Barbara Siesel and 20 Years of Music For Social Change

I was thrilled when The Flute View decided that our October issue would be devoted to Music for Social Change as I’ve spent a lot energy in my career with that goal in mind.

It seems to me that there are many definitions of music for social change.

Non–profits like Musician’s Without Borders are working throughout the world to, as their mission says: “use the power of music to bridge divides, connect communities, and heal the wounds of war.” Other groups like Music Beyondfounded by flutist Kaori Fujii aims to empower people in developing countries through music and engagement, currently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has a special focus on woman musicians.  And other organizations like Americans for the Arts incorporate art for social change into their goals of exposing and empowering Americans with the arts.


Another approach is to incorporate social change into performance projects, and into creative works whether in performance, composition or a combination of the two.  In my own work I’ve always been concerned about audiences and audience building in a time of intense change for classical music. I wondered, how can I have an impact and use music to help affect change? For the past 20 years I’ve embraced social change as a driving mission of the creative work that I do. I made a commitment to the general theme of Art for Social change and was able to secure some funding for parts of my projects through a wonderful foundation that supports Art for Social Change. Three of my projects in particular stand out.


Green Golly Project (now called Green Golly Story and Song)

In 2004 after many years of University teaching and performing new music, I gradually became more and more distressed about shrinking audiences for classical music and lack of interest in listening to, educating and supporting classical music by the general public and government in the US. I’d always embraced finding ways to expand the audience through my concert series at The New School and with The Storm King Music Festival but these projects were still in the rarefied music world of NYC and the New Music world in general. How, I wondered could I affect long term change when schools were cutting music programs and whole generations where growing up without any music education? That’s when my husband and I decided to go grassroots and created Green Golly and her Golden Flute, an interdisciplinary music and story-theater performance piece that would introduce children to classical music through an adaptation and fracturing of the Rapunzel story.

It’s been a fun journey and I think the program has made a difference. Green Golly has been performed throughout the US, in schools, libraries and concert halls, and we’ve added additional programs along the way for different age groups, always combining story, music and original song. We’ve added sheet music, CD’s, study guides and curriculum based on the programs and won a few prestigious prizes along the way.  The Green Golly Project is very grassroots, dedicated to visiting every corner of the US and introducing children to classical music and musical theater in venues of all sizes from libraries to concert halls.


As Green Golly continued to grow we noticed that some of the children we met had never seen a flute before, they also had never seen a live performance, and they didn’t have any music programs in their schools. No music education, their music programs had all been cut! It became clear that we needed to go further, beyond live performances and products people could purchase and attempt structural change in how children were exposed to and learned about music. I started to think about how we could work within the system as I wasn’t going to convince schools districts to return the music and arts programs to their schools, in fact I learned that 45% of American schools have cut or limited their music programs.  We decided to find a way to integrate music into K-12 education classes.  Focusing on English Language Arts and Social Studies we created 2 curriculums based on our live programs – “Green Golly and Her Golden Flute” for grades 2 and 3 English Language Arts and “Now We Can Sing” for High Schools in states that have Holocaust teaching mandates. We created curricula that included all the national teaching standards in ELA, history and music. We received some grant money to write the curricula and have been piloting these curricula in NYC schools, in Chicago through the Ravinia Festival and in 2 counties in Florida.

In order to reach hundreds of schools we realize that we need to digitize and create learning apps that will allow teachers to integrate music into their classrooms. Clearly, succeeding in this project could affect social change by allowing a greater number of children to learn about and experience music directly in their classes. And since music has been shown to improve learning outcomes for children (contact me for mountains of evidence) Curriculive can be successful in achieving social change and ensuring that all children have an experience of music in their K-12 education.

Now We Can Sing/My First Americans

In today’s America immigrant children are often afraid and American children are disconnected from their immigrant roots. In these programs audiences hear about a time when people of a different religion were told that they couldn’t play music by certain composers, lost their jobs and for some, their lives. Now We Can Sing/My First Americans combines a live performance of Now We Can Sing with a community event.  In order to generate an America more empathetic to the struggle and worth of the ‘other’ and the immigrant we initiated a nationwide community of My First Americans events where people can tell the tale of their family’s first Americans by doing something as simple as sharing an old family recipe or as complicated as creating and performing an original song or story.


We are living in a nation divided by social and political differences that often appear irreparable. My First Americans is an opportunity to create peace through empathy and the discovery of commonality. This program has allowed communities in schools, libraries and other public venues to help people explore history, their families and their feelings. They begin discussions, listen to each other’s stories and generally begin understanding that we are all a part of America regardless of how we got here or who we are. We share our own personal and family stories with a performance of Now We Can Sing a musical, theatrical event centering on music that was banned to Jewish musicians by the Nazis in 1930’s Germany. It follows these musicians through that era as they ultimately migrate to a new land and establish new lives, and recreate the story through the music of Bach, Schumann, Hindemith, Copland, and Gershwin as well as through the cabaret songs of Frederick Hollaender.

Of everything we are doing these days to inspire social change this program and event is the most immediately impactful and exciting.  We bring this program to High Schools as part of Holocaust Teaching Mandates in several states but the program has been equally affective at community events for people from all over the globe, since mastery, passion and self- expression transcend the isolation of hatred, racism and intolerance.


I don’t know how much impact these programs are having in affecting social change because change is slow and a seed that was planted in a 10 year old child might not bloom for many years. But I do know that it feels like the right thing to do and has been a motivator for me in the many projects I embark on and I hope you are inspired to create your own social impact projects and programs. You just never know when something you do will be the spark that ignites amazing change!

Leave a Reply