Meridian High School students and their impassioned music teacher are helping lead the way for a better understanding cultural differences in a collaborative effort with students halfway around the world.
At Meridian High School, Mary Jo West’s International Baccalaureate students have composed, arranged and have written music which they exchanged with students based in Sejong City, South Korea. who also wrote lyrics in their language.
The musicians play traditional Korean instruments and sing “I’d Forgotten (We Can Change, We Can Live)” in their native languages.
The music is based on the global calamity of climate change, a topic the American and Korean students chose together after discussion of the United Nations’ list of sustainable development goals.
To understand how the project started and how everybody got together (online, of course, in today’s world), West said she searched for a partner for an international project and, “on a platform” at Sejong Arts High School, she found a willing teacher — Youngju Park.
The two instructors met virtually. Soon after, the collaborative project was off and running.
“This is something very powerful,” West said. “The future of education allows kids to examine local and global issues and understand matters from a world perspective.”
West went on to say that the students found similar world views on climate change and their love of music. They bonded by writing a song which inspires change.
They “are talking about the next steps: asking people to sponsor them, maybe with their spare change.
“There are simple things they can do. Music has inspired action,” West said.
Most importantly, West added, it’s empowering the young artists from Meridian and Sejong Arts to become agents of change.
“By confronting issues such as climate change through their music, they have been able to reach people across the world and create an awareness of a topic that can be so easily ignored,” she said.
Composition is part of the IB music curriculum and students orchestrate at least three pieces throughout the year in a variety of styles and genres, West explained.
What took the most time was not rehearsals or learning the music, but scoring it for all the instruments.
The project began last February.
On a video of the finished project, West’s wind ensemble students in grades 9 – 12 are seen playing the music composed by juniors and seniors, one of whom, Joe Carpenter, is now a freshman at Tufts University.
He took time from his busy schedule to answer questions.
Carpenter’s favorite part of the project, he emailed, was “the collaboration — in class we wrote our compositions and projects in IB Music as an independent project with feedback from others, but in the South Korea project we were able to actively work collaboratively and combine our ideas into one music piece.”
The hardest part during the process, in his mind, was being unable “to directly communicate and collaborate with the Korean students.”
He continued: “It was interesting to see how the Korean students adapted the piece to represent their culture, and how natural it sounded.”
Creating different versions of the same piece, according to Carpenter, provided a direct comparison of the ways music genres vary between cultures, as well as the ways music has a remarkabale consistency throughout the world.
Other schools are looking for international partners.
“The world is becoming one big global classroom. A lot of the collaboration is just kids talking with other kids about school and science. We are kind of on the leading edge,” West said, before predicting that the “next big thing” will be global education.
That her and Park’s classes are the only ones collaborating is unlikely, but she’s unaware of other Fairfax County classes conducting similar alliances.
She hopes to produce more programs like this one.
Many teachers and high school students rank understanding different cultures as a most important subject.
“Music is a powerful universal language that speaks through all cultures,” she emailed.
In July, the performance debuted at a virtual international youth forum, “Our Planet Matters,” held in Sejong City. West was a featured speaker.
The music show may be seen on YouTube.
On the video, West conducted the Meridian portion and Alex Smith is the American soloist who sings the haunting words which include “I always thought the sun would shine forever” and “but now the sun is sinking under winter’s last farewell” and “water cries plastic polluted tears.”
The South Korean students created the art that provided a visual for the presentation.
West laughed when asked the length of her teaching career: 25 years and counting.
Her passion for the subject leaps over the phone; her enthusiasm is infectious.
She knows a thing or two about global education, having taught at an international school in Japan and in schools across the U.S.
She received the Washington Post Agnes Meyer “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” award, the Wisconsin “Educator of the Year” award, and she has been a finalist for the Grammy Foundation’s “Music Educator National Award.”
Under her direction, the bands at Meridian (formerly George Mason High) have consistently received superior ratings in competitions and have performed at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and Disney World in Orlando.
West said: “The future will be all about enriching your education no matter where on earth it may be.
“The world is changing so fast. Music speaks to the lyrics. We can change; we can live” which is just what West, her pupils, and the South Korean students are doing.
When MHS hosts its winter concert on Dec. 9, “I’d Forgotten” may be on the program.