I have been a music educator for over 25 years, the last eight of those as director of band activities at Georgia College & State University. One of my teaching duties is conducting the Georgia College Wind Symphony, our institution’s concert band. For our most recent performance on April 4, 2019, we performed Omar Thomas’ Of Our New Day Begun. This composition is Thomas’ response to the domestic terrorist act at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, on the evening of June 17, 2015. Since the Wind Symphony has a diverse group of collegiate musicians, and this event occurred while they were mostly still in high school, I decided to approach the composition using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a new technique in my pedagogical tool bag.
It was through the QFT that I hoped to allow the musicians to approach the subject matter and the composition through the lens of curiosity and inquiry instead of judgment, ignorance, or fear. The intent of this approach was to allow the musicians to bring their own humanity to the rehearsal and eventual performance by getting in touch with the event, the music, and themselves — creating an informed point of view in order to convey the emotionally laden composition to our audience.
The Wind Symphony was made up of 51 students, one community member, and one faculty member, representing a variety of educational levels (freshman through senior and beyond) as well as a variety of academic majors. We started the rehearsal process with a three-day introduction to Of Our New Day Begun (OONDB).
- On the first day, I dedicated 30 minutes to OONDB, working through the QFT with the first line of a New York Times article on the domestic terrorist act as our QFocus. The objective was to remind the musicians of the event and to start processing our individual responses to the tragedy.
- The next day comprised a complete 50-minute class period allocated to working through the QFT process again, but this time using a recording of the 11-minute musical composition as the QFocus. Since brainstorming questions is disruptive to the listening process, I modified the technique by asking students to brainstorm individually during the recording and then work in groups to combine their individual questions afterward. The objective of the day was to gain an understanding of the composer’s point of view of the tragedy and what we, as musicians, would need to portray that point of view.
- On the last day of the week we assigned a 10-minute period to collect students’ reflections regarding the past two days of activities.
This three-day process created two lists of questions, one for each of the QFocus prompts. Questions from the New York Times QFocus fell roughly into four categories: causes, aftermath, motivation, and event details. Here are some of those questions:
- How does this show America’s gun problem?
- What leads to that kind of violence and hatred?
- What was the mental status of the gunman?
- Are there any security measures in place now?
- How can they recover?
- How did the community react?
- How many families were torn apart and affected?
- How many more events like this will it take?
- What happened to the families of the nine victims?
- What happened to the town?
- What was his motivation?
- Why did he specifically target a black church?
- Why this location?
- Event details
- How old was the gunman?
- What were the names of the people who died?
Since the terrorist act happened while the majority of these students were in high school, it wasn’t surprising the details of the tragedy were lost, and their general inquiry led in the direction of facts. Because of this, I was disappointed in the lack of personal connection to the QFocus. There were no questions in the realm of, “Why does this make me angry?” or “Why doesn’t this event surprise me?” It seemed the students as a whole kept the QFocus at an arm’s length and did not inquire into their own reaction to the headline. Maybe this is because of the group work, and that one’s personal, emotional reaction is too raw or too intimate to be shared in a group setting such as this class.
Students’ questions from the compositional listening on day two also fell into certain categories. Here is a selection of what they asked:
- Do certain instruments represent certain emotions?
- Why were the featured instruments chosen?
- Does the saxophone/oboe melody represent the victims, families, or the perpetrator?
- How does the voicing of the resolution reflect the lack of the resolution of the event?
- Were they singing the same words?
- What is the significance of repeated motifs?
- What particular blues and gospel tunes inspired the composer?
- What was the point of the two endings?
- Why through music?
- Is this piece traumatizing or cathartic for the families?
- What part of the story is at each section?
- Does each section represent the different stages in the grieving process?
- In section 4, is this where all the people in Charleston got together and prayed for peace?
- What does each section represent emotionally?
- Does the frantic sound represent terror?
- Is this piece representative of the event or is it meant to be a space for thought?
As with day one, students’ inquiry went in the direction of the story. They wanted to find a narrative to the composition, and many questions asked about direct links from the event to the music. However, one question out of the second day really struck me as being directly tied to the goal of helping us bring the composition to life musically:
How can we emphasize the silence so it’s impactful?
This question leads us on the journey toward interpreting the music. When performing a composition, it is imperative that musicians have a point of view on how the music is supposed to be performed (interpretation). We start working with questions such as, What characters are present? Where is the music going? What is my individual role in the ensemble at this moment? However, it has been my experience that most of these questions and their answers come from the conductor in the music education classroom. It was my hope the QFT would promote curiosity and inquiry among the students, allowing them to access and develop their creative skills by letting them develop their own questions and answers regarding interpretation. This last question demonstrated to me the QFT has great potential to flip the interpretive obligation from the teacher to the student. For me, developing creative skills is the real reason for music education in the public-school curriculum.
Rehearsals on this composition appeared to be more focused and engaged than on the other five pieces of the concert. This certainly could be due to the heavy emotional content of the work compared to the others, but the way the students approached asking questions in rehearsal lead me to believe the QFT had some influence as well. This thought was also supported by some of the student reflections. For example, when one student was reflecting on what they had learned they stated:
I learned that Omar Thomas used lots of traditions performed in typically black churches in this piece to bring attention to where this act of violence was held as well to pay respects to its victims. I also learned that at the end of the piece the hum that grows louder represents the struggles of African Americans and how there’s still so much to be done to achieve equality and end these acts of violence.
We also discovered that the process seemed to have opened a different vocabulary for us to utilize. For example, consider the following student question from the QFT:
How does the voicing of the resolution reflect the lack of the resolution of the event?
This question directly connects a part of the music to the composer’s intent. With the students thinking in this manner it allows me to point out things in the music and let the composer help the students interpret what they are hearing instead of me telling them. For example, during one rehearsal the ensemble was getting too loud and angry with their tone earlier then needed. Instead of telling them where to get angry, I was able to say, “Mr. Thomas will tell us when to get aggressive in the harmony, if you just listen for it.” We then went back and tried again, and it changed the entire way the ensemble interpreted that section. These little reminders of the composer and the questions changed the way I rehearsed this concert cycle, and this thought process started to bleed over into the other works in the concert. Sometimes I had to start by asking a question, but many of the musicians were quick to jump into the interpretive pool once I did. My hope is that eventually, with practice, the students will start driving the ship themselves, instead of just jumping on board my boat. Then we will really be making headway, and I think we are on the path to doing just that.
As I ponder how to develop and improve this first experience with the QFT I have the following questions:
- Would moving the QFocus to a musician’s specific part, instead of the whole piece, help in the rehearsal process?
- Can the QFT have the same impact with abstract music?
- Can we have a venue for students to continue to pose new questions as we move through the rehearsal process?
- How can we approach the idea that some questions need to remain unanswered, so that the audience will have something to ponder at the performance and afterward?
- Can we help engage with the audience by sharing our questions or helping them to create their own before, during, and after we perform the focus piece?
- What are some ways to close the loop on this learning technique? Is there an activity I can develop after the concert that will help?
- Is it possible to use the QFT for all pieces on a program, or does this cause question fatigue and disengagement by the musicians?
- How can I design a study that will limit other variables to really see if the QFT is as productive in the performing arts as it feels like it is? How do we create a control group?
My first experience using the QFT revealed enough for me to spend more time over the summer in further developing the QFT’s usage in the band classroom and trying it again next semester. I welcome any constructive input that would assist me with this development and I encourage my music education colleagues to give this approach serious consideration.
Cliff Towner, DMA, is Director of Band Activities and Associate Professor of Music at Georgia College and State University. His responsibilities include conducting the Wind Symphony and Jazz Band, as well as teaching classes in conducting and music education. Dr. Towner holds a D.M.A. degree in Wind Conducting from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a Masters of Music degree in Music Education from Wright State University, and a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Dr. Towner also taught in the public schools for ten years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cliff currently resides in the Milledgeville, GA with his wife Gina, and their daughter Laura and son Nathan, where they enjoy traveling and riding roller coasters whenever possible. Cliff can be reached at email@example.com.