What do hip hop and classical music have in common? Dave Carbonara is a bass player with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra who also teaches music appreciation. Here he explains how classical music is more than just an art form, but an expression of the times.
Aside from playing bass, what other activities do you participate in with the orchestra?
I teach for the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra, and I teach music appreciation at Southeast Louisiana University. I also teach bass at Southern University in New Orleans and I have private students as well. When I’m working with the youth orchestra, students are from first grade up to high school; overall, my age group is 5 to 65.
What does being in a youth orchestra offer to a young person?
It is a great learning experience; the main reason is that it is fun. Kids love to play music, and they get to work with people in the orchestra who are doing it professionally.
Some of them want to go on and become professionals themselves. Others just do it for the sheer enjoyment of playing music, to be in a group and to meet kids with similar interests.
But the orchestra has also found that often the parents of these students have never been exposed to classical music. Through their children playing, they start to enjoy it and become regular symphony goers.
At the first concerts the youth orchestra did there were about 150 video cameras going. It was amazing; it was like a press conference!
Do most major orchestras have youth orchestras?
Just about every major city has an orchestra, and every major orchestra has a youth orchestra. They go side by side.
Why do you think it’s important for music to be part of a young person’s life?
Classical music has been going on for hundreds of years, and every major composer has included some philosophy or some of the thinking of their day into their music. If you teach classical music to young children, they get a fantastic liberal arts education.
Can you give me an example?
Back before the 1700s, there was a very strong identification between art and the church. Then Mozart, Beethoven and others started using something called “humanism,” bringing themes related to problems people had and what was going in people’s everyday lives into their music. You can see this in the paintings and writings of the time as well.
Right after Mozart, around the beginning of the 1800s, you’re got Johann Strauss who wrote the great waltzes. You learn that the waltz took Germany by storm, because everyone wanted to have a good time doing something that would previously have been only for nobility.
How do you keep students interested enough to make these kinds of connections?
The first thing you want them to realize is that music has its own vocabulary. There are certain words that go with classical music; most of them are Italian. There is a marking called “allegro,” for example. It means fast. It also means happy. You start explaining the tempo markings, different things you can do with the bow.
Once they start learning these things, you can start to talk to them about harmony, the way notes are put against each other to form chords – that chords are more than one note being played at the same time. When you teach them the basic words and concepts, they start listening better.
Then you can go on to what historical or philosophical idea the composer may have been putting into the piece of music. The result of all that would be that you ask them to come up with their own interpretation, to express themselves, what they think the piece might mean.
How do you approach that?
The first thing I do is play some music for them and ask them what it made them think of. Sometimes they’re not really sure what to think about, so they’re looking to me for some explanation. Then I explain what the composer may have been trying to say. I ask them how they would try to express that same thing, with their fingers on the instrument, or using the bow.
You cultivate their imaginations, while you’re instilling a sense of history and philosophy.
Right. It works wonderfully for young children. I also teach music appreciation at a college, so I’m dealing with 18, 19, 20 year-olds who are learning about music for the first time. Most of them maybe heard about Mozart, but they haven’t really been exposed to the music. I make them go to four different concerts and write a little report about what they thought. The overwhelming thing I notice is that they thought they wouldn’t like it, but after they went, they really liked the music.
Would you give me some examples of activities you feel have worked well?
I used to be education coordinator for the Philharmonic. I would plan out the young people’s concerts for the school year and then go to the schools and try to get students to come. We went into the schools with a group of four or five musicians and did a concert based on a theme for young kids – kindergarten to sixth grade. I found that was really a great experience for them. They enjoyed being up close, seeing the instruments, asking questions of the musicians.
I was able to incorporate lesson plans – a little geography, for example, where the composer came from. Lots of composers came from Germany or France or England. This was a good time to break out a map and show the students where this country is.
If teachers have an opportunity to maybe get a quartet or trio of musicians to come into the school, play through some music for the students, let them ask some questions, that’s a great way to get them interested.
I would encourage teachers to get hold of a music appreciation book. I like LISTEN by Joseph Kerman. Read briefly about the composers and see if there is some way to incorporate them into your lesson plan. If you know something about musical notation, it is really easy to use that as a basis for math, to help kids count or use fractions.
What do you think are the lasting effects of a music education on a person’s life?
Just about everyone in the world has some sort of affinity for music – some sort of music on some level. When you learn to listen to music, you understand that there is a technique to it, that it’s a science. It sort of opens the door for them and helps them go out and find out for themselves what they like and how to listen. When you go out and buy CD’s, attend concerts, and listen to the radio, it fulfills your life, makes your life happier. It’s as simple as that.
Does it matter to you if they end up loving hip-hop or the classics?
Not at all. Whatever they like is what we focus on. One of my students was interested in composing. We would talk about how the notes were placed against one another, harmony and melodies. He would go to his computer and compose music from some tip I had given him. He’s now going to college and hopes to write music for video games. Most students don’t end up wanting to be professional musicians, but the music gives them something they can use down the road in addition to whatever they want to do in life.
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