Year of Wonder – February

I have just finished my first month reading through Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill. The book provides descriptions of 366 pieces of music, one for each day of the year, and I have dutifully kept up with the mission of the book by reading about and listening to one piece of music every day. I have even given several of the pieces repeated listenings and have come to the end of January with an appreciation for many pieces I had never heard. No doubt, this project has turned into one of the better resolutions I have made for a new year, and I look forward to staying with this adventure for the next eleven months. Many thanks to Burton-Hill for her wonderful book.

If anyone would like to join me in this project, you can begin on any day of the year, and I have embedded a Spotify playlist for the music from February. I have also embedded two of the pieces from January that I had never heard and have cheerfully added to my listening repertoire. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.


Spotify Playlist for FEBRUARY of the Year of Wonder


Elena Kats-Chernin, "Unsent Love Letters" (from
Meditations on Erik Satie)
Performed by Tamara-Anna Cislowska


Reynaldo Hahn, "L'heure exquise," excerpt from
Chansons grises No. 5
Performed by Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) and Jérôme Ducros (piano)


Maurice Jarre

Maurice Jarre became internationally famous after winning an Acadmey Award for writing the music for Lawrence of Arabia, an original score that the American Film Institute has ranked as the third greatest movie score of all time. Jarre went on to win two more Academy Awards for Dr. Zhivago and Passage to India. Although Jarre is best know for his sweeping orchestral scores, he began working extensivley with electronics in the 1980s to create scores for films such as Witness and Fatal Attraction. I have embedded videos with samples from the scores for all these films below, as well as a sampling of the terrific score for Grand Prix. Many thanks to the students in my "Music in Cinema" class for introducing me to the music for Grand Prix.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Perfomed live by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson


Dr. Zhivago (1965)
Embedded to begin with opening credits, skipping the overture


Passage to India (1984)
Performed live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Maurice Jarre


Witness (1984)


Fatal Attraction (1987)


Grand Prix (1966)

Year of Wonder – January

Here's a recommendation for those who are new to classical music, as well as those who are well-versed in the classical tradition. Find a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and then plan to spend the next year exploring what Leonard Bernstein called the "infinite variety" of classical music. Burton-Hill, has assembled descriptions of a single piece of classical music for each day of the year. Reading what she has written and listening to the pieces she describes takes about 10 minutes a day, 15 minutes at the most.

It's now January 21, and I have almost completed my first month of my "Year of Wonder." In less than a month, Burton-Hill's list has already enriched my life with what I'm beginning to describe as my daily meditation through music. Burton-Hill has also introduced me to a few terrific pieces of music I had never heard (Hildegard's "O Virtus Sapientiae" and Kapsberger's
"Toccata L'Arpeggiata," for example).

I have made it my resolution for 2019 to listen to all the music in Burton-Hill’s book. Although I am somewhat knowledgable about classical music, I also know I have much to learn, and Burton-Hill's book has been a godsend.

If you would like to join me in my resolution, I’ll be publishing Spotify playlists created from Burton-Hill's book on this blog for each month of 2019. Stay tuned, and enjoy!

“I am determined … to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.” – Clemency Burton-Hill

Spotify Playlist for JANUARY of the Year of Wonder




Hildegard of Bingen, "O Virtus Sapientiae" (12th century)
Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra


Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, "Toccata L'Arpeggiata" (17th century)
Christina Pluhar, theorbo

Future-Focused History Teaching

The study of history often takes a back seat to the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Promoting STEM is necessary and worthwhile, and I have stated in a previous blog how we are not misguided in telling a student to “be a scientist and save the world.” I will, however, always be a cheerleader for the importance of students learning history. I will always do what I can to help teachers identify a good reason for teaching history and teaching it well.

Mike Maxwell has addressed the same mission in his informative and thought-provoking book,
Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning. History teachers searching for a higher purpose for all their hard work should take a look at Maxwell’s book. As someone who has spent over forty years teaching history and training history teachers, I have read much on the topic of history education, and Maxwell’s book is one of the best.

The book is well-researched and chock-full of information about what is currently happening in history education and what we can do to improve what we teach about the past. Maxwell addresses the ubiquitous presence of textbooks in history classrooms and the general inadequacies of those textbooks. He is particularly disturbed by the history classes that focus too much on the memorization of trivia.

In general, Maxwell wants to identify what makes history a useful subject and discuss the urgent need to teach it well. He asks an essential question and then answers it with common sense:

“Is our society better off holding a realistic view of the United States and its role in the world, or is society better off choosing to see only what it wants to see? Democracy is based on the assumption that the people as a whole will exercise better judgment than will a small group of elites. But this assumption is based on the premise that the people have access to a realistic rendering of reality which is primarily dependent on two institutions of democracy that don’t flinch from portraying reality: a free and honest press and a free and honest education.” (142)

In short, we must assume, as
George Washington believed, that most people want to do the right thing and will do the right thing if they have good information. Maxwell proposes we provide good historical information by moving away from history curricula based primarily on “knowing” and “remembering." We should not be requiring the memorization of massive amounts of historical information easily find on a smart phone when needed.

Maxwell also does not find the solution in creating history classes designed primarily to help students develop historical thinking skills. In a wise and nuanced explanation of the inadequacies of focusing on teaching historical thinking, Maxwell believes history classes are not really helping students develop any skills that are not already being taught across the curriculum. An emphasis on developing thinking skills does not distinguish the importance of studying history from studying other subjects. Maxwell wants to know what makes history different and why it is so important that students learn history.

In short, Maxwell wants history to be future-focused. He wants students identifying recurring patterns or "principles" of history that might help them in the future when confronted with situations similar to what people confronted in the past. Maxwell cautions history teachers against looking for “rules” or “laws” of history. He wants them looking at patterns that occur over time.

A history teacher might, for example, create lessons around the following principle: “Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control.” This principle could then be illustrated by examining the Greeks in the fifth century BCE, Joan of Arc in 1428, American colonists in 1776, Toussaint Louveture in 1791, Native Americans at the Little Big Horn River in 1876, Zulus in Natal in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Vietnamese people for the past thousand years.

Maybe, just maybe, students who have examined that principle of history will find the knowledge useful when they became voters debating world affairs. In other words, the history they learned was future-focused. They learned a history designed to help them understand the world better and make more informed decisions about how to shape the world. The history they learned was not composed of memorized facts forgotten soon after serving their purpose on an exam. The history they learned came from a set of well-examined principles identifying patterns in history that will help them throughout their lives.

The College Board currently identifies learning objectives for its history classes that state expectations for student performance. The AP US history curriculum, for example, asks students to “Explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.” All told, the objective asks students to
know information they can explain. But to what end? Why is it important to know it and explain it? Is it simply an academic exercise, a mind game?

Maxwell’s book gets to the heart of what makes history worthwhile and asks history teachers to reexamine curricula that asks them to teach one thing after another with no eye on the bigger picture, no eye on whether students learn something useful to them in the future.

I suspect most history teachers today are asked to work within a formal curriculum requiring students to know or explain historical information. The curriculum most likely also focuses on developing historical thinking skills. All of these are noble endeavors, but in the end, students need more.

STEM teachers generally have no problem explaining how science, technology, engineering, and math are “future-focused,” how those subjects will be useful in the future. The same is not true for the many teachers who struggle to make history a practical subject for students. For those teachers, I give Maxwell’s book the highest recommendation. He has made a terrific case for creating future-focused history classes. If our educational system adopted his general philosophy, we would have much work to do reaching a consensus about the principles of history we should teach our children. In the end, however, our efforts might not be as difficult as we think and would certainly create a much better answer to the perennial question that plagues history teachers: “Why are we studying this stuff?”