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Profile: “Discovering Music” by Dr. Carol Reynolds

Dr. Carol Reynolds is the author of the music and music history curriculum, Discovering Music: 300 Years in Western, Music, Arts, History and Culture, a program that we whole-heartedly recommend. Dr. Reynolds, who will be speaking at our summer conference in July, agreed to answer some questions about her curriculum and the necessity that music be a part of the curriculum.

CiRCE: Tell us a bit about your own musical background.

Carol: I grew up near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roanoke Virginia. From middle-school on, I felt torn between playing the piano and pursuing academics. To complicate matters, I developed a passionate interest in Russian Culture.

Ultimately everything came together: I pursued musicology and, via a grant in 1981, was able to research my dissertation at the Leningrad Conservatory. There were even opportunities to perform on the same stage where Prokofiev and Shostakovich played as students! Considering how difficult travel to the Soviet Union was in those days, I was extremely fortunate.

CiRCE: What cultivated your love of music?

Carol: It all goes back to my parents. My father came from a coal-mining town in West Virginia. He played guitar in the style of Jimmie Rogers and Ernest Tubb, and I spent hours sitting on the front stoop, hearing these songs. My mother, on the other hand, was a first-generation American who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. She saved her pennies for standing room at the Old Met and was vocally talented herself. But there was no opportunity to study music. So, on Saturday afternoons, I listened to her singing along with the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts while she ironed.

I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which was more jarring: the clashing elements of my ethnic heritage or the disparate musical styles I came to love.

CiRCE: What led you to create the program Discovering Music?

Carol: Discovering Music came about for two reasons: the urging of homeschooled students in my classes at Southern Methodist University – and goats. I’d better explain.

In 2006, I retired early after twenty-one years as a professor of music history at SMU. Even I was shocked when I did this. But after years of looking, we found the perfect small ranch on a bluff 100 miles northwest of Dallas in what is called the Little Hill Country. We were wooed by endless vistas and skies big enough to swallow the earth. I hung a sign “Going Fishing” on my office door and plunged into the unknown.

Unknown first meant learning to raise goats and, later, cows. It was quite a learning curve for a city girl. But after three years (the livestock’s doing just fine) it seemed time to create something new.

My homeschooled students had made me aware of the dearth in serious Fine Arts curricula at the secondary-school level. They used to say: “Dr. Reynolds, you need to make a course.” Their urgings planted the idea.

Then my husband Hank, a copyright attorney with a doctorate in music theory, jumped in with me. I joke that he mostly wanted to buy an i-Mac and all the high-tech devices we needed. But, in fact, he patiently took on all of the videography and editing, plus much of the creative design. Without him, there would be no Discovering Music.

CiRCE: Why do you think the study of music has, in our own day, been “sidelined” (as you say) as “extra-curricular”?

Carol: We’ve become disengaged from making music with real instruments and voices! For most people, music is an electronic phenomenon that bombards us with flashy images on a flat-screen TV. Music travels through speakers and earphones, not muscles and larynxes. It bears little resemblance to music-making throughout human history, and has become devalued accordingly.

To put it another way, if any three-year old can push buttons and “produce” a Beethoven Symphony, are there not serious consequences for our musical culture?

Along with this “effortless” music, we have lost our understanding of dance, painting, sculpture, and theater. Fewer people grasp the conceptual, aesthetic, and analytical skills that the Fine Arts develop in both the right and left side of the brain.

CiRCE: What role do you believe music should play in the curriculum?

Carol: Let’s start with an example: Imagine trying to study the 1960s without considering the music! No Bob Dylan, no Beatles, no Elvis. No jazz. And none of the hit musicals of the era, from Hair to The Sound of Music. An historical study without this music would be an emaciated approach, I think we’d all agree.

A methodical and pedagogically rigorous exposure to music and the arts allows a student to grasp any historical period with greater clarity. You can begin by presenting the music, dance, art, and theater so critical to Louis XIV’s Versailles, or you can end with it – how it’s handled is secondary. But to ignore this monarch’s nearly obsessive focus on the arts is to distort the historical record.

Beyond that (to lighten up a bit!), a student learning about the arts of a period is energized. Everything becomes more memorable. It’s easy for a student to forget a date or a name, but harder to forget a sound or a set of images.

CiRCE: Can a person be educated without knowing music?

Carol: Now there’s a tricky question!

First we have to decide what “knowing music” means, don’t we? Does it mean “reading music” or “playing an instrument?” That’s what most people think “knowing music” means.

Let’s move deeper: Might “knowing music” mean teaching the ability to recognize and analyze styles that defined music in any given era? At that point we’re moving into a more serious level of education.

But remember, “knowing music” can also refer to a general exposure to music. It can imply the ability to enjoy music or be open to different styles, genres, and musical experiences. And that, too, is a mark of a person’s education.

CiRCE: Tell us a bit about your new program on American Music.

Carol: Exploring America’s Musical Heritage Through Art, Literature, and Culture grew out of the enthusiastic response to Unit 16 of our first curriculum, Discovering Music. That unit “Load Up the Wagons” offered an overview of American music from Native American song and Puritan Psalmody to Irving Berlin and Charles Ives.

We were inspired to expand this material into a four-hour program, cast in eight chronological segments. We filmed the whole thing on location, traveling literally from shore to shore. The program is particularly blessed by the participation of 36 specialists, colleagues, former students, and friends. It’s quite colorful as it progresses methodically through our country’s musical heritage with significant emphasis on visual arts and poetry, as well.

CiRCE: What’s next?

Carol: We are starting to assemble materials for two new courses on Sacred Music. One will look at Christian music from its earliest notated chant sources, c. 9th century, and cover the development of polyphony through Palestrina.

The second course will investigate traditions in American Hymnody. Both courses will include sequences shot on location.

Our goal in each case will be to help families teach these critical subjects by providing accessible, lively, and vivid materials to spark their children’s further inquiry.

To find out more about Dr. Reynolds, click here.

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