Written by Matthew Schwartz ‘21
After a serious change to the curriculum this year, Durham Academy’s Upper School music program is hoping for a future with increased musical development and participation.
The band, orchestra, and chorus courses of the past have been replaced by two music ensembles that include both instrumentalists and vocalists. In previous years, musicians of all skill and experience levels were in the same class. To provide a more effective way of addressing each musician’s strengths and development, the new approach groups students together by skill level. The first course, Ensemble I, is for beginning and intermediate musicians, and Ensemble II is for advanced musicians. This structure now mimics the organization of DA’s acting and dance programs.
Director of Upper School Music Michael Meyer, said he had been thinking about changing the curriculum for a number of years before doing it for the 2018-2019 school year. He finally made the decision last year after many students auditioned and were turned down for In The Pocket (ITP), the most advanced music ensemble. Mr. Meyer wanted talented students like them to have the opportunity to take a class which would more precisely meet their needs as musicians.
With the old curriculum, students who weren’t in ITP had only one level of music classes available to them, and they could not move on to more advanced ensembles.
“The primary weakness of the classes before was that there wasn’t a logical progression of music classes,” Meyer said. Along with increased progression between classes, another goal of the change was to increase the individual musicianship of students. There is now more focus on arranging songs and learning about various musical concepts.
Mr. Meyer also said that another goal was to increase enrollment in music classes in general. A larger number of students used to take music classes at DA, and he wanted to return to that level of participation. He hopes the curriculum change will help that happen, as more students will have a music class they feel is fit for their skill level, and the ensembles will accommodate a greater variety of instruments. “In general, it casts a wider net,” he said.
Students in the two ensembles are generally happy with the new system, and they think this is a positive change.
MK Bryant, a sophomore guitarist in Ensemble I, was in band last year. She thinks that this new curriculum is definitely an improvement from the prior system. “In Ensemble I, I can do more than just play my guitar; I can play other instruments. I can sing,” she said. MK hopes to move up to Ensemble II next year and continue to increase her musical skills. She is happy that she will be able to advance to a higher level ensemble under this new system, which she could not have done without the change to the program.
Sophomore Asher Fields played saxophone in band last year and is now in Ensemble II. He also believes that the new system is a significant improvement to the music program. Fields said the biggest changes are “the ability to play more difficult music” with better musicians and “the constant work on group projects.” Group projects involve a few ensemble members working together to arrange and play songs. Fields thinks these projects have been much more effective and “way more organized” than last year.
While most students see the changes as a positive overall, there have been several issues with the classes this year. Mr. Meyer says that he hasn’t been completely satisfied with how the year has gone. He wants to play more songs in the future in the ensembles, both in small and large groups. “We need to be making more music than we have,” he said.
Mr. Meyer is also unsatisfied with the amount of individual instruction and practice of arranging music, which were two goals of the changes. He thinks that there have been some major improvements with the new system, but multiple things still need to be addressed.
“It’s been very hit or miss this year,” Meyer said. But, even with the problems they’ve had, Mr. Meyer thinks the positives outweigh the negatives. “I’m still convinced for the good of the program that it was the right thing,” he said.
In the future, Mr. Meyer hopes to eliminate the problems with the new program and keep the strengths of it. His top goal is “to keep the things that already work well at the high standard that they’ve been at.”