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Hampsong's Song of America Educators Workshop

On Saturday, December 5th, the Hampsong Foundation, headed by world-renowned baritone Thomas Hampson, will come to the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor to launch an exciting initiative in Art Song: the Song of America Educators Workshop and Curriculum Initiative pilot. It is a way to bring his Song of America program into K-12 classrooms, and use song to teach the humanities, especially history and literature. He will be culling content from his many Song of America projects to build curricular materials that can be used by all ages.

The Educators Workshop’s audience will be made up of K-12 arts and humanities educators, as well as education students at the University of Michigan. During the day-long event in Ann Arbor, part of the morning’s curricular development sessions will be live-streamed. Then, in the afternoon they will present a video conference, Song in Dialogue: A Learning Performance, between Ann Arbor and New York City, in collaboration with Manhattan School of Music’s Distance Learning Department.

We had a conversation with Christie Finn, Managing Director of the Hampsong Foundation, so that we could get into the details of this impressive and far-reaching initiative, and she gave us some great insight into both this pilot program in Ann Arbor and their next steps. Here is what followed:

Sparks: You are extremely active in the world of contemporary music, in performance and administration: Can you talk a little bit about your personal career path?

Christie: I’ve always been torn between music and many other interests, including history, literature, and linguistics. Luckily, as a singer, you have the opportunity to study all of these subjects and weave them together into a career! I earned my B.A. in Music and Modern Language and Linguistics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). After a professor encouraged me to perform Berio’s sequenza iii (among other contemporary works), I realized that I was deeply interested in exploring my voice and expression with this music, and that I loved working with composers.

After earning my M.M. at Southern Methodist University, I came to a crossroads: move to New York and continue with my singing career, or switch paths and accept an offer for a Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature. I chose to continue singing, and after a few years in New York, I’ve had the great luck to continue my career mostly in Europe, starting in the Netherlands, with VocaalLAB (now called Silbersee), and for the past few years largely in Germany.

Why did you decide to jump on board with the Hampsong Foundation, and how is it in line with your own artistic objectives?

When I moved to New York in 2009 to study at Manhattan School of Music in the Contemporary Performance Program, I was—like anyone moving to New York—desperate to find a job. I applied mostly for teaching and chorus jobs, but also for a few off-the-beaten-path positions, including an internship to manage the content of Song of America. I was lucky enough to land the internship, and as the Hampsong Foundation has grown over the past six years, so has my part in running it!

I love Thomas’s thesis on song: that each song is a page in the diary of cultural history, and that by listening to that song, we can actually …experience… that moment. He put into words what I’ve known my whole life, and what I believe most of us who love song already know. Music, and especially vocal music, is more than just music. It is a complex union of sound, text, emotion, historical events, and both individual and collective voices. There is so much at work in every note.

What are the roots of the Song of America Educators Workshop? And what are the goals of this initiative?

The Song of America Educators Workshop is the realization of a longtime dream. Thomas has always made American song a priority in his professional life, wanting to sing the songs of his native land, in his native language. This pursuit has lead him to many projects exploring American cultural history through song, starting with a public television special, I Hear America Singing, in 1996, and then expanding to include a special event at the Salzburg Festival, collaborations with the Library of Congress, Song of America albums, the Song of America database, and the Song of America radio series.

Above all, Thomas wants to bring Song of America into K-12 classrooms and use song to teach the humanities, especially history and literature. And that is the root of the Song of America Educators Workshop and Curriculum Initiative: to cull content from his many Song of America projects and build actual curricular materials, with living, breathing educators, that can be used in the classroom at all levels.

How did the Song of America radio series contribute to the birth of this initiative?

The Song of America radio series is the backbone of the Curriculum Initiative and is an entertaining introduction to the concept of telling the history of culture through song. In putting together that series, we chose exceptional American “classic songs” that are both inviting to the listener as well as historically and culturally rich. (Thomas uses the term “classic song,” defined as “poetry set to music” because he finds the term “art song” too restrictive and off-putting to many people.) The series covers a variety of topics, from programs on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, to general programs on the American experience, to composer-specific programs on Stephen Foster, Arthur Farwell, and Charles Ives. Our first Educators Workshop will focus on Whitman and Hughes, both of whom are integral to history and language arts teachers at various levels of education.

How did you choose the University of Michigan as the place to launch the workshop? How do digital education technologies factor into the workshop?

The University of Michigan has a special focus on, and deep history of engagement with, American music. The American Music Institute is based there, co-directed by Mark Clague and Charles Garrett. We also have a fantastic partner in the University Musical Society; their nationally renowned work in music education and artistic leadership (they just won the National Medal of Arts!) is top-notch.

Digital education is an important topic for the Hampsong Foundation. We are committed to creating open source, online educational materials that can be used for free by a wide variety of people—from performers to educators to students—and to exploring forms of new media and technology to tell the history of culture through song. Our websites and radio series are just the beginning. Our goal is to use materials created in and because of the Song of America workshops to eventually build an online “cyber-institute,” with curriculum, videos, audio, and a variety of tools for teachers and students.

In Ann Arbor, we will be live-streaming part of the morning curricular development sessions. Then, in the afternoon, from 1:30-3pm, we close the event with a special segment called Song in Dialogue: A Learning Performance. It’s a video conference between Ann Arbor and New York City, in collaboration with Manhattan School of Music’s Distance Learning Department. Three singer/pianist teams (two in Michigan and one in New York) will each perform a song setting of either Langston Hughes or Walt Whitman, and then discuss that song with Mr. Hampson. Educators will get not only a live performance experience, but can also hear an insider’s take on what it’s like to sing that song, to be the voice of that composer or poet, how the historical context of the song influences performance, and so forth. Educators can also ask questions and engage in a conversation with the artists in person and via Twitter.

Who is invited to take part in the event, both in person and remotely?

Everyone! Well, more specifically, K-12 arts and humanities educators (not only music educators, but language arts, English, history, civics, etc.), as well as education students at the University of Michigan, are encouraged to register to attend the physical workshop in Ann Arbor. We also hope that educators around the world will watch the live-stream.

For the afternoon segment, Song in Dialogue, we hope to draw a large crowd in New York and online! It’s something relevant not only to educators, but to performers in general, as well as higher education educators, arts administrators, and anyone with an interest in the power of music to tell our stories.

This is a pilot program: After the event on Dec. 5th, what is next and how will you take this and expand upon it in the future?

The following Saturday, Dec. 12, we are co-hosting a special event called “Song of America in the Classroom: A Media Event” with WFMT in Chicago. It will include a keynote by Thomas Hampson; a roundtable discussion about approaches to integrating music into arts and humanities education; and American song performances by artists of the Ryan Opera Center. All of it will be live-streamed as well, so mark your calendar, and check the Hampsong Foundation website in the coming weeks for more information.

Our second Song of America Educators Workshop is planned for April 23, 2016, in collaboration with Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. The format will be similar to that in Ann Arbor. We hope to make annual events out of these workshops, as well as create an online library of free curricular materials and teaching tools to share with teachers.

We know that the study and practice of music can help a student in ways that go well beyond musical education and enjoyment, but why specifically should classic song be included in a K-12 curriculum?

We all know that arts education is suffering in America’s schools, so directly incorporating songs into existing subjects taught in non-arts classrooms, such as American history, English, and literature, offers educators an easy way to expose their students to the arts, and engage them with it, while sticking with their core subject.

Humanities education on the whole is not doing so well in America’s schools either, forced to take a backseat to testing and more “profitable” skills. In her book Not for Profit, Martha Nussbaum describes the humanities as necessary for developing students into “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.” Classic song is a brilliant tool to engage with the humanities on a deeper level, providing immediate, engaging access to literature, history, language, and, of course, music. The individual voices of the poet, the composer, and the performer are clearly heard, while all working together to tell one story with many levels.

What are the layers of scholarship and artistry that students and teachers can explore through this music?

You can start with the poetry itself: the form of the poem, its use of language and literary devices, its place in the history of literature. This is a useful way for an English or Language Arts educator to first approach the song. For a history teacher, a good entry point may be the history of the poem, poet, or composer: events that influenced the writer or make an appearance in the text, how this poet is both an individual voice as well as a collective voice for other people living at that time, or the relationship of the composer to historical events. In the end, all of these elements come together in the song itself, which is a complex and powerful expression of the fusion of these layers.

To give an example, one song we will cover in this first workshop is Margaret Bonds’ setting of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” This poem offers layers of literary and historical detail, and Bonds was also a significant figure in American music, having been the first black soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an extremely influential 20th century composer. The song has immediately recognizable allusions to jazz and folk traditions and uses word-painting in an easily observable way; these are all helpful components in engaging non-music teachers with the music itself. 


For more information on how to take part in the Pilot in Ann Arbor and beyond please follow the link here to the UMS website page at the University of Michigan.



Christie Finn is an opera singer, poet, artist and Managing Director of the Hampsong Foundation.  More information on her and her work can be found here


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