This year, 49 partner schools are participating in the VocalEssence WITNESS School Program, which began with the annual Teacher Orientation Seminar in September and continues through workshops and residencies with our Teaching Artists. The theme, “Let Freedom Ring,” focused on the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his lifelong promotion of racial equality through nonviolent resistance and the music that inspired him.
Gary Hines, director of VocalEssence WITNESS guest ensemble Sounds of Blackness, led an engaging presentation about the group and their array of musical styles that celebrate the African American experience at the Teacher Orientation. He was joined by VocalEssence WITNESS Teaching Artist Ginger Commodore, a founding member of the ensemble, and the two gave musical examples of the ways music can bring about unity and peace. VocalEssence WITNESS curriculum writer Joanna Cortright shared highlights of her research on King and Sounds of Blackness, and partner school teachers sampled lesson plans and activities from the VocalEssence WITNESS Teacher Resource Guide that they incorporated into their school curriculum.
The Teaching Artist workshops and residencies have a tremendous impact on student learning, and bring to life many of the concepts studied through lessons and activities from the Teacher Resource Guide. “This is the best experience students receive that connects to the arts in the classroom and African American history that our school uses, bar none,” wrote a teacher from Rockford Elementary Arts Magnet School. “It is obvious this is well planned out and the experiences that students get through this are invaluable. Their learning exceeds beyond a normal classroom, especially with the teacher resource guide and the artist residency.”
As Teaching Artists completed workshops and residencies, Gary worked with the South High School Varsity Choir to prepare for the VocalEssence WITNESS: Let Freedom Ring concert.
In this 25th year of VocalEssence WITNESS, more than 5,000 students attended three sold-out Young People’s Concerts at Orchestra Hall on Monday, February 9. An abbreviated version of the public concert and geared toward students in grades 4 through 12, these concerts featured performances by the VocalEssence Chorus, Sounds of Blackness and the South High School Varsity Choir; two juniors from Columbia Heights High School also presented essays they wrote about what King’s legacy means to them.
In their post-concert survey responses, teachers shared how the VocalEssence WITNESS School Program benefits their students:
“… we see enormous cultural benefits. Our students are very diverse, and being able to see diverse performers as well as high school-age performers was a very positive thing for them.”
—Stephanie Windfeldt, Southside Family Charter School
“Our school is not very diverse. It is a wonderful tool to teach the students about diversity and to help them understand the contributions in the arts from people of color.”
—Sally Hopkinson, Nativity of Our Lord School
“One of my students said that they wanted to meet the group and someday to perform with them! They found ‘Sounds of Blackness’ very inspiring!”
—Doran Schoeppach, Valley View Elementary School in Columbia Heights