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Celebrating Black History Month

By Jennifer Williams

“Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It’s transporting, for sure. It can take you right back, years back, to the very moment certain things happened in your life. It’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.” – Aretha Franklin

February is Black History Month. To celebrate, Education Through Music teacher Marissa Steele is taking the opportunity to introduce her Orchestra students  to the well-known anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Through group discussions and performance, students have the ability to explore and incorporate the rich history of the Civil Rights Movement in their music class.

“[We Shall Overcome] has played a part in many Civil Rights movements and important moments in history that I felt it was important for my students to know it; most of them had never heard it before,” says Marissa, who teaches at P.S. 87 in the Bronx.

Marissa wanted her students to learn more than just playing notes on a page. She wanted them to understand the history and context of the song so they could play it with feeling and meaning. 

During their discussions, Marissa played recordings of the songs and asked her students to really think about what the words meant to them, personally. She discovered that her students felt empowered by the words and meaning of the song, and were able to translate those messages to their own lives. “Many of them said things  like ‘If I’m going through a hard time I can think of the phrase “I Shall Overcome” and realize that I can get through it.’” 

They also discussed how the song relates to other key moments in history. “When we talked about the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of my students said that they could see why people would be singing this song during that era. We talked a lot about how this song was not an aggressive fight song but a song of peace

“It was really cool to see them really thinking about what the lyrics mean instead of just playing the song with no meaning. It really helped their playing too!”

Her students also related the song to  Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States. “My students recognized that Obama’s election was this BIG MOMENT that had been fought for for a long time, and understood that “We Shall Overcome” was a really relevant song. They saw themselves in that moment – they too can overcome anything.”

“My hope is that they realized the importance of music – any music in history. But mostly [I hope] that THEY can make music that will have an impact. They can play music that was written a long time ago by people that were going through something and put their own meaning to it and [still] remember the history. I also hope that they will see themselves represented in the music and take pride in the music that they can play or create.”

Marissa’s students aren’t the only ones feeling empowered and inspired this month.  Reflecting on our history reminds us all that when we work together, we can all overcome. ETM started in one school nearly 30 years ago, and we now provide access to high-quality music education to  36,000 students in 70 schools citywide. With the help of our supporters, our community, and our leaders, we know we can reach far more.