Passionate students can’t get enough of the music of the movies

Feb 12, 2018

From the theater to a Kenmore East classroom, film scores are helping special needs students learn about classical music.

Laura Jay teaching general music at Kenmore East High School
Credit Nick Lippa WBFO

Epic. Exciting. Immersive. Those are a few of the words you will hear inside Laura Jay’s classroom at Kenmore East High School, where she has structured her special needs general music class around film scores.

“We really cover what the kids are interested in,” said Jay, “in a way that matches up with curriculum
standards and what we need to achieve in the school year.”

When going over the greats like Mozart or Beethoven, Jay said students were much less excited. Play something they may have heard at home? It immediately becomes visible in the classroom.

“As soon as we started playing that music from Pirates of the Caribbean, their ears perked up,” said Jay.

“They’re interested. They’re on the edge of their seats. They were making really lovely, mature, thoughtful reflections upon the music they were hearing because it was music they wanted to hear and that they were interested in.”

Jay said it’s easier for students to connect to classical music if they are already familiar with something that closely resembles it. Violins, flutes, and trumpets are instruments both Richard Wagner and John Williams have used. Senior Hugh Kirksy is one of several Star Wars fans in the class.

“My favorite soundtrack, I would say, is the Imperial March in Star Wars,” said Kirksy. “That actually has Darth Vader in it. I’d say that the music basically describes Darth Vader because the Imperial March is basically supposed to be like evil music. So Darth Vader is evil.”

Then you have students like Oscar Macias. He enjoys more modern music from composers like Hans Zimmer.

“I think it’s because the way that they’re created,” said Macias. “Most music like Blade Runner—that was made by computers. Other ones were made by hand and instrumentals. I do like most of these current songs. It’s more of a feeling that you get whenever you think that the character is going to go through life or death.”

Whether it is science fiction, action, or even horror movies, the diversity of films students watch may surprise you.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre or something like that,” said junior Jaden Goris as he talked about some of his favorite movies. “That has deep music to it.”

Students throughout the classroom were able to convey how they felt regarding what they listened to when matched with a visual.

“You’re angry about something that somebody did and when you listen to it you kind of want to get back at them, but you physically don’t really want to,” said Goris.”

Credit Nick Lippa WBFO

Principal Patrick Hayden said no matter the class, it is important students have familiar material they can draw from when learning.

“Kids live in the present. This is their time,” said Hayden. “Sometimes things that are old-fashioned, if you keep giving them the classics, then they might see it as arcane or not relevant or just obsolete. But when you can make connections between the things and show the kids that maybe some new piece of music or a movie or a novel or whatever is based on something from the past, they can see timeless themes that exist among those things and make those really deep and true connections.”

The music culture at Kenmore East stems well beyond the music wings of the school.

“It’s not uncommon to walk in on a Friday morning and have a Dixieland jazz band standing on a mini stage performing a concert for kids and teachers as they’re walking in,” said Hayden. “Here in Ken-Ton we have open enrollment. That means if there’s a student that lives on the other side of town who wants to open enroll to our school, they can opt to enroll here. One of the primary reasons I always hear of for kids who want to come to our school is because of the music programs.”

Those music programs are becoming stronger. Last year, Jay became the first full-time orchestra teacher the school has ever had. Previous teachers worked at multiple schools in the past.

“When I am recruiting for my orchestra class I might play pieces like Spider-Man and Moana at the concert,” said Jay. “That might grab their attention and make them interested. But of course the next step would always be to pull them in. And then maybe show them some Mozart and Beethoven, but also show them some Lennon/McCartney too. And that’s okay. I think that the culture here at Kenmore East makes it very easy to explore a wide variety of genres.”

Using a freeware program called Soundtrap, students in Jay’s classroom completed a project where they made their own soundtrack, replacing the music to a famous movie scene with loops and a midi keyboard. That’s something ambitious for a college level class, let alone a high school.

“Making music is harder, but learning it is really easy,” said junior Cahlab Gregory. “You get to do a lot of fun things like learning different songs. You listen to different soundtracks and stuff and sit around and just listen to it.”

Gregory put his own work in to the final lightsaber battle of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

“I just want to switch it around and see what it sounds like,” said Gregory. “It’s something new to it. It’s like a new twist to it. I felt really awesome about it. I felt great. I like how I did it. It’s not scary. It’s way more… like fun and action to it.”

One resource that has aided Jay’s class is YouTube. It’s easy to stream soundtracks on the website after school. Regardless of class material, most students were doing it already. From Tim Burton’s Batman to the Conjuring 2, sophomore Jacob Ridgley listens to quite a bit.

“It’s cool because you can find the right video that you really like,” Ridgley. “Then you can go to the website that you really like. Then you can find the soundtrack to it and find the right music.”

“That’s what I do on my phone sometimes,” said Goris. “I go and find the music I want. The movie "It?" The original "It?" I kind of like the theme of that.”

Students identify the music from each movie in a unique version of bingo.
Credit Nick Lippa WBFO

Jay uses the video-streaming website for several activities including movie music bingo.

“YouTube is so accessible and so easy for the kids to use that now they can take just maybe one idea or one thought that they remembered from class and then all of a sudden can enjoy all of this variety of music,” said Jay. “I had a lot of kids coming in and say, ‘I was watching Harry Potter music on YouTube but then they suggested this so then I clicked on… I don’t know but it was like 17 videos later but what I wanted to show you was Jurassic Park. That’s where it got me.’”

Many of Jay’s students work with speech pathologists. Articulating their thoughts on characters like Green Arrow, Deadpool, Wolverine, and the music that comes with them sounds natural when you sit with them in the classroom.

“Respect wise, this is one of my easiest classes to teach,” said Jay. “They’re a group of extremely respectful, kind, thoughtful kids. They make it easy to teach them. I think the only challenge is coming up with enough awesome stuff to teach them. Sometimes it takes me a little while. It took me a few weekends to come up with all this movie music curriculum. But next year will take me a few days because I already did it this year.”

Jay has called this month long unit a great success and plans to do it again in the following years.

“I might talk about Mozart’s job and how this didn’t go right at his job at his job and how that’s kind of funny and relate it to their lives,” said Jay. “Some way to find relationships between their lives and the composers lives. Even when we talked about Eminem. ‘Wow, Eminem really got bullied while he was growing up. Anybody else have that experience?’ I use whatever I can to connect their lives to the lives of the musicians. But I think it’s easier when it’s the music of the movies because it’s so connected to their lives.”

Whether it’s an orchestra or a general music special needs class, it seems to be working for Laura Jay at Kenmore East.