NBSO’s Learning In Concert Connects Classical Music to the Arts and Sciences

By Terry Wolkowicz

The New Bedford Symphony Orchestra’s Learning in Concert program is designed as a unified, comprehensive, multi-phase curriculum project partnering the NBSO with over 40 elementary schools all across Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Learning in Concert uses a concept-based arts integration model where a musical concept is explored alongside other arts and academic areas that authentically share the same concept.  This model promotes learning through active connection-making as it allows the children to develop deeper and more flexible understandings than would have been possible by learning in one subject alone. Learning in Concert uses traditional forms of educational outreach programs that are commonly in use, such as in-school small ensemble assembly programs and Young People’s Concerts. However, with a unified curriculum that runs through both programs and the addition of individual classroom visits partnering with classroom and fine arts teachers, Learning in Concert provides high impact experiences that span an entire school year and yield measurable results in music and other academic areas.

Each year, Learning in Concert begins with a selection of a concept. This concept is an important aspect to understanding and learning about classical music. We then search for other subject areas across the curriculum that authentically share this same concept. For example, a couple of years ago Learning in Concert explored the concept of symmetry in classical music, geometry and the artwork of M.C. Escher. This year’s Learning in Concert concepts of motion and adaptations led us to connect classical music to biology and scientific illustration.

Adaptation in the field of biology is described as a change in the structure of an organism where it becomes better suited for survival in its environment. As environments change, so do organisms. This gradual, dynamic process can be traced back through time, as this year’s Learning in Concert program followed the transformation from ancient fish to modern day tetrapod, from life in the sea to life on land. Over the course of this three-phase program, we investigated the specific adaptation of locomotion by investigating the anatomy of various organisms to uncover the ways in which they moved, swam, crawled, jumped and walked. We began with early aquatic creatures and moved to transitional species like Tiktaalik, the revolutionary new scientific discovery marking the fish that first emerged from water to begin life moving on land.

We began the school year with a trio of NBSO musicians and I traveling to 40 local elementary schools to provide an in-school concert performance. In this first phase of the Learning in Concert program, the children heard how classical music demonstrates the same principles of locomotion as shown in various species. Musical compositions were paired with specific types of locomotion, from swimming to climbing, to running and flying. The children heard the undulating rhythmic and melodic motion of fish swimming in the sea; the oscillating, crawling motion of music that moves like a lizard on the land; and even the hopping, jumping motion of music that moves like a kangaroo. We used TRAM (tempo, range and motion) throughout this year’s Learning in Concert program as a cross-disciplinary tool to guide the children’s analysis of how music moves and how animals move.

NBSO musicians, Laura Shamu, Peter Zay and Travis Rapoza share a photo with a student following an in-school performance.

NBSO musicians, Laura Shamu, Peter Zay and Travis Rapoza share a photo with a student following an in-school performance.

Throughout the performance, children had the opportunity to compose original melodies that imitated specific types of animal locomotion using our giant, magnetic, graphing TRAMboard. The TRAMboard allowed children with little to no knowledge of musical notation the ability to compose melodies where they could demonstrate intentional control and manipulation of melodic and rhythmic motion with ease and to great success. The graphing system facilitated an immediate, almost intuitive understanding of pitch, range and motion by steps, skips and jumps while the varying lengths of the magnetic notes relayed information about rhythm and note durations.

A student composes a tree climbing melody during an in-school performance.

A student composes a tree climbing melody during an in-school performance.

Every student received a free pass to our local Buttonwood Park zoo with a special TRAM map to guide them through the exhibits. The zoo had designated TRAM stops where students could observe different types of animal locomotion. While at each TRAM stop, a parent could scan a QR code on their phone which launched a video performance of our NBSO musicians playing a piece that matched the specific motion of each species (crawling, flying, running, climbing etc.). For example, while the children watched swimming they could hear classical music that moved in a swimming motion, or while they watched flight they could hear music that moved in a flying motion.

A student composed a flapping and gliding melody that imitated flight.

A student composed a flapping and gliding melody that imitated flight.

Learning in Concert’s connection of scientific concepts to the arts did not end with classical music but continued to the visual arts as well. Many students created scientific illustrations focusing on the physical structures and adaptations that aided each species’ ability to escape predators or reach food sources. Several schools were thrilled to get a special visit from Kalliopi Monoyios, a Denver-based scientific illustrator whose visual representation of Tiktaalik was the result of a collaboration with the paleontologists who made this exciting discovery in the Arctic. Kalliopi’s visit inspired our students to think about how the visual arts can communicate scientific information and concepts in ways that makes us think, feel and question.

  The free pass to the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford where children could see and hear animal locomotion at designated TRAM stops.


The free pass to the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford where children could see and hear animal locomotion at designated TRAM stops.

In the classroom visits from the NBSO, our students created their own musical adaptations as they selected one musical idea and developed original musical adaptations. By altering the musical idea’s melodic and rhythmic motion, the students took one musical theme that imitated fish gliding and swimming in water and then composed another version which transformed to imitate the motion of various tetrapods that developed the ability to crawl, walk, jump or run on land. The NBSO has collected all of our students’ musical adaptations, from all participating schools, and scored them for a new piece for orchestra to be debuted at the Young People’s Concerts in early March.

he New Bedford Symphony Orchestra will perform the World Premiere of Adaptations in Motion, where our student composers, using various compositional techniques, skillfully created musical adaptations that replicated through music the gradual progression of ancient species who moved from swimming and gliding in water to moving, walking or running on land. Throughout the premiere performance, student-created scientific illustrations of the different species explored throughout the curriculum will be featured on a large screen suspended above the orchestra alongside illustrations from Kalliopi Monoyios and other notable scientific illustrators. Video excerpts of our students analyzing original locomotion melodies and reflecting on the Learning in Concert program will also be featured throughout the concert.

A second grade student creates a scientific illustration of a snake’s skeletal system.

A second grade student creates a scientific illustration of a snake’s skeletal system.

The Learning in Concert program provides a unique opportunity for schools to partner with an arts organization that moves beyond the single field trip experience or single school assembly by connecting a curriculum across the school year. This allows our students to dig deeper, to make connections and communicate concepts across the arts and sciences while supporting the day to day learning goals and objectives of classroom teachers. The education climate is changing and schools are moving beyond the disconnect of countless, isolated facts and toward building more coherent, comprehensive and connected understandings. The Learning in Concert program reflects this model for connectivity and depth of understanding. Moreover, it has created new opportunities for our organization to collaborate closely with schools in a way that seamlessly connects classical music to the everyday education of children while at the same time redefining the role of the orchestra as a close, familiar and essential partner with our schools, principals, classroom and fine arts teachers, and students.

Terry Wolkowicz has served as the volunteer Education Director for the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra for the past six years and was the creator and curriculum writer for the Learning in Concert program. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the New England Conservatory of Music and a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. She has presented at several national education conferences and conducts frequent music educator professional development workshops and seminars.  Terry was selected as a 2014 Myra Kraft Community MVP Award winner by the New England Patriots Foundation and was named the 2013 New Bedford Woman of the Year.

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