By Bruce E. Whitacre

It’s odd.

Music is perhaps the most pervasive and accessible art form available today.  Almost anyone can access it with an internet connection and a link to YouTube. Almost anyone can make it with Garage Band and a SoundCloud account. And research has proven time and time again that learning music facilitates learning other subjects, enhances skills children use in other areas, and improves IQ and test scores.  And yet there is an unprecedented global decline in music education, suggesting young people are hearing a lot of music but not thinking critically about it.

Simultaneously, theatres have been expanding their production of musicals over the years.  Yet their work with students attending these musicals has not focused on music per se.

It is from this dichotomy that our Making Music program emerged.

In 2017-18 Theatre Forward brought together four theatres from across the country to heighten musical awareness and appreciation among students, and create curriculum that focuses specifically on these elements within productions. The theatres in the program gave 5,000 students access to theatre performances, and nearly 1,000 student workshops that helped them understand better the key role music plays in theatre and our lives.

Here is how we did it…

Our Purpose

Like many of Theatre Forward projects, Making Music was born out of a unique intersection of funder interest and fulfilling a need. For its pilot season, we are very grateful for the generous sponsorship of The Augustine Foundation, with additional support from The Music Man Foundation. The Music Man Foundation aims to support transformative music programs for children who may not otherwise be able to access such opportunities.


These aligned interests meant ours was an ideal partnership to fulfill the goals of Making Music, which were to:

  • Provide students access to the theatre
  • Supplement the theatre-going experience with educational programs that would increase musical understanding in students, with the ultimate goal to
  • Increase social tolerance and empathy within our students.

Tall order, so how did we achieve this? Like all of our initiatives, success always comes down to strong partners, strong curriculum, and strong evaluation.


Our Partners

Making Music took place in four Theatre Forward theatres: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arena Stage in Washington DC, Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN; and Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI.

Students attended matinee performances and engaged with teaching artists around four powerful pieces of theatre. Each show was specifically chosen for its emphasis on social tolerance and empathy as well as its significance and reflection of certain cultures.

Each piece featured a critical musical component. Many featured a musician or musical instrument as a critical aspect of the storyline,

  • Ahrens & Flaherty’s Ragtime at Trinity Rep explored the lives of a Jewish Immigrant, an African-American musician, and an upper-class white mother with a unique music style representing each storyline;
  • Annie Washburn & Dave Malloy’s Little Bunny Foo Foo at Actors Theatre of Louisville, infused folk music into a feminist reexamination of folklore;
  • Danai Gurira’s Familiar at the Guthrie explored cultural heritage and a connection to Shona music in the face of the American Dream;
  • Eowyn Ivey’s Pulitzer finalist was reborn as a magical new feminist musical Snow Child at Arena Stage, featuring a score that combined Alaskan backcountry string-band traditions and contemporary musical theater, challenged perceptions of gender roles, and demonstrated empathy towards living things.

Our Curriculum

Theatre Forward and our four partner theatres collaborated on fulfilling shared program goals, which focused on helping students understand:

  • Musical Awareness — For example, why are certain songs or types of songs chosen? How do they contribute to tone and mood?
  • Music Intention — How does music advance a story or plot? How does it advance or convey the nature of a character? And the age-old question: why do characters in musical theatre randomly break out into song? What purpose does that serve?
  • How Music & Sound Identifies and Reinforces Culture

Through attendance at student matinee productions and lesson plans executed by teaching artists, the theatres worked with their students, to explore the use of sound and music in a performance.

Our Evaluation

We evaluated the program primarily through a pre- and post-program surveys. The surveys were created and evaluated by Angela Watson, a doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas, using pre-existing questions. We were particularly focused on measuring students’:

  1. ability to identify and think critically about music, demonstrated through statements and questions like:
    • I am able to talk about emotions that a piece of music evokes for me.
    • Music can evoke my memories of past people and places.
  1. ability to demonstrate tolerance and acknowledge the perspectives of others, through statements and questions like:
    • I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.
    • I am interested in learning about people different than me.

Our Results

The results of the program are striking. After participating, students, especially older ones, demonstrated:

  • 13% increase in musical awareness
  • 6% increase in tolerance
  • Better ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes

Educators at our partner theatres were deeply impressed by the power of sound and music to enhance the student experience of theatre, and the excitement and engagement they demonstrated. One of the programs observed that focus on music and sound broke down the barriers towards theatre many of their students initially feel in a way they haven’t seen before.

Our Next Steps

I’m thrilled to announce that the Augustine Foundation has recently agreed to renew funding for a second year of Making Music. We look forward to exploring more beautiful music together!

Making Music, like all of Theatre Forward’s work, can only happen through the generous support of funders like the Augustine Foundation, the Music Man Foundation and you. Stay tuned for more news as Making Music develops, and if you have any thoughts or experiences about music and theatre have impacted your life, or would like to know more, please let me know at