Women's Voices For Change
Sandy Wilbur, a Woman Who Is Making a Difference
February 18, 2016 by Deborah Harkins
Sandy Wilbur is a forensic musicologist—a sort of musical private eye. She spends her workdays evaluating whether Composer A has (or hasn’t) taken passages of Composer B’s copyrighted music. Sometimes she has to make her case in court, as she did most recently on the side of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke in the “Blurred Lines” v Marvin Gaye case. We described the expertise and capacity for painstaking research needed to do this detective work a few years ago, in our profile.
We also offered a glimpse of the creative and joyful part of Sandy’s workday—the part where she gets to write the music. This is an update on the project she began a few years ago called “Learning History Through Music”—to inform American students, through music, about critical moments in their country’s history that still resonate so powerfully today.
It’s no secret that American children—and adults—don’t know much about history. In 2011, The Manchester Union/Leader reported on a Newsweek poll of randomly selected adults: “Only 30 percent knew that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land; 43 percent did not know that the first ten amendments constitute the Bill of Rights; and two-thirds could not identify America’s economy as capitalistic or market-based.” Only 62 percent could pass the simple citizenship test given to immigrants, though 90 percent of immigrants pass it.
“I strongly believe that in order for kids to learn history, we’ve got to make it relevant and contemporary and from a kid’s point of view,” Sandy says. “Funny thing is, as a kid I didn’t care about history. It didn’t have any relevance to my life. It was only when I was adult that I realized, ‘Wow, if we’re going to keep this democracy, we’d better understand it and be a part of the process. Music is something kids relate to, and seeing kids in a historical context can help make it relevant. Then discussing how these historical moments resonate today really helps kids understand how important these principles are.”
Sandy’s passion for getting schoolchildren informed about, and proud of, their country’s democracy sprang from an experience she had in her fifties. “I got involved in a political situation that was extraordinarily important to me—preserving nature and wildlife,” she says. “There was going to be mass destruction of wetlands, birds, bats, important wildlife habitat, and wildlife corridors. There were strong beliefs on both sides of the issue. I was opposed to this, but I’d never had a situation where I had to stand up and passionately defend something in a room where some people would consider me their enemy because I did so—never had to talk in front of a group that booed me. I was so dismayed by what I found, and so passionate about opposing it, that I thought, as Churchill once said, ‘So you have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.’
“The more I researched this particular subject, the more I understood about politics, laws, and corporate power. I realized how special interests and corruption are a natural result when the majority of people are not involved in our democratic process. I very quickly realized that our kids (our future leaders) must learn the basics and founding principles of our democratic way of life so that they can be engaged at an early age and be lifelong participants. That is where ‘Learning History Through Music’ came from—my passionate belief that ALL citizens—We the People— need to be engaged in the process for democracy to survive.”
So when a social studies teacher asked Sandy to write a song that would help students learn the Preamble to the Constitution and still be relevant to the rest of the curriculum, she was eager to take on the job. “The Preamble sums up who we are and what we stand for as a country,” she says. “It’s so aspirational, I wanted it to be ingrained in schoolchildren’s minds:
‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The anthem she came up with was surprising: In the middle, after the melody framing the Preamble, the song switches to rap. “I knew I wanted a contemporary song—not something oldfashioned, because that’s what the kids would like,” she says.
She was right about that: kids like the song. Many of the kids learn it by finding it on YouTube. So far, it has garnered 391,000 views; been sung at the opening sessions of the Vermont Legislature; sold to parents and teachers for use in hundreds of schools, public and private; and generated feedback like this, on Sandy’s website: “This song is amazing! It helped my [sic] learn the Preamble in about an hour.”
“Everyone wants to do the rap part,” Sandy says. “The girls fight over the fact that the boys get to do it. They learn it just as well.”
Into the rap section Sandy loaded an explanation of how the three branches of our government work; this was not easy to put to a melody. She then hired Leon Pendarvis, co-musical director of the Saturday Night Live Band, to arrange the song. She wanted average elementary school kids to do the singing and rap parts, and auditioned over 150 elementary school kids before finding a fifth grade rapper and four third-grade girls to record the song. Having worked extensively with professional children in New York City, Sandy was blown away when she heard these four girls sing. “Their music teacher, Erin Reilly, had been a professional singer, and taught them from first grade how to really sing—at a professional level.”
That was the beginning of Sandy’s music-history project. In the next two years she created two more stirring anthems, one with sixth-grader Malachi and the girls as fourth graders: “Four Score and Seven Years Ago,” which incorporates part of the Gettysburg Address and teaches about the Civil War, Lincoln, and equality for all Americans; and “She Still Carries a Torch,” about the Statue of Liberty’s welcome of immigrants, sung by the girls as fifth graders. Sandy feels passionately that these historical moments have great relevance today in a country of immigrants facing an ongoing immigrant crisis, a country with ever-widening inequality.
She is searching for other historical moments that have relevance today, and is always happy to hear feedback. In fact, she has received a great deal of feedback from teachers and students alike, some of which informed the videos in both “Four Score” and “She Still Carries a Torch.” Having found both the cinematographer and video editor from Ken Burns’s production company, she created, at teachers’ request, three video versions for these two anthems, one with the kids in the studio interspersed with relevant historical footage; another that is documentary only, with the full sung song so kids can sing along and learn the song; and one with the instrumental version so kids can perform the song while the video is playing simultaneously.
Teachers also asked that she provide a full package for schools to use across the curriculum. Her recently completed 96-page book Learning History Through Music fulfills that request. In addition to three sections, each of which contains historical highlights, core-aligned lesson plans for fourth through eighth grades, lyrics and sheet music for the songs, she has included all eight videos and three CDs with both instrumental and sung versions of each anthem.
How can schools use the songs to teach history? They can buy, for a special price of $59, this entire book /package. Teachers can also buy some of the individual items online. Her dream is to get the backing of a corporate sponsor, so that all at-risk public schools can have the book/package (which they cannot afford even at this very low, below-cost price). Parents or PTA groups can also buy the book/package and donate it to their school of choice. Sandy donated her time, energy, and finances to undertake this project and feels strongly that this is something that would truly benefit both education and our democratic process.
During this election year, Sandy has had many requests from campaign organizations to use “We the People,” including an inquiry from a representative of one of the top-ranked presidential candidates. She turned the requests down, because she wants this song to represent all the people, not just those related to one party, ideology, or political persuasion. However, since it has touched so many people, Sandy would be willing to offer the song free (with her approval; firstname.lastname@example.org for permission) to appropriate educational, nonprofit, and social and broadcast media outlets that share Sandy’s desire to have a better-informed electorate.
“I have learned so much from the teachers and students who have found these materials online and given me feedback,” Sandy says. “The book is the final step. I learned from teachers that they wanted something for the whole school…so the songs can be used by English teachers, social studies and history teachers, principals, whoever . . . not just music teachers. They can show the videos that come with the book, so the students in the whole school can get engaged, learn more about these important subjects, and start dialogs across the curriculum.” They learn, and the inspirational words stay with them. As anyone who has ever sung a song knows, any message that comes with a melody stays engraved in memory over decades. “That was the idea—to get it ingrained. Kids come to me years later and sing the songs for me,” Sandy acknowledges with pride. “They can’t get it out of their heads.”
Excerpt: It’s a performance that will bring tears and goose bumps–even inspiration–to the most apathetic Americans. “Children are our future leaders,” says Wilbur. “They are the future. I wanted the audience to see and hear this song from a child’s point of view, and I wanted it to be inclusive of all Americans.”
Legislative Notebook, Manchester Journal, Manchester, VT
Maple St. School - The House convened its proceedings on Tuesday (1/3) with a phenomenal singing performance by eight 4th graders from Manchester's Maple St. School. The song they performed - We The People - was an original composed by Londonderry resident Sandy Wilbur. Given its focus on the constitutional tenets of our founding fathers, the song was an apt musical civics lesson to kick off the new legislative year. The Maple St. kids knocked one out of the park with their spectacular performance and received a very well deserved standing "O" from House members and spectators alike.
We The People, Manchester Journal, Manchester VT
To The Editor:
Last week, the Manchester Journal offered two contrasting interpretations of how our Constitution continues to resonate and inform our lives as Americans. I was struck by the responsibility we all have as U.S. citizens to understand this seminal document and all that it offers us.
Area composer Sandy Wilbur has made the Preamble to the Constitution come alive in her wonderful educational music video project, We the People (2011).
I was introduced to it as a parent at Maple Street School. It is an imaginative, informative and infectious way for our youngest citizens to learn about our country's history and the U.S. Government's role in it.
It opened the 2012 Vermont Legislative Session last January in Montpelier to a standing ovation and has received over 37,000 YouTube hits. Check it out at http://www. wethepeoplethesong.com/HOME.html - it is fantastic.
In addition to the general public, it is available to schools and organizations and comes with a variety of teaching resources. I highly recommend a look.
Liz Ruffa, East Dorset
Thanks to Wilson, Shumlin, Deveroux, Manchester Journal, Manchester, VT
To the Editor:
I am writing on behalf of my fourth grade class to thank Governor Shumlin and the following state representatives, Jeff Wilson and Dennis Deveroux, for organizing our class to sing at the State House for the opening of the 2012 legislative session.
Thank you also to the educators of the Montshire Museum we visited, the owners of the Montpelier Italian Deli, Il Portico, and the Comfort Inn at Maplewood in N. Montpelier.
I would also like to thank all the parents and gaurdians who chaperoned our trip. Most importantly, we want to thank Mrs. Erin Reilly for teaching us to sing the song "We the People," Mrs. Sandy Wilbur for writing the song and choosing the three girls and I to record it, and our Ms. Amy Panitz. We want to thank all the moral support provided by our school, friends and family.
Carrigan Boynton, Audrey Anglum, Madison Greene, Katie Kelly, Ethan Senecal, Nicholas Kristiansen, Austin Gras, and Graham Bowen
The Fourth Grade at Maple Street School
9/11 Event in NYC, Cambridge Elementary School
Local children invited to perform the song “We The People” at 9/11 event in New York City
Local fourth grade singers and a seventh grade rapper were invited to perform the song, “We The People,” composed and produced by Sandy Wilbur of South Londonderry, at a 9 / 11 event in New York City on September 7th, 2011. A music video of “We The People,” also produced by Sandy Wilbur, played in the background. The occasion, sponsored by Families For Freedom Scholarship Fund, honored the 20,000 donors who have so far raised over $100 million to help over 1700 dependents of 9 / 11 victims pursue their post secondary education.
The song and video, “We The People,” sings the Preamble to the Constitution and was designed to tie in with the elementary school social studies curriculum in an uplifting, non-partisan American anthem. Leon Pendarvis, of the Saturday Night Live band, completed the arrangement. Video editor, Erik Ewers, and cinematographer, Bryant Naro, both of whom work with Ken Burns’ documentary film company, bring to life the history of the Constitution and its relevance today while capturing the recording process itself.
The performers included Katie Kelly, Carrigan Boynton, Maddie Greene, and Audrey Anglum of the Maple Street School in Manchester, VT and Malachi Best of the NY Cambridge Central School near Arlington, VT. The song was recorded at Northern Track Recording Studio in Wilmington, VT studio. Music teachers, Dottie Sundquist, NBCT and Erin Gill Reilly coached the students on their performance and studio work.