Student music composition explores issues of prejudice

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(Host) The issue of prejudice has been on the minds of students at Winooski High School. All this fall, they studied the book “Witness,” by Karen Hesse, which explores racism in Vermont in the early 1900s. Their study culminated this month with some special music, composed by the students, based on some themes in the book.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea has more.

(Band members tuning up, teacher talking.)

(McCrea) Jessica Nickel is the Band Director at Winooski High School. After students read “Witness,” she asked them to create a musical composition that reflected the adversity characters faced for being ‘different’.

(Nickel) “I think that’s a large theme that kids can really relate to. They all feel different, looked down upon sometimes for things that maybe they don’t have control over – maybe a financial situation or clothing situation or something else beyond their control.”

(McCrea) Seventeen-year old Shawna Little explains that the beginning of the piece expresses how the book’s characters felt when they experienced racism and prejudice.

(Little) “Like in the beginning there’s the KKK and the mood is sad and depressed. And there’s a train scene in the book – a black girl saves a Jewish girl, it’s like helping. So then things get more upbeat, when things change at the end of the book. They all start to realize it doesn’t matter, they don’t need to be racist, everyone is the same inside.”

(McCrea) Students here are no strangers to the message of tolerance and diversity. Though Winooski High School is small by Chittenden County standards, Jessica Nickel says it’s considered one of the most diverse in the state.

(Nickel) “Just some of the cultures included are Vietnamese, Bosnian, Sudanese, Japanese, Chinese. So, our students really have a different experience in terms of interacting with people every day that have a totally different cultural experience from what they’ve had.”

(McCrea) And, she says, that daily exposure to different cultures made the “Witness” project all the more enriching.

(Nickel) “And I think that does help them, whether they know it or not. It does help them to appreciate the book more because they have people in their lives everyday who have gone through those situations, who’ve talked about them.”

(McCrea) Shawna Little and classmates Brooke Niquette and Tanya Lewis say they share a pride in their school’s diversity. And the “Witness” assignment became a chance to celebrate that diversity, through music.

(Niquette) “It was really nice to learn how conductors express their emotions in a piece and how notes can express certain feelings.”
(Lewis) “Because we took our feelings from the book and put it in our piece and our piece represents the book.
(Little) “And once we realized we could do it, we just picked up and ran. It was so much fun.”

(McCrea) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea.

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