Expanding Into College-Level Music Courses for High School Students

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Expanding Into College-Level Music Courses for High School Students

Givonna Joseph, Make Music NOLA Instructor, Founder and Director of Opera Creole; Tucker Fuller, Make Music NOLA Instructor and Program Manager; and Laura Patterson, Make Music NOLA Executive Director


Tucker Fuller, one of the co-creators of the new course, teaching violin at the Harmony Oaks Community Center.

In search of additional opportunities for high school students in New Orleans, Make Music NOLA (MMN) is partnering with Bard Early College New Orleans (BECNO) to offer a three-credit music theory and history course. Our original goal was to offer our high school students alternatives beyond marching band or the arts magnet high school. For many MMN students who have spent seven or eight years in the program, there are very few high school alternatives, even in our open enrollment school system, that meaningfully supplement the instruction they are receiving and have received. Make Music NOLA was looking for alternative ways not only to support our students in gaining access to high-quality high school experiences and education, but also to leverage all the time they put into studying music throughout their elementary and middle-school years.

The Make Music NOLA staff and teachers designed this course specifically for BECNO, with the intention of building a long-term partnership. This fall, the pilot semester, MMN is offering our first course at BECNO (virtually) as an elective for three units of college credit. Any student, regardless of previous music experience, is eligible to register for the course. The curriculum for the class is built on MMN’s current programs as well as research, compiled for years by Givonna Joseph, on the history of free composers of color.

In an effort to stay true to our programs and our city, the class will focus on music by marginalized composers and the music of New Orleans. The class will follow a historical timeline that ties together classical music, jazz, R&B, the 1950’s and ’60’s recording industry, and today’s artists. Similarities between popular and classical music will also be explored. Each week we will study the historical and musical legacy that is New Orleans—beginning with 19th-century New Orleans free composers of color who worked in classical and operatic genres. The lives of these great composers have not been a part of any standard music education canon, so it is our hope that studying musicians like Edmond Dédé, Basile Bares, Charles Lucien Lambert, Samuel Snaer, and Sister Seraphine may inspire young students to push through doubts and make their own mark of excellence on the future of music.

Teaching music theory is tricky. College-level music theory courses tend to focus exclusively on either Western European classical conventions or on jazz. Rarely are these two models taught side by side, as they use different vocabularies to describe musical phenomena. Both models have their advantages, but both are limited. Make Music NOLA has been working for years to develop a curriculum that teaches both side by side. We’ve found that using scale degrees and starting with learning very basic tunes by ear is a great way to start. (New Orleans’ tunes are often seemingly simple, though they can be harmonized many ways.) Scale degrees help us understand pitch tendencies, and we’ll study how they work in classical, jazz, and pop musics.

Givonna Joseph, another course co-creator, teaching general music dressed as Marie Laveau.

Because music is of an ephemeral nature, talking about it can be downright difficult. Throughout the semester, we will build a theoretical vocabulary to do just that: communicate with one another about our experiences as listeners. We will study both written and recorded music and explore concepts of rhythm, pitch, harmony, notation, and recording. We will investigate questions such as: What does it mean to “write” music? What is a scale? How do you set text to music?

Finally, students will pick a historical subject upon which to build a final composition. This composition can go in any direction each student wishes. They may choose to focus on traditional notation, or they may go non-traditional, e.g. graphic notation. Each piece will be presented, recorded, and then discussed at the end of the semester.

Like all pilot programs, we’re not sure what the outcome of this course will be. We know we’ll have to adapt and make changes as we go. But we know we’re excited for the journey.


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