Horton Hears a Who: Program Notes

May 11, 2009 at 10:15 pm (Elementary General Music, Music)

by Sara Cathèll-Williams, November 19, 2008.

Horton Hears a Who is a musical telling of Dr. Seuss’s popular children’s book about Horton the Elephant who goes to great lengths to rescue the tiny Who calling for help from a dust speck. Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty wrote this piece as part of Seussical the Musical, which includes many favorite Dr. Seuss stories in one musical theater production. Ahrens and Flaherty admitted that the challenge of writing this musical “was to weave [Dr. Seuss’s] idiosyncratic poetry seamlessly with [their] own words yet stay true to his spirit and ideas, wit and wordplay.” If you were to read the book while listening to this piece, you would see that the music preserves Dr. Seuss’s writing to keep his original style. The overall structure of the piece has an Introduction, five verses, and a Coda, or ending.

Horton Hears a Who begins with an immediate illustration of the Jungle of Nool with percussive and rhythmic animal calls by the Jungle Citizens, followed by a distinct phrase with the lyrics “Who! Who-wah-dah! Who! Who! Who-wah-dah-dah-dah!” The rhythm of this important phrase (the Jungle Theme) is syncopated, meaning that the emphasized or accented notes are not always on the strongest beats. This syncopated rhythm illustrates the jungle setting.

Horton’s voice begins the first verse as he sings the words from Dr. Seuss’s book, “On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle Nool…” where he spent a hot day swimming in the refreshing pool.  Though the story is about Horton, his voice contributes to the narration. His role as narrator is very prominent in the beginning, but the three Bird Girls, who are the main narrators of Horton’s story, gradually replace him. The three Bird Girls and the Jungle Citizens give sound effects to Horton’s splashing in the pool, after which he hears a small noise. Once this first verse is over, you can hear the small noise that Horton hears, but only if you listen closely!

Underneath this small noise, the Jungle Theme returns as an interlude in between verses.  This time it can be heard in the percussion instruments instead of by the Jungle Citizens.

In the second verse, The three Bird Girls sing in unison (all voices sing the same note) and they solo phrases as they narrate the second verse, where Horton hears the small noise again and wonders if it may be “some tiny person… calling for help.” The Jungle Theme appears again in the percussion along with the small noise, a tiny person yelling, “Help!”

In the third verse, the three Bird Girls join their voices together in a tight triadic harmony, meaning they each sing a different note of a three-note chord.  They narrate as Horton looks for the source of the small voice, but sees only a “small speck of dust.”  The singers use their voices to make the sound effects of the speck “blowing past through the air.” The Jungle Theme is again found in the percussion as in interlude.

The fourth verse is distinct because instead of singing, Horton speaks aloud to himself. He determines that there must be a very small person on the dust speck in the air. Underneath his words, the Jungle Theme continues through most of the verse, until Horton wonders about how scared and alone the tiny person must feel. At this point, the percussion gives way to slow-moving chords in the strings, sounding even until Horton decides that he must save the tiny person, adding compassionately, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

The Jungle Theme returns as an interlude, this time sung by the Jungle Citizens.

In the fifth and final verse, Horton’s role as narrator is minimal. The three Bird Girls sing again in unison and in triadic harmony, narrating as Horton stretches his great trunk through the air to catch the dust speck.  The only word Horton narrates in this verse is “safe” which is how he placed the dust speck on a soft clover.

The song finishes with a brief Coda: a shortened version of the Jungle Theme, sung by the Jungle Citizens who shout at the end: “Who! Who!”

This song is a lively contribution to Seussical the Musical and a great musical supplement to Dr. Seuss’s classic story, Horton Hears a Who.

© 2008 Sara Cathèll-Williams


Flaherty, Stephen, and Lynn Ahrens. Horton Hears a Who. In Seussical the Musical: Vocal     Selections. Miami, FL: Warner Bros. Publications, 2001. pp. 5, 14-22.

Seuss, Dr. Horton Hears a Who. New York: Random House, 1954.


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The Three Teachers Who Influenced Me Most

May 11, 2009 at 9:35 pm (Music Education, Secondary Music)

by Sara Cathèll-Williams, June 23, 2008

The criterion for being an influential teacher is simply to be one whose teaching acts as a catalyst for a revolution of the students’ ideas, actions, or attitudes. Nevertheless, the quality of that teacher can fall on a very wide spectrum, from the bright and inspirational to the dimwitted and ridiculous. The three teachers who were most influential in my life fall in different places on that spectrum. They are Mr. S., Mr. P., and Mr. N. (Names have been abbreviated for this blog).

Mr. S. was at the lower end of the quality spectrum. He taught high school Physics and Trigonometry. By that I mean he worked at my high school and was assigned Physics and Trigonometry classes. It was very rare for him to successfully teach either of those subjects. Usually, the students were assigned some reading and study questions from the textbook to do in class with the instruction, “Whatever you can’t finish is your homework tonight.” He sometimes browsed the room and hinted at the correct answers, but he never fully explained the concepts. On occasion, we would watch a video made in the early nineties about solving equations. I laughed when underneath their big hair, the actors advised us not to go on to the next section until everyone understood the previous section, and the tape kept rolling. Mr. S. usually sat at his desk typing at his computer which emanated the sounds of AOL Instant Messenger.

His pedagogical ideas baffled and sometimes enraged me. He once said ,“My job is to present the information, not to teach it.” He failed to embrace his role as teacher and many students failed the class because of that. The only reason I passed was because I had the motivation to teach myself the subject. This experience still makes me angry, but I believe it was a catalyst for good. Mr. S. helped me realize that students were being cheated of a great education because of poor teachers. I have developed a personal responsibility to change this situation by becoming a teacher. Specifically one who teaches.

Significantly higher on the spectrum falls Mr. P., a wonderful teacher who unfortunately neglected certain responsibilities as a music educator. He taught high school Marching and Concert Band. As his student, I learned many great pieces of music, as well as how to march and perform in an ensemble. I loved Mr. P.’s passion for band music and his encouragement to the band members to perform the repertoire to the best of our abilities. He kept us busy and involved in numerous parades, field show competitions, and concerts. The themes he chose for the field show were perfect for our age group. One year, our field show theme was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Some of the band members were dressed as the characters from the original movie, including a cohort of green-haired Oompa Loompas that danced at the front of the formation. Of course, I was one of them.

Some of my best memories of high school are from my membership in Mr. P.’s band. Nevertheless, I feel that I didn’t learn as much as I could have. Mr. P.’s downfall was that he taught band ensemble performance, period. I remember playing a scale other than concert B♭scale only once in high school. I didn’t understand the nuances of the intervals or the function of each scale note. I didn’t know the difference between major and minor. I knew only enough to play the notes, not to understand the music. This is even more pathetic than it sounds because I was in his theory class. The number of days that we spent learning theory from him could be counted on one hand, and the rest of the classes were divided between playing with a Music Theory CD-ROM and sitting in the class talking while he sat in his office. Furthermore, choir was offered for only one semester in my four years. There were seven of us, three of whom could read music, and all we sang were Christmas songs and jazz standards.

Mr. P. put a lot of heart into the marching and concert band, but he didn’t put forth any effort to build up a strong choir or music theory and history classes. He ran a music program that today would be considered incomplete, but this has influenced me to try to strengthen my music program when I am a teacher. If I have a choir and a theory class as he did, I will try to recruit members and perform a wide variety of choral music and I will make a syllabus to follow daily. If my program is incomplete because of insufficient budgeting or staffing, I will at least integrate theory and music history into performance ensembles so students could appreciate and understand the music they were playing. Though band was a lot of fun, I wish it had been a more educational experience. At least I can make it that way for my students.

Finally, my best and most influential teacher was Mr. N. He was my high school Drama teacher, but he was also a friend and an artistic ally. His attitude about teaching theater was inspiring; he believed that the dramatic arts were important and that students mattered. He did not act like a distant authority figure, but as a partner in the great quest to convey emotion and entertainment from the stage. He put his entire heart in every production, he shared his personal experiences to help us understand the emotion of scene, and he cried at almost every performance. He was a listening ear to all of our personal drama, and gave sound advice when we needed it. He respected us and treated us like peers. He was honest with us. These small acts made me feel like I was special and I was part of something profound. His attitude changed my high school experience. In this pivotal time of my life, he helped me feel confident in myself and proud of my achievements.

The influence he had on me as a teacher is simple: I want to be someone else’s Mr. N. I believe every student deserves to have a teacher like him and I will find great satisfaction and joy by filling that role of inspiration in the lives of my students. While most of my teachers were mediocre in their profession, Mr. N. is the one I want to emulate completely. He doesn’t even know it, but he is the reason I want to become a teacher.

© 2008  Sara Cathèll-Williams

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