Band Teacher Breathes New Life Into American History
Friday, June 11, 2010
Most high school students learn about American history by reading textbooks or visiting monuments. However, a group of teenagers at La Jolla Country Day School are learning history from a high school musical.
SAN DIEGO Fifteen-year-old Lauren Torres stands in the middle of a large high school auditorium. It's rehearsal time at La Jolla Country Day School. A panel of teachers sits in front of Torres, mesmerized by her voice.
Sitting at a piano in the background is Wil Reed. He's the school's band teacher. Reed has dedicated more than three years to producing this musical.
It all began when Reed was in Washington D.C. He wanted to brush up on his early U.S. history. So he picked up some historical biographies and began reading. Reed says he became fascinated by the lives of two men: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Hamilton was America's first Secretary of the Treasury. Burr was Thomas Jefferson's vice president.
The two men were bitter enemies. Burr ended-up killing Hamilton in an infamous pistol duel in 1807. Reed says the drama leading up to that fateful day reads like a Shakespearean play. That's when the musical ideas started flowing.
The result is an original musical Reed composed called ‘Affair of Honour.’ Much of the dialogue and lyrics come from letters written between Hamilton, Burr and other historical figures.
Reed says he knew he was on to something special. The real challenge was to get his students' buy-in.
“I've played in front of audiences many years, being a musician. But to have a bunch of students in front of you -- they're a pretty tough audience, and to my luck their reaction was overwhelming acceptance and enthusiasm."
High school senior Erica Dawson says Reed's project was an instant hit. Students loved the catchy melodies. They also enjoyed learning about the more scandalous aspects of American history. For example, Dawson plays Burr's mistress in the musical.
“That's a little saucy,” Dawson said. “But you get to know a lot more about them personally which I think is so much more interesting.”
A grant allows Reed to stage a series of workshops involving about 30 talented students. Professional actors from The San Diego Opera work with the students.
Reed hopes this musical will make it Broadway one day. He says its been gratifying to see his musical ideas become reality. And in a world where the majority of teens listen to Lady Gaga and Beyonce, Reed says he's happy his students have a deeper appreciation for this music and for American history.