Music City USA didn’t always have a formal music program for K-6 students. Choral, band, those programs didn’t begin until the middle school and high school years, and students in elementary grades had very little exposure to formal music classes of any kind. That changed a couple of decades or so back when a forward-thinking administrator with the goal of expanding music hired a talented music teacher to run pilot programs that would change everything for the next generation of students and onward. That teacher was Nashville-area music educator Margaret Campbelle-Holman. Campbelle-Holman is a passionate, powerhouse of a teaching professional, who took her experiences expanding music in Nashville’s schools into developing a ground-breaking non-profit, Choral Arts Link, that works to preserve tradition in the discipline of choral development while providing children the opportunity to develop leadership skills, enhance their education, and grow artistically and professionally.
Tell me a bit about your background? How did you get into choral music?
Yes, someone asked me once, when was the first time I remember singing harmony, and what really stands out for me is, my family sang in the car as we went on trips or we went anywhere in the car as a family. So harmony, for me, has always been — singing harmony has always been a thing that it’s not that it comes naturally it’s just I’ve always been around it. Whether it’s singing a melody or singing harmony, it’s something that as a family we did. And my mother happened to be a music educator.
So it was just singing for fun, but then as I came to school, she made sure that in our elementary schools — I went to school here in Nashville — I’ll call it a homeroom teacher, even though it wasn’t called that. But every elementary class I was in was the teacher for that grade who was the music person. We did not have elementary music teachers, so I was involved in music, even in the classroom, as a child. I did not realize until probably college-level, that every elementary child didn’t have music across Nashville City Schools, because I always had music.
And it was something I found out later — my mother had made sure — so I’ve always been involved in some type of music. I took piano lessons from age, I think, five or six, but singing was my joy because…I think it’s because of the harmony, and the community always felt when we sang as a group as a family. So that’s really how I got started. In high school, I was a science and math major, but I was in three or four choral ensembles at Cameron High School. So again, I was still involved in music end of it. And what was interesting was, my mother was our high school music teacher, and the class before me, when I was a junior in high school and when I was a senior in high school, those two classes had matriculated through her process.
So we were actually the first classes to write an original classic song for the senior class, and we taught it to the senior class, or actually to the seniors of the choir. And we performed it — and that had not been done in that process. So I’ve always been around creating music, and singing music, and enjoying it.
Where you active singing in the church growing up, also?
We didn’t have children’s choirs as you have them now. We had programs, my mother was the organist at the church where I was. And then when we switched to a church in South Nashville, and in that setting there was a choir that was intergenerational. So it wasn’t just a children’s choir, it was anyone who wanted to sing. So I was steeped in choral music and hymnody, but I was also steeped in the African-American spiritual.
Where there are some classes now that you get to take a course and learn about African-American music, I got it at home. It was a history of all music for me, because my mother was classically trained. She was interesting. She was a concert pianist, but she was what we call an accompanist extraordinaire. She could play any key, any style, and read music and play by ear, and improvise — all on the piano. So I grew up hearing Rachmaninoff play while I’m washing the dishes at home.
That’s how well rounded I was in not only African-American music and its spirituals and the sacredness of the spirituals, but in all kinds of music that touched all kinds of cultures, from a historic to a current perspective.
She was Marjorie Holmes-Campbelle. One of the things that she propelled us to do was, we have…you probably know about mid-state and all-state process that we have here in Tennessee. Well when I came through again to my high school, they didn’t integrate until the year after I left high school, and they integrated the teachers first before they did the students. My mother had decided we were going to go to all-state auditions, and there were no African-American students that had ever participated. We were the first. And we were so well-prepared because she believed in singing in octets and quartets to be able to hold your part against another part, and memorize your part in advance, and sing artistically. It had to be expressive. Then when we went in for the auditions there I think there were, I may have the number wrong, but there were 22 of us who auditioned, and I think 20 or 21 made it the first year. So from then on, all-state has been integrated in the state of Tennessee. So it was never not do; it was be prepared to do, and then go and do.
In elementary school, music is critical to childhood development.
I agree, I agree. Let me just add this little point. In the Nashville City Schools, there was a tradition. The schools were K-6, then 7 through 9, and then 10 through 12. That was the breakdown, and there was a long, long tradition that you had choral music, band in junior high school, which are grades seven through nine. And when you moved to high school you had the same thing. At elementary, it was based on if there was a classroom teacher that was strong in music, if you got anything at all.
We had a music teacher in my elementary school, and once a week we were taken to her classroom. Everybody in school went to see her for an hour a week. But that was not the norm up here in Music City, USA?
Now, I remember being in a choir in elementary school, but it was a classroom teacher who had some music training, and I remember enjoying seeing something like — it felt like a hundred kids, it may not have been, but we sang these glorious pieces. It was not a special music teacher that was hired by the system.
When I came back to Nashville I was going through my student teaching years. That’s when I think I discovered that everyone in elementary school had not had music like I did. I literally had music in every grade in elementary school, but I didn’t know that not everyone else got it. I was in the room of the person who, if she wanted to do music for everyone, she did. And then I had the choir. As a matter of fact, my mother was the junior high school music teacher, and as I matriculated in high school, she got promoted to the high school music teacher. So I had my mother as my music teacher from grade 7 through 12. And I look back, and it was a joy. It really was. Not being in the same school with her, but going to music with her was great.
I was blessed in the fact that one of my first teaching jobs was in Memphis, Tennessee. They were very strong, had a long tradition of elementary music teachers in every school. And because of my work there and the opportunities that were offered to me there through Nancy Ferguson, who was the music supervisor, I became a clinician through the Orff Schulwerk training method. And being able to go around to different chapters all over the country, and sometimes in Canada, I began to see what other school systems were providing, or not providing, and I began to compare it to what was going on in Nashville. Even though I was living in Memphis, I was thinking, in my memory, what are these children getting in Nashville? And so when I eventually came back to Nashville, it just hit me, these kids, here is another generation of children in Nashville, who are not getting elementary music. I returned to Nashville because the then supervisor in Nashville City Schools was Leonard Morton, Senior, who was my band teacher in high school. He was a highly trained musician in choral as well as band, but he was a band teacher while my mother was the choral teacher a Cameron High School. He had asked me to come back from Florida and produce the pilot project in two elementary schools, to show what could happen if there was a full-time music teacher in a K-6 school. He had to hire me as an instrumental teacher because there was no position for an elementary music teacher.
From that step, that’s how we began the process, and he just beat the drum. And it wasn’t just him by himself; we had people moving into town from all over the country who had had elementary music through high school, and so it was a duality going on where he was pushing for this curriculum, K-12 curriculum in music. At the same time the national standards were beginning to be developed for the nation — and the people moving in here from around the country, these parents said, “Why don’t you have this?” Well that continuum made a synergy where eventually Mr. Morton got to hire a real, on the paper, elementary music specialist.
But that wasn’t me. I was part of his synergy to make this come about. I was the pilot project person that was brought in to show it wasn’t just about putting a song in a child’s mouth. See, even from the beginning, again, my mother was actually trained as a social studies teacher, so everything I always learned about music wasn’t just the notes: it was reading the music, it was understanding music, it was learning the background of the composer. It was learning, if it was a folk song, where did it come from?
What people did it come from? What was their culture? What did they do? What was their heritage? So it has always been correlating, what I call the academies, to what you’re singing so you can understand and express the song, that it should be sung. No matter what the time period, if it was a motet — and we loved us some motets. One of my favorite motets was, “Go Not Far From Me.” To this day, it speaks to me. But that’s a totally different culture, it’s a totally different time period, but it’s still a beautiful piece of music.
That’s the way we were trained. And not just me; anyone my mother touched, that’s the way we were trained. Well I also got that in college, but coming back to Nashville I found it wasn’t being shared as it should have been shared. We had lost that tradition with elementary, junior high school and high school. And it wasn’t totally, absolutely gone. It wasn’t what I knew it was before I left to go to college. So that’s been part of my, I’ll call it my passion, because I saw children who didn’t know the same children’s games, children’s songs, our folk heritage in music, when I started teaching here in Nashville.
Leonard Morton, senior, he’s the one. He said, “We have to do this. If we’ve gone through integration, we need to reestablish the stability that music brings: a sense of community, no matter who the child is.” And he said, “To do that it has to be a K-12 continuum.” And what was beautiful, this man had a vision. He said, “All right, she has to have her own classroom in the music building.” He would not let them put me in a portable. And the classroom teacher had to come, bring the children, and stay in the class with me.
It became immediately a collaboration, where I was showing them and then they would begin to share with me they were working on this. I said, “Well try that. Here’s a piece of music,” so it became an immediate collaboration. It took time for some teachers, but they wanted to have their free time, but the deal was, if they had a music teacher, I saw every child in the school, and I was allowed a chorus in school during the regular class time. And the teacher had to come and stay for the whole time, in the classroom. So we had the vision of making our ground base of teaching: everyone involved in the process.
How long would it take you to fully replicate your program across Nashville schools?
Again, this synergy that was going on, people moving in, it became a political thing to K-12, to implement a music educator in every elementary school. So within, I’d say three to five years, that was implemented — and it was a big step. And part of his vision was, okay, we’ve got the teachers in, we have to develop K-12 curriculum. We began that process, he put all that in place. Because once he got the go-ahead to hire these teachers, well then we had to go find teachers qualified. And a team of teachers came together, and he allowed us the time and the planning, and we made a strategic plan, and we implemented Harambee Art Festival, which was a festival for grades, four, five and six, where all the children came together in Centennial Park. And for many years that went on, and we had more than 1,000 plus people; families that would come in and sit on a beautiful October or early November Saturday morning, and those kids would come together and sing.
When did Choral Arts Link begin?
Somewhere in the mix, the symphony had begun the Let Freedom Sing! concert, which is the January tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King. In the first couple of years they had different children’s groups, and at some point someone asked if we could develop a continual children’s choir — and they asked me to do it. We had been doing Harambee maybe three years, and so we just took Harambee and kept Harambee — the choral part of that in the fall — and then just stretched it over into singing with the symphony on that particular concert.
We started 1997, and I very quickly knew that if these children were going to sing on a show with a symphony, they had to meet a certain standard. So we started that process, and we’ve started in ‘97, sang the first concert in ‘98, and the summer of ‘98 we started our first summer camp, because we needed year-round training. And we were music teachers — a crew of music teachers working together to make that occur. In a few years I realized it needed more time and effort, because we were dealing with fiscal struggles in Metro Schools at that point, and Metro Schools were facing other challenges. I talked with parents and said that I can’t keep this going, because I’m teaching full-time, and I asked the parents to do some research, and they did, and they came back and said, “Would you consider running a nonprofit?” Well, I had already done some research and figured out that was the way to go, but I wanted them to show me, I wanted their ownership of this process.
So we made the trek into nonprofit 501-C3 status and became Choral Arts Link, and we started trying to serve the public school children in grades four through six. I had two high school teachers who said, “We’d like to participate,” and so we became 4 through 12. This is several years in a row, we had so many children that were involved that had younger brothers and sisters, and from the beginning there were two things. Parents were invited to come and sit in rehearsals, so they could learn what this education process was about too.
And number two, the teachers that sent us children to be a part of this had to send us children that looked like the school demographics culturally of their school. And that was a whole, whole new thing, because no one had asked for that before, and there was some pushback. And so I just didn’t fuss. There were only two venues or two entities in Nashville that had a chorus that looked like the city of Nashville: we were one, and the other was the Smith School. My mother started the first choir at the Smith School. Yeah, and it had to look like children that came to the Smith School. She did choir and I did the introduction to music.
Choral Arts Link focuses on three areas, which would be the MET Singers, MET Choral Camp, and then MET Academy. Tell me a little bit, the MET Singers is an honors choir, is that correct?
We just call it MET Singers now, but we started out with the name MET Singers Honor Choir, that was the original name. Actually the real original name was Metropolitan National Public School Singers, and the kids said that’s too long. That’s what the kids said. That’s right. So I said, “Change it.” They named it MET Singers — and only people from New York seem to understand that MET stands for Metropolitan.
What goes on at MET Choral Camp?
We’ve just changed the name from Choral Camp: the new name starting this year is MET Summer Academy. And the MET Academy concept actually came from one of our parents, and she said, “You’re doing more than just singing songs. You’re actually treating these, or giving these children an academic, an academy atmosphere, in which they learn.” And so she said, “You really should call it MET Academy,” and so now the summer program is now going to be called MET Summer Academy, because it’s really an immersion in all things choral.
Now they do get other experiences, but it’s really all things choral, because we’ve got several generations who haven’t experienced this. They truly have not experienced this. I remember, with my peers, singing in harmony. I remember, with my peers, taking songs off the radio and being able to sing it even better than what was on the radio, because we harmonized it. And I have children and adults now who want to do that — but they just haven’t experienced it. Like I said, I remember singing harmony with my parents and my sister, in the car. We’d go somewhere, we always sang.
Do you always hear the part?
I never remember not hearing parts, because it goes that far back for me as a child.
Some people don’t hear it naturally.
See, I can’t imagine not hearing it because I’ve — I wasn’t born with it, but I heard it from such an early time. And remember, my mother was pregnant with me playing the piano. She’s a concert pianist. My oldest sister remembers crawling under the grand piano on the stage when my mother would perform, and sitting on the piano practice. I cannot even imagine not having harmony in my ear, in my brain.
Who is qualified to go to the MET Academy?
Whosoever will; let them come. It’s open to any child grades — any rising second-grader, through seniors in high school. And there are two tracks: there’s a track for grades two, three and four, that’s appropriate for them, and there’s a track for grades 5 through 12, but they’re divided up. And the teachers that work with each track, plus the special things we’re bringing in, it’s called Inspiration Point, and that’s a guest artist that comes in for about 45 minutes, and doesn’t lecture. They talk to the children about their lives as a musician, why they continue as a musician, what’s inspired them as a musician, and then they perform for the children in whatever genre they are in, whatever the style is.
Music is so critical to childhood development, and it gives a lot of these children, when they come into a program like this an impetus to even get up and go to school each day.
Exactly. Yeah, I had a principal who said, “I don’t know if you realize,” (he had been tracking this, and they didn’t have music every day) — “but when a child has music, there are a fewer absentees in that class.” I had never realized that. He said, “On other days of the week, that child may not,” but he said, “on the day they have music, there are fewer absentees on that class, across all grade levels.”
Learn more at choralartslink.org.