Discovering Hidden Figures

A unique history project in Todd Twining’s seventh grade music class challenges students to discover the “hidden figures” of the classical music world.
When composer Juliana Hall first learned that she was the subject of Bryn Mawr seventh grader Hallie Triplett’s research project, she was quite excited. So excited, in fact, that she took to social media to share her enthusiasm about the project. “[Teacher] Todd [Twining] is opening the world of music to young girls by engaging them in a wonderful project in which students ‘research women of significant musical accomplishment and bring awareness of their lives and work to the rest of the class,’” Hall wrote. “I'm very touched to have been chosen, and with so much talk these days about gender inequality in music, I think the example – specifically of a man assisting girls in learning about women's contributions in this field – is not just laudable, but a shining example of inclusiveness and respect for women.”

Hall is just one of the many women in classical music that Twining’s seventh graders have researched and written about in the past few months. But the inspiration for the project came more than a year ago, when the entire Bryn Mawr Middle School attended a screening of the movie “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of a group of little-known African-American women who worked at NASA and were instrumental in the space program. “The girls were fascinated by the idea of women that were hidden, and bringing their work to bear for others,” says Twining.

The experience led him to reflect on the history component for his seventh grade general music class. Usually, he notes, music history covers a range of famous composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and so on. “But those are all men,” he says. “We’re at a girls’ school, so I got to thinking – who are the women that have composed?”

After a bit of digging, he was able to find a few, but most of them were dead. Twining’s hope was to be able to give his students examples of women who are living and composing now, to show them that there are women of achievement who are contributing to the classical music world today. A chance find of the website for the Kapralova Society was the key to the project. Founded in Toronto in 1998 by Karla Hartl, the Society's mission is to promote the music of Czech composer Vitezslava Kapralova and to build awareness of women's contributions to musical life. The site catalogues hundreds of women composers, many of whom are still living and composing. “I let my girls go to town on that website and see who they wanted to report on,” says Twining. “They were very eager to be able to discover their own ‘hidden figures’ in music.”
Most of [these composers] were hidden figures, so we were bringing their stories out. Especially for the older composers, back when they were living there was a lot more misogyny, and it was brave of them to step up and show that they could compose music too.

-Julia Velculescu '23
One of the most interesting aspects of the project was the interview component. “What the girls found was that a lot of the information online was limited to a name, a blurb, and what they recorded and when,” Twining explains. “They really wanted to ask questions to find out more.”
He allowed the students to put together a list of questions for their composers, which he then sent via email on their behalf. More than half of the women – 23 in total – responded. “They were delighted,” says Twining with a smile. “First of all, that seventh grade girls wanted to report on them, and second that we were even doing the project, and that their music would be relevant to young people.”
Lydia Sides ’23 was one of the students who was able to connect with her composer – Heather Schmidt, a graduate of Indiana University and Juilliard. “I tried to ask her questions that I figured people would want to hear about and that interested me too, and things that weren’t already on the internet about her,” says Lydia. One of the most interesting things she learned was that Schmidt was the youngest student to receive a Doctor of Music degree from Juilliard, at the age of 21. “It was cool to see that she could do these amazing things,” Lydia says. “And I thought it was really cool that she responded to my questions.” Schmidt went a step further as well, sending Lydia an autographed copy of her newest album, “Shimmer.” Hallie Triplett also received a gift from her composer, Juliana Hall – an autographed copy of a folio of her work entitled “Music Like a Curve of Gold.”
Over the course of the semester-long project, students produced a three-page essay about their composers, as well as a three-minute iMovie that they screened for their classmates. “It’s their own little ‘Hidden Figures’ movie, and it allows us to see and hear the women’s works,” says Twining. The movie also served a dual purpose, since by having the girls present to each other, Twining was able to maximize the impact of the project. “They have each learned about their own composer, but if there are 16 students in the class, that’s 15 more women composers they didn’t know about before,” he says.
Julia Velculescu ’23 says that the project will have a lasting effect on her. Although she was not able to connect with her subject – the composer she chose was Agathe Ursula Backer Grøndahl, who died in 1907 – she loved having the chance to tell Grøndahl’s story, and to learn about the many accomplishments of women in music. “I really liked how we were doing female [composers], because most of them were hidden figures, so we were bringing their stories out,” says Julia. “Especially for the older composers, back when they were living there was a lot more misogyny, and it was brave of them to step up and show that they could compose music too.”
Located in Baltimore, Maryland, The Bryn Mawr School is a private all-girls pre-kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school with a coed preschool for ages 2 months through 5 years. Bryn Mawr provides students with exceptional educational opportunities on a beautiful 26-acre campus within the city limits. Inquisitive girls, excellent teaching, strong student-teacher relationships and a clear mission sustain our vibrant school community where girls always come first.