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North Carolina students bring music to the old capitol

March is “Music In Our Schools” month, a time when advocates celebrate the programs in schools throughout our state that expose students to music.

The Union Academy Chamber Ensemble performing at the old capitol building in Raleigh. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

Every Wednesday this March, music students from across North Carolina have traveled to the old capitol building in downtown Raleigh to perform. Wednesday was the final performance in this year’s series, featuring the Union Academy Chamber Ensemble and the Wilkes Central High School Chamber Singers.

These students made music the good ol’ fashioned way — no microphones needed — and the old capitol building was an effective venue. Its collection of statues, staircases, marble edges, and other hard surfaces created a pleasant echo. When the students fell silent, ghostly whispers lingered for a moment. The setting was intimate; while one school performed, the audience could see the other waiting upstairs through the exposed roof.

“It makes it real for the legislators to see the impact of the arts,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes. “Employers are needing soft skills; they will tell you that. The idea of communication, the idea of collaboration, critical thinking … the arts is a wonderful avenue for that.”

Union Academy’s Chamber Ensemble performed first, with a variety of classical instruments, lead by director Spencer Hinson. The group performed “Dance,” “God of Our Fathers,” and “Old North State.” Afterwards, the Wilkes Central High School Chamber Singers performed. They are a chorus accompanied by piano and directed by David Brooks. Their selections: “O Magnum Mysterium,” “Sum Gali, Dance the Hora,” “Hear My Prayer,” “Amazing Grace,” and “He Never Failed Me Yet.”

You can view all the performances in the video below:

Between groups, North Carolina educator Phillip Riggs gave a short speech. Riggs teaches at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics and he received the Music Educator Award, a GRAMMY award, in 2016.

Riggs noted that the United States is one of the few countries where free music programs are often found in public schools and that we should not take them for granted. He also talked about the sanctity of making music with others.

“If ever there’s anything we need in our world right now, it’s more community,” he said. “And working together.”

Phillip Riggs, GRAMMY recipient and North Carolina educator, talks about why music matters to him. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

He gestured to the chorus behind him. “These guys may not live in the same neighborhood. They may not have the same beliefs about other things,” he said. “But when they come together in music, all that stuff’s out the door, we hope. … There are a lot of incredible things that happen when we just ‘sing a little song.'”

The event was organized by the North Carolina Music Educators Association (NCMEA). Every position in the organization, including that of president Jazzmone Sutton, is filled by volunteers. Sutton teaches music full-time to elementary kids in Raleigh.

“North Carolina has a culture of cultivating quality music education,” Sutton said. “I have had the opportunity to go around the nation, and I still come home and go, ‘this is amazing stuff’. You can go from the east coast to the mountains, and all in-between, and find quality educators who consistently share what they have.”

The Wilkes Central High School Chamber Singers performing at the old capitol building in Raleigh. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

In the NCMEA, presidents first serve two years as president-elect, then two years as president, and then two years post-presidency. In November, Sutton will be replaced by current president-elect Carol Earnhardt. Earnhardt currently teaches choral music in school and believes it is vital to support music education programs.

“My question is, without music in the schools, what happens?” Earnhardt said. “Those who can afford it experience music and the arts. I’ve been at a Title I school for 26 years. I have students … they cannot afford piano lessons. If there were no instruments in the school, they would never play an instrument their entire life.”

The ensemble from Union Academy included brass, woodwinds, and more. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

The governor also stopped by the old capitol building before the student musicians went back to Union and Wilkes Counties. Late last year, Governor Roy Cooper officially proclaimed 2019 to be “The Year of Music.”

“Music is a part of North Carolina’s history, and it’s a part of education,” he said on Wednesday. “Music and arts can often bring out the best in students who may not do well in other courses, and can give confidence and help them succeed.

“I’m excited that we declared this the year of music,” he added. “We have a lot of different kinds of music to celebrate, and it’s great that they’re coming here to the capitol and starting their talents with us.”

Robert Kinlaw

Robert was director of multimedia for EducationNC. He is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. Robert attended both public and private grade schools in North Carolina and graduated from the Media and Journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has produced video content for The News & Observer, ABC11-WTVD, UNC-Chapel Hill, The News Reporter and more. His short documentary Princess Warrior received an Excellence in Filmmaking award at the 2017 Carrboro Film Festival. Visit his website at