that says he got his extraordinary musicianship thanks to a deal with the devil.
2. Jascha Haifetz
Jascha Heifetz (1901 - 1974) started his career as a violinist when he was 5 years old. He was soon playing in Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw and performing complex works that included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. At age 16, he enjoyed a spectacular debut at Carnegie Hall.
The young refugee from Lithuania gave a performance that one music historian has called “like electricity.” Heifetz showed not only an almost unbelievable level of technical proficiency in his instrument, but an immense warmth of feeling and interpretation to match.
Heifetz obtained United States citizenship at age 24 and thereafter toured the world. He commissioned a number of violin concertos and himself became a noted transcriber of great works by Bach and Vivaldi into pieces for the violin. Later in life, he taught at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Heifetz was one of the undisputed 20th-century masters of the violin. PBS showcased his legacy in a special broadcast in its American Masters series that called him “God’s Fiddler.”
3. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman, born in 1945, often tops critics’ lists of the greatest living classical violinists. He has an instantly recognizable bold and exuberant technique. He has remarked that the best technique doesn’t reside in the ability to elicit notes rapidly from the instrument, but in the capacity to evoke rich and surprising tone and color.
A renowned teacher and composer as well as a performer, the Israeli-born Perlman has become a pop culture icon. Between the years 1977 and 1995, he racked up 15 Grammy Awards. He is also the recipient of a U. S. Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, and numerous other accolades.
Perlman has also made appearances on the children’s educational television show Sesame Street. In a 1981 segment, he movingly demonstrated the difference between “easy” and “hard,” walking onto the stage using crutches (the result of childhood polio) before taking up his violin to play a lively passage.
Perlman’s focus on teaching and philanthropy is exemplified in the Perlman Music Program he and his wife established in the 1990s. The program provides training and support to teen string musicians of exceptional promise.
4. Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn, born in 1979, is known for her dynamic, sensitive interpretations of works by a varied list of composers from Bach to Stravinsky. She began studying the Suzuki method at age 4, made her orchestral debut at age 11 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performed on her first classical recording at 16, and has gone on to receive numerous international awards, including two Grammys before she turned 30.
In 2015, she received her third Grammy for her album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. In hundreds of live solo performances, she has been accompanied by the world’s premier orchestras.
Hahn has spent her career making classical music accessible to younger audiences. She has performed for films and with alternative rock groups, and has cut a string of successful classical albums, always with a warm and personal approach. Hahn’s popular social media accounts, a signature component of her educational mission, feature running commentary from the point of view of her violin case as it travels with her around the world.
In 2010, American composer Jennifer Higdon received a Pulitzer Prize for the violin concerto she wrote specifically for Hahn. Higdon created a piece combining technical virtuoso flourishes with deep, meditative flow, which she tailored to Hahn’s immense lyrical range and ability to negotiate complex changes in meter.
Every young musician deserves to know more about the fascinating talents who came before them, and today’s publishers offer a rich variety of musical biographies designed to captivate and inspire children.
Read on to learn how the recent spate of musician biographies are standing out.
Getting to know great talent in a whole new way
The Who Was/Who Is series of junior biographies makes learning fun with clear, easy-to-read text and illustrations bursting with pizzazz. This series, published by Penguin Workshop, has quickly achieved cult status among elementary-age readers, as well as teachers, librarians, and parents.
While many of the biographies in the series cover presidents, scientists, and explorers, many others focus on noted singers, composers, and instrumentalists.
For example, young readers can explore the life of Aretha Franklin, a gospel singer born in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, who used her talent to go on to become the one and only Queen of Soul. Franklin exerts a cultural and artistic influence that continues to transcend her death in 2018.
Most of the biographies of musicians in this series cover talent from the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Bob Marley, Dolly Parton, Selena, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles are only a few of the figures in popular music whose biographies join Franklin’s.
But the series additionally explores a bit of the more-distant musical past with a book on the phenomenal jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who rose to fame in the 1920s. It also transports readers to the world of classical music through its biography of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Each of these titles gives a wide-ranging overview of its subject’s life and work, providing all the basic information a student would need for a beginning report.
An added element of fun in this series comes from the eye-popping cover art—each book’s subject is depicted in caricature with an oversized head set against a colorful, action-packed background. So immediately recognizable are these covers that the books are affectionately known as the “Big Head” biographies.
Learning about composers can be fun
The Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers series, published through Scholastic’s Children’s Press imprint, offers light-hearted but informative looks at some of the great Baroque, classical, and contemporary masters.
Written for the grade-school market, this series combines primary source reproductions of historical documents with engaging, color-packed cartoons. The mix of humor with report-ready information and stirring anecdotes about the composers’ lives makes the entire series a winner.
Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington are only some of the composers represented in this series, each with their own 40-page biography.
Turbulent times unite a young pianist and a president
Books on individual musicians can fascinate both children and adults, as evident by the recent spate of creatively designed, richly illustrated biographies. Many focus on the highly talented black, brown, and female composers, singers, and musicians that were previously neglected by history and who are now receiving much-deserved attention as our understanding of their contributions fills in the gaps in humanity’s diverse musical heritage.
In Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln (Atheneum, 2019), renowned author Margarita Engle teams up with award-winning illustrator Rafael López to present the true story—in lilting free verse and fanciful washes of color—of a child prodigy on piano who became a young composer and a popular performer in her native Venezuela. In 1862 revolution forced her parents to escape with 8-year-old Teresa to the United States, where very few people spoke her language. And this new homeland was fighting its own divisive war.
But Teresa’s love of music sustained her. In the US, people called her “Piano Girl,” and she became famous for her ability to interpret any genre of music. When she was only 10 years old, Teresa received President Abraham Lincoln’s invitation to play at the White House.
The book itself, according to Kirkus Reviews, offers a “concerto for the heart,” as Teresa tries to lighten the burdens of the wartime president through her art.
A sweet voice too soon silenced
In Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House, 2012), the acclaimed author-illustrator duo of Renée Watson and Christian Robinson bring the story of one of the world’s greatest singers to life.
Florence Mills was the daughter of former slaves. Born just before the turn of the 20th century, she first graced the stage at age 5 and became a celebrated performer in Harlem nightclubs and on Broadway. Known for her sweet, soft voice, she captivated audiences until her untimely death at 31.
In 1926 Florence won a lead role in Blackbirds, a musical that would take her on an international tour and provide her signature tune (“I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”) and her nickname.
But Florence also experienced the deep racism endemic to the era. During her short life, she fought for the rights and creative freedoms of African-American performers, and generally supported the cause of civil rights. So beloved was she that, after her death from an infection following surgery, tens of thousands of mourners filled the streets of New York City outside the church where her funeral took place.
The book offers a moving and gorgeously illustrated account of how this multi-talented performer pursued her dreams, thrived despite injustice, and touched the lives of millions.
A modern-day personification of New Orleans’ exuberance
“Trombone Shorty” needs no introduction to many contemporary music lovers. A New Orleans-born trombone player, bandleader, singer-songwriter, and New Orleans Jazz Fest headliner, 34-year-old Troy Andrews became a maestro of the horn as a young child. His skills are so renowned that a popular club in his Tremé neighborhood was named Trombone Shorts in his honor when he was just 8.
Andrews picked up his nickname early, when he was still only half the size of his instrument. His nickname serves as the title of his picture book autobiography, illustrated by award-winner Bryan Collier and published in 2015 by Harry N. Abrams.
Andrews’ book welcomes readers with “Where y’at?” in true New Orleans fashion. He details his early life as a budding African-American musician in a family of musicians, as well as how he grew up making and playing his own instruments out of items from junk heaps until he started patiently learning how to play a dilapidated old trombone he found one day.
Andrews’ true story, coupled with Collier’s dynamic pictures that embody the rhythms of New Orleans jazz, will provide plenty of inspiration to children and grown-ups alike.
On June 7, 2020, Radio City Music Hall in New York will host the 74th annual Tony Awards, honoring Broadway’s best. This year will be the 20th time the Tonys have been presented at Radio City.
Radio City is one of the world’s most exciting and glamourous venues for performing arts. Events hosted there include vaudeville, movies, musical concerts, awards shows, and special programs of all kinds. As a result, it has become a beloved icon of American life, and a landmark site for visitors to New York. Here are nine of the most interesting facts you may not know about it:
1. It opened during the Great Depression.
Radio City Music Hall opened on a rainy night in New York City on December 27, 1932. That a new theater and entertainment venue of its size would open in the depths of the Great Depression testifies to the longing of people, even in discouraging or desperate circumstances, to find comfort and encouragement in the power of high-quality music and performance.
The venue was specifically designed to be a kind of people’s entertainment palace, a place that could bring beauty into everyday lives at an affordable admission price.
2. It has hosted over 300 million visitors since its opening.
Opening night saw thousands of people waiting to enter the stunning new Art Deco building. In the almost 90 years since then, some 300 million visitors have enjoyed great performances on its stage. Radio City continues to reign as the world’s largest indoor theater, and one of the most visually magnificent.
3. It was built by John D. Rockefeller.
It was John D. Rockefeller who decided to construct Radio City Music Hall. Rockefeller’s idea was to make it one of the cornerstones of his nascent entertainment complex at Rockefeller Center, located in an area he was in the process of renovating from its former rundown state.
Rockefeller had leased the Midtown Manhattan property from Columbia University, planning to pursue a collaboration to build a new Metropolitan Opera House. But disagreements over planning—and the financial crash of the Great Depression—killed the project.
Rockefeller decided to cut his losses and construct something the world had never before seen. He wanted to give New York City a large-scale entertainment complex, one so spectacular that it would attract commercial tenants and turn a profit even in the most difficult economic climate, when vacant properties were to be found available all over the city.
4. It was part of a partnership between Rockefeller, RCA, and Rothafel.
Rockefeller teamed up with RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. RCA owned both the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and RKO Pictures, whose movies were wildly popular across the nation.
Rockefeller and RCA were joined by S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel, a legend in the theater world. “Roxy” oversaw productions that blended movies, vaudeville, and show-stopping design. His industry savvy had brought numerous financially strapped theaters back to life.
This team of three then built Radio City Music Hall as the first venue within Rockefeller’s new complex. David Sarnoff, who headed RCA, was the one who gave it the name “Radio City.”
5. It was constructed in the Art Deco style.
Architect Edward Durell Stone was responsible for the imposing Art Deco exterior. However, it was the building’s interior that captivated audiences, both then and now. Designer Donald Deskey, who at the time was relatively unknown, provided the interior decor. The unlikely but inspired choice of Deskey resulted in the stunning entertainment palace we know today.
On that opening night in 1932, Deskey’s work thrilled audiences, particularly in contrast to the lackluster show that evening. One critic wrote that the building itself was so magnificent that it did not even require performers. Deskey’s Art Deco esthetic choices focused on bringing clean lines, structural ornamentation, and a European Modernist sense to the design.
Attendees first passed inside the building’s elegant lobby, then filed into the Grand Foyer. They could also enjoy eight distinct lounges with smoking areas. Each of these was created with a specific theme referring to another world culture. The entire building was, in fact, a celebration of humanity’s creativity in multiple fields: the arts, science, and industry.
Art was a focal point of the overall design. Deskey worked with expert technicians and craftspeople to fill the building with distinctive wall decor, draperies, carpets, sculpture, and murals. He also employed 20th-century innovations in technology in the form of industrial materials such as aluminum and Bakelite, which for seamlessly integrated with stone- and woodwork, gold foil, and marble.
Design enthusiasts continue to thrill to Radio City’s interior tactile richness, the variations in tone and color, and the vast interior spaces filled with sweeping, intricately lit arches that evoke the feeling of a sunset overhead.
6. It was constructed with the audience in mind.
Radio City’s grandeur covers a lot of space. Its auditorium stretches 160 feet from the stage to the rear. Its ceiling soars more than 80 feet high, and its marquee spans an entire city block.
There’s not a bad seat in the house, thanks to Deskey and his design team. A series of shallowly-constructed mezzanines are arranged in such a way that they don’t obstruct the orchestra section below them. Additionally, no columns block the ability to see the stage.
The famous “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ was custom-built for Radio City’s theater. It has so many pipes—ranging in size from only a few inches to some 32 feet long—that it takes 11 rooms to contain its many sections.
7. Its stage is state-of-the-art.
For performers and audiences alike, one of the central marvels of Radio City is its ingenious and technologically-advanced set of three hydraulically-powered stage risers. Radio City’s stage has won praise from theater experts and is still considered one of the most advanced and best-fitted-out stage spaces in the world.
An additional elevator-riser allows technicians to shift the whole orchestra section up or down. A turntable provides the flexibility of making quick scene changes while supporting numerous possibilities for special effects like fog, rain, clouds, and spraying fountains.
8. It has premiered hundreds of movies over the years.
Within two weeks of its opening night, Radio City hosted its first feature film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, directed by Frank Capra and starring Barbara Stanwyck. It wasn’t long until a premiere at Radio City was the best way to ensure a movie’s success across the nation.
Over the succeeding decades, some 700 movies have debuted at Radio City. These include King Kong in 1933, National Velvet (starring Elizabeth Taylor) in 1944, White Christmas in 1954, Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, and Disney’s original Lion King in 1994. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird also premiered at Radio City, the same theater where the film’s star, Gregory Peck, had ushered as a young aspiring actor.
9. It is has been home to the Rockettes since its opening.
Then there are the Rockettes. Previously known, among other names, as the Missouri Rockets, the all-female precision-dancing, super-high-kicking troupe got its start in the 1920s. The group landed in New York after a nationwide tour just as Radio City was preparing to open.
Discovered by none other than “Roxy” Rothafel, the Rockettes opened the first evening’s performance at Radio City Music Hall, and have been its most iconic performers ever since. In the late 1970s, when financial problems almost forced its closing, Radio City was buoyed back up on a wave of nationwide support led, in part, by the Rockettes.
Although in the segregated 1930s, the Rockettes’ line-up was all-white, today’s Rockettes are moving toward embracing the full range of American diversity and talent. Most recently, the 2019 Christmas Spectacular show saw several new dancers of color joining the team, as well as a “differently-abled” dancer.
Music is not only a creative art—it serves as a source of inspiration for human imagination, creativity, and insight into a wide range of other fields.
With problem-solving skills and the creative insights that come along with “divergent” thinking increasingly recognized as key to higher-level professional accomplishment, productivity, and personal fulfillment, teachers, parents, and employers are looking to music to help young people develop these habits of mind.
Here are only a few notes on what science, art, and psychological research have to say about music’s ability to inspire creativity:
Ratiocination through music
Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Victorian-era England, famously found relaxation and renewed focus (i.e., ratiocination) to tackle his most difficult problems through playing the violin or listening to music. Doyle also often depicted Holmes as rushing off to enjoy an opera after finishing a particularly challenging case.
Seeing farther through musical images
Did you know that Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist and pianist? He credited his love of music as a major inspiration for his scientific insights, and he is known to have commented that had he not chosen a career in physics, he would have become a musician.
In fact, Einstein attributed his ability to discover previously unknown mechanisms behind the workings of the universe to the inspiration and intuition that he gained from music. He once told the Czech psychologist Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, that he thought in images and emotions and often built out his scientific and mathematical ideas within a type of mental musical architecture. (Wertheimer himself was an accomplished violinist and composer.)
A paint box filled with music
The early 20th-century Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky is only one of the many artists who tried in his compositions to present a visual counterpart to a piece of music. Kandinsky had synesthesia, a neurological condition in which a person processes information and experience through multiple senses simultaneously (for example, “seeing” sound and “hearing” color).
Kandinsky drew inspiration for a number of his works from musical pieces such as Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. After hearing the opera, Kandinsky created Composition 8, a painting that makes use of shape and color in an attempt to create a feeling in the viewer similar to that evoked when listening to music.
Some experts have pointed to music’s capacity to induce a state of “mind wandering” as one of the reasons for its creativity-boosting powers. When we listen to music, we are no longer mentally confined to our immediate environment. Our minds are more likely to play and to agglomerate ideas, memories, and images that were previously stored in separate conceptual boxes. We are also more apt to fall into a state of reverie, in which our imaginations take flight without being exposed to the judgments of others.
Research supports music as a creative spark
A study published in 2017 found music to be a powerful inspiration for creativity. Earlier research had already proven music’s strong role in enhancing intellectual performance, memory, and our all-around ability to learn new information.
In this particular study, test subjects went through exercises that attempted to gauge their degree of convergent or divergent thinking as they sat in either a completely silent environment or in one where they could hear classical music that encouraged one of four different emotional states.
The psychologists conducting the research project defined “divergent thinking” as the ability to generate more distinct ideas, as well as greater numbers of unusual and creative ideas, in pursuit of a solution to a problem.
The researchers looked at comparisons of their subjects’ performance on both types of thinking across the five possible sound environments. They discovered that test subjects who did the exercise while listening to upbeat, joyful music performed measurably better in their capacity for divergent thinking than those who had been tested in a silent room.
The three other types of music—sorrowful, anxious, and calming—did not produce a noticeable increase in divergent thinking as opposed to the silent room.
The conclusion: When people listen to happy, uplifting music, their performance on tasks requiring divergent thinking and creativity trends significantly upward. The researchers stated that this type of music likely makes cognitive function nimbler and more pliable, resulting in the ability to “see” multiple innovative possibilities. The test subjects who listened to “happy” music seemed to gain in the type of mental flexibility that allowed them to move quickly and easily from one viewpoint or idea to another. They were also less apt to become bogged down in less-useful perspectives.
One interesting side-note: Whether or not the test subjects enjoyed the particular “happy” music they heard did not seem to have any influence on their ultimate ability to display divergent thinking in their task performance. This finding suggests that the cognitive benefits they attained had nothing to do with their own emotions at the time. (Incidentally, none of the four types of music seemed to enhance participants’ convergent thinking, the ability to simply find the “correct” answer to a problem.)
The researchers in this case also speculated that the sheer act of listening to happy-sounding music created an optimistic, playful frame of mind in their test subjects, one that allowed them to experience positive feelings about exploring, learning, and problem solving. This idea is in line with other research that suggests strong linkages between a positive attitude and creativity.
Music uplifts everyone’s creativity
A steady stream of psychologists, scientists, and artists have published essays and books describing the many ways in which some of the most accomplished creative minds throughout history have drawn inspiration from music. Some experts on the subject even believe that regular immersion into listening to or performing music might be able to help almost anyone achieve Einstein levels of intellectual and creative power.