GRANADA HILLS — For students at Addams High School, the spring semester started with the connection between the blues and the northern migration of African Americans, and ended with the mathematical techniques of classical music scores.
Between the rhythmic beats and perfectly proportioned crescendos, many of the teenagers gained a new appreciation for the myriad forms of music, its emotional reflection of historical events and its links to other academic subjects.
During the entire school year, all 75 students at the continuation high school have used musical themes to learn everything from history and English to science and math. Writing musical scales taught Les Pavlovitch, 17, the importance of measured beats and using various mathematical forms of half- and quarter-tones. The musical blues of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker helped clarify for junior Matt Aiken the mass move undertaken by African Americans from the rural South in search of a better life in the North. And studying classical tunes, through movies such as "Amadeus" and operas, showed 16-year-old Virginia Rivera how musicians "walk the bass" to segue from one scene in a musical performance to another.
"It's been real interesting to learn how blues chords fit together and how much World War II and the Depression affected the music that came out a few years later," said senior Manuel Alvarez.
While dozens of other schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District are cutting back on music classes and school bands to save money, Addams High has found a novel approach to incorporate music into its curriculum--not as a class unto itself, but as an underlying theme in most of the subjects taught at the school.
"We wanted to incorporate music this semester to show the students the contributions musicians have made to our history, but also that there's so much more to music than the pop, rock or rap stations they listen to on the radio," said Katherine Genson, one of the school's three teachers.
Genson came up with the idea to use music as a theme after a visit last year to the Los Angeles Music Center. Because Addams is a LEARN school, its principal and teachers have more flexibility to experiment with alternative approaches to engaging students. The school, which specializes in students who were failing in conventional high school programs, uses different themes each semester and takes the students on field trips to enhance the experience. Some topics have included the Holocaust, geography and Vietnam. But using music was a break from the norm.
"This was the most elaborate theme for us," said Principal Jim Sullivan. "In the past we've done a lot of different things and they have their quality, but this was a real stretch for the kids and it challenged them. For most of them, it's all new knowledge."
Teachers used Dixieland Jazz and the fiddling of the Civil War era to show the disparate origins of folk music. They used gospel and a cappella to demonstrate the power of the voice in music and overlapping between musical styles that had seemed light-years apart to the students.
"We'd play Latin jazz and then play blues and go back and forth and the kids started realizing how much the two are linked and how one music can develop from another," said teacher Bill Clair.
They introduced students to classical music by showing scenes from "Shawshank Redemption," "Apocalypse Now" and "Philadelphia" in which classical pieces were used repeatedly to create just the right mood.
Their efforts apparently paid off.
"One of the biggest benefits is that my students have interest now," Clair said. "Believe it or not, we have kids buying classical music now who didn't have a clue who Beethoven was and never thought about classical music," he said.
As part of their schoolwork, the students have visited venues such as the House of Blues and they've participated in musical performances. In April, as part of a program with the L.A. Opera, the students performed Lee Holdridge's and Richard Sparks' "Journey to Cordoba" for pupils and parents at Danube Avenue Elementary School in Granada Hills. To culminate their year of studies, they recently attended a performance of "Madama Butterfly" at the Dorothy Chandler Music Center that was done exclusively for high school students.
"It's OK, except that I don't understand the language and stuff," 16-year-old Matt Aiken confessed about the Italian opera. "I get the story line, though."