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Musical Explorers: Bringing the World’s Music into the Classroom

By Joshunda Sanders

At Academy of the City Charter School in Queens, Alan Núñez leads a class of more than a dozen energetic second graders in a lesson on musical ornamentation beneath an impressive array of black-and-white photographs of great musicians, from Marin Alsop to Celia Cruz, Duke Ellington to Yo-Yo Ma. Of special significance to Núñez is his hero, Dame Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish percussionist who is both one of the best artists in the world and also has been profoundly deaf since she was 12 years old.

He loves her not just because of her talent, but also because of how she shares it with the world. “She plays in stocking feet because she feels the vibrations through the floor,” he says with reverence. “I love the thought that sound is in our bodies—that it’s not just something that we hear, but something we can feel.”

Using Musical Explorers, Núñez teaches his students that there is more to music than listening, that it’s a window into other cultures and experiences.

Musical Explorers is a robust music curriculum for kindergartners through second graders in New York City, and available nationally as a free online curriculum with extensions for teachers to reach third through fifth graders. Created by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, Musical Explorers teaches fundamentals of music with the help of an interactive world map, lesson plans, audio, video, and concert webcasts that feature musicians who represent a variety of countries and musical genres—Greece, Mali, and India among them. More than 5,000 students and 75 New York City teachers learn about each featured musician throughout the semester in their classrooms before culminating concerts that usually take place at Carnegie Hall.

Núñez and his students have explored Greek music with Magda Giannikou, including her love song to the sea, “Thalassaki Mou,” during which the students are encouraged to move their arms in a wave-like movement as they sing along in Greek. They have also learned about Malian jeli Yacouba Sissoko, a storytelling artist who carries on the oral tradition of his country, and Falu Shah, who is trained in Indian classical music. The excitement is palpable in the classroom as Núñez plays a video that features Falu’s song “Rabba” and guides his students through singing and repeating after her.

Part of what is so refreshing about Musical Explorers, he adds, is that it is “the most tremendous resource I have—and maybe ever will have—to bring in music from around the world. For us to engage in learning Greek or Bambara or songs from India is really to be a New Yorker. That’s what I want these kids to celebrate.”

Across the city at PS 161 Pedro Albizu Campos in Manhattan, Delia Alexander—who was herself raised in a family of Guyanese and Guyanese American musicians—is teaching a different group of second graders, mostly Caribbean American, from behind an electronic keyboard with projections of Falu’s and Magda’s videos and song lyrics behind her.

The students excitedly make connections between the musical fundamentals that apply across artists and genres. “It’s so important to plant seeds for musicianship with an understanding that they may not come to full fruition until much later,” says Alexander. “They might not pick up on it right now, but by the time they’re 20 and they hear the phrase ‘call and response,’ the connections are there.”

With a background as a cellist and ethnomusicologist, Alexander’s experience researching an array of musical cultures combined with her lived experience as a musician adds a number of important layers to her teaching.

“I know how important it is to be exposed to music from a wide range of places in one’s formative years. I love that Musical Explorers covers the world. The majority of students here are from the Dominican Republic, but we have students who are Yemeni and from other parts of the world,” she adds. This is part of why she’s passionate about sharing music outside of the Western canon with her students.

But in addition to the added exposure to different styles of music, Alexander is most impressed by how the Musical Explorers program provides a frame of reference for her students about Carnegie Hall. “The Hall’s history is closely associated with Western art, but at the same time, Carnegie Hall has never not had non-Western art on its stages,” she says. “I love that kids get their first exposure to Carnegie Hall as a place that is for them.”

Photography: classroom by Jennifer Taylor; Shah, Sissoko, and Giannikou by Chris Lee.

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