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Link Up The Orchestra Sings in Alaska

Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program pairs orchestras across the country with students in grades 3–5 at schools in their local communities to explore orchestral repertoire through a hands-on music curriculum. We recently interviewed two teachers, Lenore Swanson and Debbie Piper, from McNeil Canyon Elementary School in Homer, Alaska, where they are teaching the Link Up curriculum to their students in preparation for a recent concert with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. Debbie Piper is a general and visual arts teacher and Lenore Swanson is the school’s music teacher. Here is what they had to say:

1. How did you first learn about Link Up?

Debbie Piper: I first learned about Link Up when I was a teacher leader in 2005 at the Alaska Art Educators Consortium's Summer Institute in Juneau, Alaska. Rachel Sokolow and Sarah Whitney came from the Weill Music Institute to teach in the music strand of the institute. Although I was the visual arts leader, I was highly interested in their teaching and participated when I could. I came away from their sessions asking myself, “How can I make this program work in our small community that does not have a professional orchestra to partner with?” 

In 2006, we implemented a Link Up concert, Theme and Variation, in our school gym, bringing together any local musicians that were willing to join our students. It was a huge success. In planning for another Link Up concert, I wondered how we could make our next concert even better. So, we have partnered with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. I obtained an Artist in the Schools grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts to have the conductor of the orchestra come work with staff and students in preparation for the concert. We will perform on a real stage, alongside the orchestra at our local high school. 

2. As a music teacher, what are your favorite aspects of the Link Up program?

Lenore Swanson: My favorite piece of the Link Up program is having the students learn the actual notes and note names as well as learning to count rhythms. I believe this is the foundation of all music education.

Debbie Piper: Not being a music teacher, I find the materials easy to use with my students. The recordings are helpful for daily practice and the text guides me as I work with the children. The online materials are a great resource. This extraordinary music experience provides a doorway to meaningful cross-curricular integration. I have integrated math, visual arts, language arts, science, and social studies with our Link Up curriculum, using the question “How do we express ideas?”

LEFT: Tammy Vollum-Matturro, Music Director of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, visits Debbie Piper’s classroom. RIGHT: Students paint visual rhythms; children reflect on the songs they have learned to realize how composers express ideas through music..

3. What has been the highlight of preparing your students for the upcoming concert with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra?

Lenore Swanson: Hearing what second-grade students wrote when prompted by their teacher to write about how a piece of music makes them feel was magical. They understood what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote “Ode to Joy.” They understood what “Simple Gifts” was really about. It was precious. They truly have joy in learning the music.

Debbie Piper: It has been a meaningful learning experience for me as a teacher to learn to play the recorder with my students. The opportunity to learn something out of my personal comfort zone is a brilliant reminder of what students in my classroom are feeling as I challenge them in areas difficult for them. It has been a first-hand reminder that lots of practice is necessary to become proficient. Good teaching involves breaking learning into small pieces, and a positive attitude is essential to learning. My students love what they are learning and are highly motivated to shine in the concert. The music is joyful; frequently in my class, one student will start humming one of the songs and soon others join in, until everyone is singing together. Such a delight.

LEFT: Third-graders from Homer, Alaska practice in their classroom. RIGHT: Debbie Piper’s Kindergarten class created masks for their participation in Aaron Copland’s “I Bought Me a Cat” at the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s upcoming Link Up Concert.

4. Has there been much buzz in the community about the upcoming concert?

Debbie Piper: Parents and students are very excited and were anticipating our concert. Folks in the community are impressed to learn that this will be such a unique concert. It's a surprise for them to learn that students will be playing along with the orchestra. 


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