Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Music Therapy

So, this week there has been and, I expect, will continue to be a great wave of remembrances of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And here I am, contributing to the great wave.

Already there have been a number of “special television events” commemorating and analyzing that horrible day, and what effect it had on the ten years that have followed.

From one cable TV news network came a remarkable three-hour examination of the events of 9/11 which focused much more on the armed conflicts the government of this nation subsequently pursued, and the terrorist organization it was claiming to pursue, and the lasting effects of 9/11 on our society: how we view the wider world, and how the wider world views us, among other issues.

From another cable TV news network: a documentary about the re-building of the World Trade Center, the end of which made clear that the plan was to replace the twin towers with a complex full of commercial and retail locations (in essence a giant shopping center), and the tone of the piece seemed to be, as soon as this place is finished, it will mean America has somehow won. Like they told us not long after 9/11: defeat the terrorists. Go shopping.

In September 2001, I was beginning my third year as the music teacher at a small high school in the Blackstone Valley. On the morning of Tuesday the 11th, my first two 85-minute class periods were each a separate section of a class called “Instrumental Music”. Originally I think the plan was for this to be when the band met, but not nearly all the band kids could be scheduled into the course, even though we offered two sections of it every semester, so it became a chamber ensemble class – several students and I making various volume levels of music every day. So we were playing tunes. All morning.

My first class ended just before nine in the morning, so my second class was full of students who knew little or nothing about what was happening in New York City. My tenor sax guy, Sean, came into the auditorium, set up for class, and said, “hey, Mr. H, did you hear? A plane hit the World Trade Center.” But he didn’t know much else, so I filed it away, perhaps to investigate later.

The third out of four class periods that day was my prep, and by chance that day I ate lunch alone in my office, rather than in the teachers’ room — desperately working to stay one chapter ahead, as they say. I ran up to the second floor of the building to use the photocopier in the library, and when I got there, I saw a TV set up in the corner and about twenty students watching it. It looked like your standard “must watch this video and the only working video machine is in the library” deal. Then I glanced at the TV picture, and noted that it was CNN, it was live, and a large building was on fire. I stayed there just long enough to put two and two together and get, “ah, so this is what Sean was talking about.” I made a mental note to watch the news and see if I could catch up with that current event later that night and returned to the auditorium, to set up for my last-period class. I’m pretty sure a PA announcement was made not too much later, about what was going on, but I don’t recall specifically what it said, other than to confirm that this current event was getting to be an even bigger deal every minute.

This I do remember though. Last period began, and my singers came in. The “Choral Music” class usually began with me at the piano, and the eight kids in the class ranged around it, warming up and singing from lead sheets. Privately, I called the class “Intro to Music Through Singing A Lot Of It,” with a subtitle of “Songs I Can’t Let You Graduate High School Without Knowing.” The majority of the students either had never sung before but would rather like to try, or had never sung before and needed the elective credits. (Whatever gets you in the door.) At that early stage of the semester, I had handed out only perhaps five or six tunes – I tried to mix up the repertoire, so it was the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington, Sting, and Rodgers & Hammerstein for a start.

I said to the kids, “I’ve been hearing about what’s been going on in New York, and you guys have probably seen more than I have. If folks want to take a few minutes here to chat about it, we can.” When you’re a teacher, you might become a therapist at a moment’s notice; well, I thought, here we go, shrink: let’s see what you’re made of.

They all, all of them, looked at me and smiled thinly; and one of the girls said, “Mr. H, we’ve kinda been staring at it all morning. Can we … just sing?”

Music turned out to be the best therapy that day.


I’d be okay with that being the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Not long after we’d gathered around the piano and started singing the tunes that we’d learned so far that school year, one of the main office secretaries came into the auditorium and pulled me aside. “Could you put together a song with any of your students? That we could maybe have you perform over the PA at the end of the day?”

If I’m in a particular mood, sometimes I will quote one of my summer-arts-camp colleagues, who once said sarcastically, “Music is Magic! It just Appears!” Non-musicians often assume that a musical selection is easy to put together on the spot, no preparation required; just put a bunch of people on a stage or a field and say, “perform!” and you’ll get the University of Nebraska Cornhusker Band instantly, or the cast of “Glee”, or whatever. Magic! (And sometimes, as another wise colleague of mine once noted, music teachers are our own worst enemies: we find a way to Make It Happen, thereby making it look a little easier than it might really be. So people might be forgiven for the misconception.)

But in this case, I wasn’t feeling sarcastic. This was one of those instances in which music can accomplish things that perhaps no other school activity can. I relayed the request to my singers, some of whom had never sung in public before. “Well, gang, what do we know? These seven things, I guess. Is there something that makes sense?”

And one of the kids looked at me squarely and said, “Obviously. ‘Imagine’.” I’d handed out that John Lennon song only just the day before. So we threw out my lesson plan, made sure we were good at that song, dragged a portable keyboard into the main office, gathered around the telephone handset that the secretaries used when they read the morning announcements, and … just sang.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religions too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

The kids’ sound was quite nice; the nice singing went into a telephone and out into the building via PA loudspeakers that were not exactly made by the Bose company, so we might as well have been performing from low Earth orbit with NASA as our sound guys, for all anyone knew. But five students made it through their first ever public choral performance safely.

And we felt like we’d done our little bit to try and help the world get sane again.


[Lyrics © 1971 Lenono Music]


September 7, 2011 - Posted by | choir, education, music | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What a beautiful story, Rob! I know that somewhere those kids are remembering that day, its tragic events and the healing that music brought to the whole school amidst all the chaos and terror. As we look back and remember that day and where we were when we heard the news, perhaps the best action we can all take is simply to “Imagine.”

    Comment by Mary | September 8, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] On this 35th anniversary of the death of John Lennon, may I offer a link to this previous Editorial License post – a story in which the most famous non-Beatles Lennon song came to some good use. […]

    Pingback by Imagine « Editorial License | December 9, 2015 | Reply

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