Bringing classical music back to schools | Music | DW | 19.03.2014
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Bringing classical music back to schools

Coming to German schools this fall: a music education event of unprecedented proportions, centered on Antonin Dvorak. German public broadcasters are teaming up for a series of workshops, events and one special concert.

Despite Germany's significant public arts funding and the country's longstanding musical traditions, fears persist that disinterest in classical music has been mounting for years among young people. Organizers of the project "The Dvorak Experiment - An ARD Concert Goes to School" hope to help combat that disinterest this fall. It's a collaborative performance set to take place in the infrastructure of ARD, the German public broadcasting network.

On September 19, 2014, pupils from the fifth to 12th grades throughout Germany will have a chance to take in the classical concert simultaneously. Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, the "New World" Symphony, will sound out in classrooms via video live streams and radio broadcasts. Performing is the NDR (North German Broadcasting) Symphony Orchestra with conductor Thomas Hengelbrock.

"The project targets all pupils in Germany and is intended to bring them closer to classical music," said Hengelbrock, the orchestra's principal conductor. "After all, many don't have any relationship to it. With our school symphony we hope to make it clear how great this music really is."

Czech composer Anton Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

The 'eleventh hour' for music courses

Explaining his involvement with the Dvorak experiment, Hengelbrock says music has deeply enriched his life and made him happy. Classical music, he adds, represents a domain of unbelievable richness that makes life more profound and nuanced.

"Maybe we can do a little bit to carry the banner for classical music with this school symphony," he says. Someone needs to, the conductor believes, since music courses currently occupy a "lousy position" within German curricula.

One sign that music instruction in German schools is indeed getting short shrift comes by way of the high cancellation rate for music courses. At 60 percent, the cancellation rate is especially high within the country's schools that typically send students on to vocational training programs - Haupt- and Realschulen. But even in Gymnasien, whose pupils often later attend university and are drawn more heavily from college-educated families, the rate is at around 35 percent.

Cancellations can be attributed to a lack of teachers competent to teach music, and the instruction often takes place only in an alternating schedule with other arts courses.

"We're really at the eleventh hour when it comes to music education in Germany," says Christian Höppner of the German Music Council, a large non-profit in support of music initiatives that receives funding from the state and private sponsors. Höppner adds that quality and ongoing music education is especially important during people's formative early years.

Three girls wearing top hats are sitting in an audience

ARD organizers hope to draw young people toward the world of classical music

A sense of adventure

Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, subtitled "From the New World," was selected for the first nation-wide school concert on September 19. It's a work that Thomas Hengelbrock hopes will awaken young people's sense of adventure.

"This piece in particular stands for new beginnings," the conductor says. "When Dvorak went to America, he had African Americans sing spirituals for him. He also studied Native American music, and you can hear these influences in his symphony."

The Dvorak concert will be anything but normal. Thomas Hengelbrock will act as a master of ceremonies, with the performance relayed live to participating schools. Pupils will have the chance to speak directly with Hengelbrock.

"I think that will be really exciting because we want to explain everything a bit," he says, while stressing that too much explanation shouldn't take the place of the music speaking for itself.

Getting youth involved

In preparation, regional ARD broadcasters are getting people involved in a number of ways. Pupils and teachers can register at the broadcaster's homepage, which contains material to accompany lesson plans, ideas for discussing and presenting Dvorak and tips on arranging his symphony for school choirs and orchestras. The musicians involved are staging a number of events such as workshops, video projects and work groups where pupils can put together their own introductions to the symphony.

A young female student conducts an orchestra

One part of the project: Offering young people a chance to conduct

The NDR Youth Symphony Orchestra is offering a crash course for young conductors. MDR, an ARD broadcaster serving three states in eastern Germany, will present a summer dance workshop titled "Summer Vacation with Dvorak."

In the country's western states, ARD affiliates' projects include a "Super Dvorak Orchestra" made up of around 250 members of school orchestras. Public broadcaster WDR will bring Dvorak and jazz together, says Mirjam von Jarzebowski of the network's music education initiative "Plan M."

"Musicians from the WDR Big Band will talk to high school students and members of a school choir about their response to Dvorak, and then the musicians will improvise with them on themes from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9. On September 19, they'll sing and play together in a concert in the WDR studio."

Pilot project

If enough pupils, teachers and schools from throughout Germany take part this year in the concert and related programming, the project will continue on an annual basis - hosted each time by a different local ARD affiliate.

For Thomas Hengelbrock, the initiative represents a great opportunity to reach out to children and teenagers who might otherwise never find their way into a classical music concert hall.

The conductor says that along the way, the media have an important role to play: "This concert will be seen and heard online, available worldwide. In concert and also on television, classical music often comes across in a very boring way. So we must all think of ways that things can be done better so that we can bring the stories told through music to the people out there."

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