A new program brings together high-school students from different communities to discuss equity and social justice and to attend a live performance of Katrina Ballads

This educational initiative, created and led by music education professor and researcher Colleen Sears (Eastman School of Music, Columbia University), consists of a 2½-hour discussion group in which students engage with an interdisciplinary, multi-media curriculum that explores issues of race and class, media literacy, and the politics of crisis through the lens of two pieces of art: Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, and Ted Hearne’s oratorio Katrina Ballads. This gathering is followed by a live performanceof Ted Hearne’s oratorio Katrina Ballads, and artist talkback/Q&A. 

2015 marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm forced the nation to engage with issues of race, socioeconomic status, climate change and sustainability in a raw and emotionally charged way. As a new generation of Americans confronts the challenges of an unequal society, it becomes all the more important to critically examine the ways in which the events of Katrina revealed, altered and/or magnified perceptions about race and socioeconomic status in this country. Through dynamic partnerships with ensembles and presenting organizations, we hope to bring this exciting and challenging initiative to cities across the country.

  David Vickerman  leads a performance of "Katrina Ballads" as part of an educational social justice initiative at The College of New Jersey in March 2015.

David Vickerman leads a performance of "Katrina Ballads" as part of an educational social justice initiative at The College of New Jersey in March 2015.

Through direct aesthetic experience with music and video, students are called to consider challenging questions:

  • What happened during Hurricane Katrina? 
  • How did Katrina reveal, alter or magnify perceptions about race and socioeconomic status here in the United States?
  • What have we learned about (in)justice as a result?
  • How does Katrina force us to engage with ideas about truth, fairness, equality, opportunity, generosity, love?
  • Who decides what truth will be told?
  • What are the rights of citizens?
  • Which populations were affected by the storm? 

The culminating performance of Katrina Ballads completes the students’ experience, illustrating how music and art can be used as social commentary that is relevant to current national and global issues, and a catalyst for powerful discussions about equity, access and social justice.


Ted Hearne’s acclaimed 2008 oratorio Katrina Ballads uses as its libretto primary-source texts from the week surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Aired on national media and immediately archived forever on the internet, these are the words of survivors, relief workers, politicians and celebrities, interspersed as an emotional and journalistic song cycle. Featuring four singers and a mixed chamber ensemble of 11 musicians, Hearne’s music combines elements of many different musical styles into a compelling hybrid, challenging both expectations about the sounds and purposes of contemporary music, and our relationships to genre in art.

The hour-long performance of Katrina Ballads is accompanied by devastating and haunting film by renowned filmmaker Bill Morrison. This work, shown concurrently with the music, manipulates news clips and source footage of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the hurricane into a visual world that is both slowly undulating in its texture and highly narrative.

Katrina Ballads is the recipient of the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize for composition. The work was premiered at the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Festival in a production by Yes is a World and Charleston's New Music Collective, received its New York premiere in 2008, and was included in the New York City Opera's 2009 VOX Festival.

A full recording of the work was released on New Amsterdam Records (with distribution through Naxos of America) in August 2010, and garnered rave reviews including a place on The Top 10 Classical Albums of 2010 of The Washington Post and Time Out Chicago.

A new theatrical production of the work featuring film by Bill Morrison, from Beth Morrison Productions, was premiered at New York's (le) Poisson Rouge and at the Hobby Center in Houston, Texas. The New York Times called this performance "barnstorming... [with a] tough edge and wildness of spirit."


 Dr. Colleen Sears is an assistant professor and the coordinator of music education at The College of New Jersey. Dr. Sears also leads curriculum development and interdisciplinary programming for The College of New Jersey’s Institute for Social Justice in the Arts and Humanities. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from The College of New Jersey, a Master of Arts from the Eastman School of Music and a Doctor of Education in music education from Teachers College, Columbia University.  

Dr. Sears’ research explores issues of equity and access in music education.  She focuses on uncovering and examining stereotypes and transparent, oppressive power structures that exist inside the music classroom and within the professional community.  Her research on gender issues in music education has been published in Music Education Research, GEMS (Gender, Education, Music, Society), Tempo Magazine, and The Woman Conductor.  Her work has recently been presented at the 2015 NAfME Eastern Division Conference, the 2015 Colloquium for Teachers of Instrumental Music Methods, the 2015 Music Education as Social, Political, and Cultural Action MayDay Group Colloquium, and at the 2014 American Educational Research Association’s Annual Meeting.


Katrina Ballads Educational Initiative is a lean and flexible program that does not require many resources to implement. We will work collaboratively with the educational outreach contact from your presenting organization to enhance the Katrina Ballads performance with this innovative program.

stills from Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke"