Symphony Director Studies the Music of James Brown


James Brown and Michael Tilson Thomas

James Brown and Michael Tilson Thomas

Why would an internationally renowned European-American symphony director be intently listening to the music of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown?

Successful teachers always have their antenna up to detect highly effective resources. These resources are effective because they meet a necessary educational goal and elicit a “wow!” from their students at the same time. Successful teachers look out for books, excerpts, articles, internet references, films, videos, biographical items, magazine articles, songs, games, art etc. that have the power to interest their students on high levels.

When I ran across this account of Michael Tilson Tomas, director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, telling how he was enthralled with James Brown’s music, I knew I had to figure out a way to use it!

I could just envision students walking into their classroom and hearing a mix of Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in between a few bars of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Boulez’s “Le Marteau sans matre.”

“What is going on here?!” They would ask in eager anticipation.

Read Thomas’ explanation below. Then connect to the internet link. Listen to the in-person interview and let classroom applications flow through your imagination. In my next post, I’ll share some of my own ideas about using the conversation between the maestro and the Godfather.

Michael Tilson Thomas:

“When I was in music school, I was part of a crowd of adventurous young musicians. … One day, I heard this song, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.”

This music completely knocked me out. I wanted to share it with all my classical music colleagues. And it turned out all the hipper ones already knew the music. We were all amazed by the level of energy, the attacks, the precision, the syncopation, the wonderful empty spaces. The amazing singing. And the way you could use your ears to go down inside the music and explore all the amazing levels it had. In those years, we were playing Boulez and Stravinsky, but we were listening to James Brown. From the first day I heard James Brown’s music, I waited anxiously for each new song he would release. He became a hero of mine.”