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Enriching Music Education for Denver Students at the Newman Center

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Newman Center

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You may have seen world-class artists like Michelle DeYoung, Eric Whitacre, or the Kenny Barron Trio here at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts. But did you know- in addition to our shows, the Newman Center also provides an array of education programming all year round? Through our Musical Explorers program, student matinees, master classes, and more, the Newman Center supports arts education for K-12 students, the University of Denver, and the community at large.    

The Newman Center partners with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Explorers to provide free music curriculum and interactive performances for students in second grade. The most recent Musical Explorers concert took place in April 2022 and hosted over 900 2nd graders from Denver Public Schools. Students learned about African American spirituals, hip-hop, and even Iraqi folk music- all while singing, dancing, clapping, and having fun! For many students, this was their first time attending a field trip since the COVID-19 pandemic and thus they had an especially gratifying experience.  

musical explorers

“The kids thought of the musicians as celebrities,” raved Rachel Davis, music teacher at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, “they lost their minds the moment the performers walked on stage.” Davis’s elementary students studied the Musical Explorers curriculum throughout the spring semester, which included material from Native American artist Martha Redbone, M. Roger Holland II of The Spirituals Project Choir, and Carrie Jennings and Nabin Shrestha of the Classical Indian Leela Dance Collective. Included in this curriculum are instructional videos for songs and dances, audio tracks both with and without lyrics, lesson plans for the teacher, and workbooks for the students. The language in the curriculum is accessible to teachers who may be unfamiliar with these cultures; educators described the lesson plans as “open in a way that works for you and your classroom,” and appreciated “how many resources and suggestions there were for teaching.” Across the board, students were particularly connected to the call-and-response freedom songs and were very moved by the interaction between themselves and the performers during the concert. “It’s one thing to sit quietly at a symphony concert, it’s a whole other thing for students to sing and dance along to songs they know," said Davis. “This will be a core memory that will last a lifetime.”   

The Newman Center also hosts a Student Matinee Series, which are one-hour shows by artists featured in the Newman Center Presents series adapted for all K-12 students. Each show is accompanied by free project-based digital curricula that align with Colorado’s academic standards. Jo Carrigan and Rob Suglia, principal and assistant principal at DPS’ Doull Elementary in Harvey Park took their entire school to see ArtistiCO, a bailé folklorico dance company based in Denver. This student matinee used traditional dance styles to tell the story of the birth of Jesus from a Mexican Catholic lens. Doull Elementary’s student population is primarily Hispanic, so for Carrigan and Suglia’s students, “seeing dancers that looked like them opened up a whole new world.” According to their students, many of the dances they saw on stage mirrored dances they see at weddings, quinceañeras, and other family gatherings. These connections now serve as a source of bonding amongst the students and staff at Doull, who four months later still talk about the show. James Laguana, choir director at Rangeview High School, expressed a similar sentiment. He described his students as “mesmerized,” because “they’ve never seen their culture on stage before.”  

child actors on stage

The Newman Center also supports educational and professional master classes throughout the year, which are open to the public and have featured guests such as A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham, Eric Whitacre, BANDALOOP, and more. Davis’s high school choir attended the Eric Whitacre Choir Workshop, which took place in October 2022. This was the first time her choir of 17 students sang with such a large group of people; 25 high school choirs attended, amounting to 710 voices in Gates Concert Hall. After that workshop, she saw a shift in her choir rehearsals. “My students realized what was possible; they were in such awe over the sheer number of voices singing. They want to be more dedicated. They are more engaged in the rehearsal process. They still talk about [the workshop]. They want to keep doing it.”  

eric whitacre addressing seated crowd

The generosity of donors and foundations to the Newman Center’s Education Fund supports Title I schools with reduced or free tickets and transportation subsidies. “I am very grateful for the help from Luke [Associate Director for Educational Initiatives at the Newman Center] who helped make these trips possible,” said Davis. “Thanks to them, we were able to get a bus to Musical Explorers and the Eric Whitacre Workshop. We would not have been able to attend without this support.” Carrigan and Suglia concur. The Newman Center Education Fund provided Doull Elementary with three school buses, which cost $277 each. Between the buses and the discounted tickets, Doull was able to budget for this trip so that each student could attend for free. “Most of the families at Doull Elementary are struggling financially and don’t always have the money to pay for students’ field trips,” said Suglia, “school may be [the students’] only opportunity to engage with the arts. All of them were just so grateful for this experience.”   

The core belief behind these programs is that arts-centered experiences that highlight a diversity of cultures are vital to students’ development and that all students, regardless of financial resources, deserve access. The teachers interviewed agree: “the more unique experiences students have, the more empathy they’ll have,” said Davis. “[The arts] connect people to different walks of life… students will become more well-rounded.” The Newman Center is projecting to engage 5,500 students across five programs this season; the hope is that these programs will inspire students to live a full, engaged, and creative life.