When done with care and purpose, music education programs have the ability to enhance students’ lives both in and outside of the classroom. The list of positive cognitive, social, and education benefits music are limitless: higher graduation and attendance rates, increased reading and listening skills, a greater ability to make connections with others, and added support for anxiety and stress management all enter the equation.
But in addition to all those benefits, dedicated music teachers and the members of student choirs they instruct have also made some great music. Below we’ve spotlighted three influential music teachers/community leaders and the phenomenal albums they produced and wrote alongside their fearless and creative students. These albums shed light not only on their ability to lead, but the raw power of people coming together around a common goal through music.
Born in Sumter, South Carolina, soul-poet and musician Nancy Dupree relocated to upstate New York in 1964, finding herself leading a classroom of energetic elementary school children. Expecting to find the experience to be fairly straightforward, Dupree quickly realized the numerous challenges involved in this line of work. Noting her students’ lack of engagement, Dupree put down the traditional children’s song-book curriculum and began composing music that echoed contemporary society.
Along with her own compositions, she incorporated the music of Odetta, Nina Simone, and Miriam Makeba into daily lessons, encouraging learning via the black American experience. Singing, listening to, and making music that tied to meaningful issues sung in current musical styles piqued students’ curiosity and talents, and empowered them to take ownership of their education. Performance and engagement quickly improved in her classroom. In the late 1960s, Dupree landed a three-album deal with Folkways Records following a chance encounter sitting next to Moses Asch, the label’s founder, on an airplane.
Ghetto Reality, the first in the series of releases, features solely the voices of her students, piano, and Dupree herself. Songs include “James Brown,” a tribute to the godfather of soul—complete with “uhs!” and “good gods!”—a blues elegy for Martin Luther King Jr. (“Docta King”) and re-imaginings of old standards like Jingle Bells. One of most powerful moments in the record comes during “I Want,” a civil rights number in which students sing, “I want my freedom, I want it now.” The album is testament to Dupree’s fierce dedication to providing a supportive, inclusive environment for her students to tap into their own natural abilities (“What Do I Have?”) and push music education past outdated, repressive models.
But a chasm between Dupree and the school widened, and she was soon fired from her position. As The Guardian wrote in this 2010 article, “It seems the immediate cause was her refusal to wear high heels but it's not hard to imagine her radical, black feminist politics and refusal to toe the line were the underlying reason. Over the next decade, she wrote plays, recorded two albums of poetry and became a Black Panther. She died of leukaemia, aged only 44, in 1980.”
Hans Fenger knew virtually nothing of contemporary music education when he stepped into a teaching role in rural Canada in in the mid-‘70s. However, much like Dupree, Fenger sought to implement educational programs that tied to independent student interests and core values. In the liner notes to its eventually release, Fenger wrote that at the time, he found much of contemporary children’s music to be condescending to youth, often overlooking the reality of students’ day-to-day lives in place of something happy or cute sounding. Fenger believed his students deserved more and discovered they preferred songs that much deeper emotions.
Fenger drew inspiration from the teaching practices of German composer Carl Orff, who developed a way of teaching children about music that engages their mind and body through a mixture of singing, dancing, acting and the use of percussion instruments. In 1976-1997, Fenger led recording sessions of a 60-voice children’s choir across several different schools he worked with. Captured on two-track tape in a gymnasium, the students worked through renditions of songs from The Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and other popular artists of the era.
These imperfect, lo-fi recordings capture the natural joy and power of choral singing with arrangements that have made a lasting impact on both their original composers and current artists. Fenger told Canada News in 2016: “From the very beginning of my teaching career, I had always really thought that my job was to have children fall in love with making music. That was really what I wanted to do. If they had fun doing it—as much making music as I had—it really didn’t matter to me whether they were playing so well.”
Speaking about the choir’s rendition of “Space Oddity,” David Bowie said, “The backing arrangement is astounding. Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance you have a piece of art that I couldn’t have conceived of, even with half of Colombia’s finest export products in me.” Innocence and Despair was the inspiration behind the film School of Rock and was provided to Karen O as an example of how Spike Jonze envisioned the soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are coming together.
Originally contained on two LPs, pressed exclusively for the students, their classmates, and parents and families, the album has since reached a much wider commercial audience. Following a CD release in 2001, the album was also made available for the first time on vinyl via Bar/None Records.
American pentecostal preacher and gospel musician T.L Barrett’s congregation on Chicago’s South Side often featured prominent musicians. In the 1970s, it was not uncommon to see the likes of Maurice White, Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, and soul legend Donny Hathaway in the pews. On Tuesday evenings, Barrett led weekly choir meetings composed of a 40-member ensemble of children ages 12–19. Under the Youth for Christ moniker, the group were regular performers at Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket events, an organization dedicated to economic development in black communities.
Through these events Barrett became close with Gene Barge, session saxophonist and arranger for Chess Records who’d later lend an ear in the studio. Noticing a revival in American Gospel, the 27-year-old minister, alongside his Youth for Christ Choir, entered Sound Market Studio on the North Side of Chicago to cut their debut LP.
Like A Ship (Without a Sail) saw Barrett combining his talents for singing and charismatic preaching with his ongoing commitment to activism. Its title track is marked by deep grooves, a chilling call-and-response chorus and a convergence of genres both holy and secular. Self-released in 1971, the album did not reach the same level of success many of its gospel contemporaries had (like The Staple Singers and Aretha Franklin), however it has since gained significant praise from the likes of Jim James and Colin Greenwood thanks to a Light In The Attic reissue in 2010.