Tag: K-12

New Music Opportunities for Young Students Grow in Missouri

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao-tzu

Though becoming a composer or musician is a long journey, students who want to learn classical music or jazz at least have a well-defined path to follow. Take lessons on an instrument; join an ensemble or two at school; supplement that with additional performance opportunities in church, a community band or orchestra, and whatever else might be available; and a young musician can get familiar with basic concepts, techniques and repertoire in an orderly and systematic way.

While only a few may follow that path all the way to become professional musicians, many others will stay on it long enough to become the sort of adults who listen to jazz or classical radio, purchase concert tickets and recordings, and so on. Small wonder, then, that classical and jazz organizations of all sorts have gotten involved in education in a big way.

In contrast, for a younger student who wants to compose or perform new music, the path seems much murkier, or even non-existent. Until they get to college, most young musicians simply don’t get a chance to work on much contemporary music, and performance opportunities for the work of composers younger than 18 also are comparatively rare.

With music programs in many school districts already operating on tight budgets, most don’t have the resources to expand beyond what they’re already doing. But here in Missouri, educators and musicians have been developing some new ways to cultivate the composers and new music performers of the future.

The first effort is part of the Mizzou New Music Initiative (MNMI), an array of programs at the University of Missouri’s School of Music intended to make the school a center for the creation and performance of new music. While most of the Initiative’s programs are for undergraduate and graduate students at Mizzou, it actually began nine years ago with the Creating Original Music Project (C.O.M.P.), a university-administered statewide competition for student composers from grades K-12.
C.O.M.P. is open to public, private, parochial, and home-schooled students, but each student who applies must have the signature and sponsorship of their school’s music teacher. Not-for-profit groups, such as community agencies, churches, and after-school programs, also can sponsor entrants in partnership with the school music teacher, as can private teachers and other musical mentors.

The students’ work must be original—no arrangements or improvisations based on existing pieces—and teachers and/or mentors may only assist students in notating or recording the pieces.

Students in the elementary school division (grades K through five) can submit works in one of two categories, Songs with Words and Instrumental. For middle school students in grades six through eight, the categories are Fine Art Music (which includes work for string quartet, piano solo, solo instrumentalist with accompaniment, and similar) and Popular Music (rock, country, folk, hip-hop, alternative, etc.).

The high school division (grades 9 through 12) also has Fine Art Music and Popular Music categories, and adds one for Jazz. (There’s also an “Other” category, though the judges—faculty members from the School of Music—can move a work to another category at their discretion.)

Students in the Fine Art categories must submit notated versions of their work, while the entrants in the other categories may submit notation or recordings.

Composers of the top three works in each category win plaques and cash prizes for themselves and their schools, and are invited to perform their work (or have it performed, if an ensemble or additional instruments are required) at the C.O.M.P. Festival, an all-day concert held on a Saturday in April on the Mizzou campus in Columbia.

Hearing their works performed in concert is an exciting opportunity for the kids and their parents and teachers, and the event and the awards provide some strong positive reinforcement for their creativity. For the past two years, the concert audio also has been streamed live on the internet via the School of Music’s website, allowing friends, relatives, schoolmates, and neighbors who couldn’t make the trip to Columbia to hear the performance.

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield Ph.D of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

Many of the high-school age winners then go on to attend the Missouri Summer Composition Institute (or “C.O.M.P. Camp”), which is open to students entering grades 9-12 and entering college freshmen. Students who wish to participate must submit scores of original works, and a total of 16, split into “advanced” and “intermediate” divisions, are invited to participate in a week-long program held on the campus in June.

C.O.M.P winners who are selected can attend the program free of charge on scholarships designated for that purpose, while others pay a $100 fee for the week. While they’re at camp, the students get composition lessons from Mizzou faculty and graduate students, participate in various other enrichment activities, and compose a piece to be premiered at the end of the week by a resident ensemble.

Meanwhile, a couple of hours to the east in St. Louis, a joint project between the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound and the Community Music School of Webster University is giving student musicians ages K-12 the opportunity to learn about and perform the work of living composers, experiment with extended instrumental techniques, and more.

AWS, nominally based in New York though the members live all over the country, has been coming to Missouri since 2010 to serve as the resident ensemble for the Mizzou International Composers Festival, which is held each July as the signature event of the Mizzou New Music Initiative. In 2012, with funding from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, which also funds the MNMI, Alarm Will Sound began offering a “St. Louis season” of performances at the Sheldon Concert Hall and other venues.

Then in 2013, select members of AWS began coming to St. Louis in between concerts to work with students at the Community Music School of Webster University, which offers a variety of music classes and lessons for students of all ages on Webster U’s campus in suburban Webster Groves.

AWS oboist Christa Robinson, who had experience teaching elementary school students, worked with the CMS faculty to develop a curriculum for a series of monthly sessions designed to accommodate 12 to 15 students.


At the end of the year, the CMS students, who ranged in age from 7 to 17, joined Alarm Will Sound for their final concert of the season at The Sheldon. They performed Steve Reich’s Clapping Music side-by-side with AWS musicians and on their own presented John Adams’s Short Ride In a Fast Machine, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fast Blue Village 2, Vinko Globokar’s Laboratorium, and David Biedenbender’s Schism, which was written originally for AWS to perform at the 2011 Mizzou International Composers Festival.

The program has now been formalized as a regular class that will meet every two weeks beginning this fall. Alarm Will Sound members will continue to come to St. Louis once a month to teach the group, with CMS instructors using the alternate sessions to answer questions, review concepts, and practice techniques and repertoire.

In a couple of years’ time, the goal is to have what AWS Managing Director Gavin Chuck calls “Alarm Will Sound Jr.,” an ongoing new music ensemble coached by members of AWS.  In addition, this year Chuck and Robinson also plan to get the CMS students playing some works composed by past and present C.O.M.P. winners, tying the two programs together and giving the student musicians and composers the opportunity to develop peer-to-peer relationships.

While C.O.M.P. necessarily is a work in progress as well, it’s an encouraging sign that two past winners of multiple C.O.M.P. awards now are on full composition scholarships at Mizzou, taking the next steps on a path that could lead them to careers in music. While there’s no way to know exactly where they and their peers will end up, these two programs at least have helped get their journeys off to promising starts.

What Lies Ahead For Teenage Composers?

Last week, I presented to you a handful of my Face the Music and Special Music School students—young composer-performers who are profoundly talented and who are lucky enough to be immersed in educational environments that support their creative development. Alongside private instruction on an instrument and in composition, these students have regular music theory and history classes, as well as frequent opportunities to have their pieces workshopped and performed both by peers and, in many instances, by professionals as well.

Paris Lavidis playing during a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium.

Paris Lavidis playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo by Haley Shaw.

I believe that this merry band of students has the power to change the music world as we know it, but I fear the “bump” when they leave this environment and explore college options. Will the post-secondary world continue to foster their leadership potential? Particularly because I’m currently involved in high school development (the Special Music School expanded into high school grades last year), I really worry: how will these “over-educated” young composers approach the college experience?
I am far from expert in these matters, so please humor me as I explore this topic. I recently voiced my concerns to Aaron Jay Kernis (composer, Yale professor, founder of the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, and—full disclosure—an SMS/FTM parent). Here’s how Kernis described to me three paths that he sees as possible for a young composer:

The university (liberal arts) undergraduate: Lots of intellectual stimulation but possibly fewer high-level players ready to take on the challenges of playing new works

The conservatory undergraduate: Focused music study and plenty of high-level players to take on complex music, but less in the way of interesting cross-disciplinary endeavor

The “renegade” or autodidact: Attends college with no regard to musical study; skips college altogether
This all makes sense. But let’s play God for a moment and pre-suppose that talents like the ones I describe have the potential to completely transform the music world, catapulting classical music into a vital part of a larger social and cultural dialogue. I am thinking here of future Nadia Boulangers, future Howard Hansons. With that mindset, what would we want to see these kids “get” in college? How about:

* Continued development of the artistic voice, with an eye towards…
* Growing a self-sustaining artistic career
* Skill development as necessary to support this
* A wealth of experiences, active and passive, musical and otherwise
* Access to inspired teachers and excellent players
* Freedom and resources to be able to carry out some independent projects

Neither the conservatory nor the university covers all of those areas equally. For instance, while the liberal arts environment undoubtedly provides more in the way of diverse intellectual stimulation, it does not, on the whole, give young composers access to a sufficient number of high-level players and performing opportunities. “I fear that if highly experienced young composers are suddenly deprived of contact with performers at a roughly equal level that they may be ‘fishes out of water,'” Kernis writes.
Also, the liberal arts environment may not be quite as rosy as we conservatory graduates would paint it; collaboration between academic areas can be sporadic and teaching can focus less on “essential questions” and more on content loading, depending on the specific school. Finally, as Kernis points out, composers can end up with insufficient time to actually compose because of a heavy course load; a conservatory can provide more focused time for this crucial work.

On the other hand, conservatories have the reputation of being…well…conservative. As Conrad Tao, my composer/pianist colleague and friend, describes it, the conservatory is a “closed world…where people play discrete roles.” Never mind crossing disciplines; it may be difficult for a composition major to even perform on a concert, as an instrumentalist, to say nothing of pursuing a six-month project studying Indian classical culture. Furthermore, the teachers of “legitimate” instrumental and vocal majors may discourage students from playing works by their colleagues.

However, composers who avoid the conservatory experience could be depriving themselves of the chance to forge relationships with colleagues that could be crucial— from an artistic standpoint as well as from a professional standpoint. And here’s another big concern: composers who avoid the conservatory environment are forgoing the opportunity to develop as musical thought leaders at this powerful age. This affects not just the composers, but also their instrumental and vocal peers.

I believe that we want young conservatory musicians to be working with their composer colleagues as a deeply integral part of their training. For one thing, it will increase the skill level of everyone concerned. It also fosters collaboration—perhaps a whole art unto itself—that teaches young people most of what they need to know about working in the professional world today.

Zachary Detrick playing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial.

Zachary Detrick playing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial. Photo by Haley Shaw.

Ideally, having talented composition students in conservatories at the undergraduate level improves the music itself and pushes our conversation about music, as an art form, to the next level. I’m not just idly fantasizing about the next Leonard Bernstein, either—I’ve seen these conversations already happening among my students on the middle and high school levels. (Thanks to the internet and the rise of “nerd culture,” the Rite of Spring has now become the secret password to some pretty heady conversations, online and off, about music and where it is heading).

Owen Carter playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium.

Owen Carter playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo by Haley Shaw.

“Composers are in a unique position to ask the big questions,” Tao agreed during our conversation. “Music has the ability to interface with larger societal issues, and I would enjoy a day when musicians think about themselves in a social context.” Composers have an advantage over instrumentalists in approaching these questions, he thinks, partly because there is less rigidity concerning teaching methods.
However, I suspect—and again, I expect to get responses to this post that contradict me—that conservatories will need to flex more in order to adequately meet the needs of deeply creative composers, at least on an undergraduate level. A traditional bachelor’s degree in music is not going to give a student who is writing symphonies and performance art, at 13, what he or she needs in order to become a composer who can change the world.
What do you think?

School’s Not Out for Summer

On June 24 I attended one of the most amazing new music concerts of my personal “season.” Over the course of two hours, I heard two major works by John Adams—his well-loved Hallelujah Junction and also a brand-new arrangement, for two pianos, of Fearful Symmetries—a new work for solo piano (Dark Halls), a new work for violin and piano (Gesualdo In Love), a major new work for two pianos and percussion (Greek Dances), and a comic but well-structured performance art piece (Sonata for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Pianist). An average night in New York, you say? Hardly. The performers were all composers and the average age was fourteen. This took place at the Kaufman Music Center, where I have made my joyful home for the past ten years, where I am music director of the Special Music School (NYC’s K-12 public school for music nerds), and where I started and grew Face the Music (NYC’s new music ensemble for teens and younger kids).

Face the Music

Members of Face the Music transport some piano mechanics home after a performing arts fair in Brooklyn.

For me, the delight of this concert wasn’t the obvious: well-prepared music, new voices, interesting harmonies. It was that all five of the composer/performers involved—Owen Carter, Paris Lavidis, Kyrie McIntosh, Sofia Belimova, and Zachary Detrick—had independently produced and rehearsed the concert. I felt as if I had stepped into a reincarnation of the Society for Private Musical Performances. Furthermore, it wasn’t as if these folks were starved for new music activity. Owen, Paris, and Zach are all members of Face the Music, which gave 41 concerts this year—and in fact, all of them wrote pieces for the group this season. In June alone, Zachary (who is 15) had a piece premiered (by the Special Music School High School Orchestra) as part of the New York Philharmonic Biennial, and had a different piece performed by Face the Music as part of Make Music New York; Owen (who is 14) had a repeat performance (by Face the Music) of his quirky orchestral piece Sequester as part of a concert at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery; and Paris (who is 13) premiered his new theater-music piece 21 Ways to Say Grace at the Queens Museum.

And then there’s the fact that these young composers are not yet done for the summer—for some of them, indeed, the summer is a chance to finally get down to the business of writing more. I asked each of them to detail for me what they had written since school let out, and then their plans for the summer. Their answers are at the bottom of this post, but to summarize, they included the completion of violin concerti and chamber symphonies, and the creation of improvised works for piano, astronomy-inspired orchestral tone poems, and operas.

What is going on here? Is this just a bunch of amazing prodigies? Is Jenny just bragging (again)?

Sure I am bragging, a little. But to consider these young people prodigies doesn’t really do them justice. At best, the concept of a composition “prodigy” is slippery. At worst, it gives us permission to write off the broader implications of the concert anecdote I began with. Because here’s what I believe it proved: that teenagers, armed with a good musical education and an environment supportive of new music, will find it completely natural to write, rehearse, perform, and then write some more.

The reason I see it as proof has to do with the many kids I’ve seen over the past ten years come into Face the Music and find that, coupled with a good basic music education, they had all the tools necessary to start creating music in a way that I had previously assumed was the sole provenance of college students. Technology, of course, has made the idea-to-performance time much faster for young people, but this doesn’t totally explain the complete naturalness of this mini creative explosion.

It all sounds lovely, until I point out that if in fact these middle and early high school students are entering territory previously (or currently) tread only by college undergraduates, then what are they going to do in a few years when they turn 18? What is the best option for a student who has received a solid and complete education, academically and musically, through their pre-college years? Is there anything that will really fit the bill, or will these young students stimulate a new approach to compositional study on the college/conservatory level?

That will be the explicit subject of next week’s post, but in the meantime let me leave you with a sampling of my students’ responses to my question of “what are you working on this summer?” plus links to performance video from the June 24 concert.
From Owen Carter, who made the two-piano arrangement of Fearful Symmetries:

Since the end of the summer I have been writing for the FTM [Face the Music] call for scores, a piece called 82 Eridani. This is a piece that reflects the life of a G, F, or A type star. This pulls together two major interests of mine: astronomy and composition. This piece is for a middle-sized orchestra with the addition of saxophones, but a few future projects I had in mind would be smaller chamber works. Specifically, I wanted to write a piece about the western United States, because I am traveling around this summer and have been very interested in it.

Here is a screen shot of 82 Eridani:
82 Eridani
From Paris Lavidis, the composer of Greek Dances and Sonata for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Pianist:

After the completion of my Violin Concerto, written for soloist Brian Krinke, I began to revisit [my] completed works such as Chamber Concerto No.1, Chamber Symphony, and String Quartet No. 2, with the hope of revising them for performance. I also began my Violin Sonata No. 1 and a big band tune clusterfuck, and completed Symphonic Dances, an arrangement of a two-piano piece premiered recently. Also, I premiered the semi-improvised Sonata for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Pianist, as well as 21 Ways to Say Grace, a musical dialogue happening over (and making fun of) a suburban family dinner.
During the summer, I will complete Violin Sonata No. 1 and will write music to accompany a poem written for this purpose by Henry Nelson. In addition to that I will write a visually oriented dance suite for cellist Camille Dietrich, and I hope to begin my 2014 master project, a three-act randomly generated opera set in a dentist’s office, a Costco, and the Nevada desert. The opera is for two singers and an extra and tries to capture social dynamics, as opposed to the overrated aesthetics of notated music.

Here is a screen shot of the first movement of Paris’s Violin Sonata No. 1:
Violin Sonata No. 1
From Sofia Belimova, the composer of Gesualdo In Love:

Since school let out, I have been arranging and revising a piece called Train that I wrote earlier this year. I was hoping that it would be possible to offer it to Face the Music to play. My composition plans for the summer include writing a two-piano piece/concerto in case an opportunity like the one we had on June 24 comes up again.

From Zachary Detrick, the composer of Dark Halls:

Since the end of classes for the 9th grade, I have completed the first draft of Chamber Symphony No. 2. This five-movement work is a follow-up to a piece written for the Metropolis Ensemble in 2012. In addition, I am working on a piano quintet called 240 for myself and Quartet This Side Up, a string quartet that is part of Face the Music. It features John Cage quotes and extended techniques. Also, I continue work on my long-term project Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an opera inspired by my deep love for Lewis Carroll. I will be attending the Summer Composer’s Intensive hosted by the American Composers Orchestra and Yamaha Artist Services.

Here is a screenshot from the Alice opera:
And from Kyrie McIntosh, pianist on Greek Dances and also a composer:

Being a pianist as well as a composer, I enjoy writing for and playing around with my instrument. I have always been interested in improvisatory works—an area of music I haven’t really explored in concert yet. It has been said that Liszt improvised off themes, ideas, or even objects chosen from a hat during concerts. I have been improvising ever since I could stand at the piano, and I think it would be fun to try it out in front of an audience. I think improvisation is an important way of connecting with the audience and letting them catch a glimpse of who you are. This summer I am working on including improvisation in my piano works.


Finally, links to the June 24 performance. The second pianist on the Adams works is Vasudevan Panicker, who during the other 167 hours of the week is Face the Music’s managing director. Thanks to Achilles Lavidis for the video:
John Adams, Hallelujah Junction
Paris Lavidis, Greek Dances
Paris Lavidis, Sonata for Prepared Piano/Unprepared Pianist
Sofia Belimova, Gesualdo in Love
Zachary Detrick, Dark Halls

Standards and Creativity

So how do you get to be a new music composer or performer today? How do you connect with the music and grow as a listener?

To these questions, I would add, “Why?” Why is it important how a composer becomes a composer? Why is it important that performers connect with and perform music of the here and now? Why should audiences give a care about anything other than music that they’ve already heard of? If composition “can’t be taught,” if new music is a niche-within-a-niche-within-a-niche that continually pushes performers to explore that which they do not know or are uncomfortable with, if the presenters and disseminators of live and recorded music base their decisions primarily on the advice of their marketing and subscription consultants, guidance based on the fear that listeners will head for the exits or change the channel, then why does any of this matter at all?
National Coalition for Core Arts Standards
I’ve been asking myself these questions often over the past eight months as I’ve been taking part in an initiative to update the National Core Arts Standards. These standards, voluntary in nature, are “intended to affirm the place of arts education in a balanced core curriculum, support the 21st-century needs of students and teachers, and help ensure that all students are college and career ready.” Last updated in 1994, the standards have driven many of the curricular and pedagogical decisions that have been made in arts education and arts teacher education ever since.
Not to get too deep in the weeds here, but for context’s sake, the 1994 standards for music were broken up into a total of nine topics, including:

1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines
5. Reading and notating music
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
7. Evaluating music and music performances
8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture
The 2014 music standards, which are currently being revised, are based on the following framework:
1. Creating
2. Performing
3. Evaluating

Each of those concepts is being looked at by several different subgroups of professionals from around the country, each from the point of view of a different aspect of teaching music. Traditional ensembles (band, orchestra, choir), “emerging” ensembles (mariachi, rock, steel pan, jazz, etc.), harmonizing instruments (piano and guitar), and composition and theory comprise the four main subgroups, and I’ve been working as a member of the Composition and Theory subcommittee since the beginning of the year.

(Yes, I know that discussing subcommittees and 20-year-old guidelines for public school teachers is probably the fastest way to chase a reader away, but stay with me for a sec—I’m getting to the good stuff.)
The changes that are being made—which will be made public on September 30, so I can’t go into great detail—are important for several reasons:

1. The concept of “creativity” is being focused on to a much greater degree than before. The environment in which most young students experience music in school or in private lessons has always been primarily performative in nature—you learn how to play an instrument or sing, and then you perform at a solo recital or with an ensemble of some type. The creative element in this paradigm is negligible; some would say interpretation is a big part of it, but there’s little room for interpretation when so much emphasis is placed on learning notes, rhythms, intonation, balance, etc. With this shift in focus, it is hoped that students will be given opportunities to tap into their own creativity to a much higher degree than before.

2. Composing is one of the most daunting concepts for music educators for many reasons, not the least of which is that most of them have never composed before! Composition is rarely included in music education curricula (with the exception of general music, where only the most basic materials are used) and this inexperience makes it likely that not only will those educators’ students never be exposed to composing, but students who discover composing will not get much help or support. The work that my group has been doing is centered on providing educators with clear guidance as to how to work with students who are composing for the first time, those who have some experience with composing, and those students who compose at an advanced level.

3. In other creative fields, exposure in education to contemporary examples is commonplace—incorporating contemporary poetry, theatre, dance, visual art, and filmmaking is considered a natural way to connect with younger students. It is only in music that artworks from the past are elevated to the almost total exclusion of those from the present. However, if students are introduced to creating music themselves at an early age and encouraged throughout their formative years to continue exploring music through creating it as well as performing it, their interest, acceptance, and passion for new music will grow naturally. I’ve seen many examples of younger composers who had a limited musical vocabulary suddenly blossom when introduced to repertoire from the last 20 years as well as the last 100 years.

The reason that many in music education push back against this new concept of emphasizing creativity through composition are plentiful and diverse, but they mainly stem from the performance-heavy aspect of teaching music—the assessment-driven nature of today’s teacher education system limits how much exposure emerging teachers are given to contemporary literature, and it’s easier to teach students and assess how they’re progressing if the teacher has a great amount of experience with the music at hand. If the music is new and unknown, this creates a challenge for the instructor. If the music is not only new but was created by the students themselves, that challenge is heightened exponentially.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

Will these changes in the public schools affect the new music community directly? On the surface, I’d give it a solid maybe. There will probably always be a number of driven and talented individuals who will emerge from the vaunted halls of our conservatories or the “streets” of Brooklyn, New Haven, Baltimore, or Chicago. There will probably always be new premieres by the same big orchestras from whatever composer pool seems to be thriving at the given moment. There will probably always be non-traditional performance opportunities in lofts, bars, salons, and elsewhere. These changes may increase or diversify the number of creative artists from around the country, which would hopefully enrich our culture and our understanding of who we are.

But that’s not the important part.

Just as any music educator would say that the point of playing clarinet in a public school setting isn’t to prepare for a career in a symphony orchestra, the intent of giving children—and anyone, actually—the opportunity to create music of their own and collaboratively with others should not be to mold the next generation of Rome Prize recipients or next year’s lineup at Le Poisson Rouge. By allowing students (of any age) the chance to imagine an abstract idea, to plan how they could bring that idea to life, to make and play and make some more, all the while evaluating, revising, re-evaluating, and revising again, to experience the culmination of that idea and finally to look back at the entire process, evaluate it, and to dig into the next project with a greater understanding of what came before, by doing all this we allow them to see themselves, their work, and their life through a new, creative lens. With so much need for creativity, resourcefulness, and understanding in the world around us, we will require those visions all the more.

Austin Soundwaves: A Challenge Like Nothing Else

Video by John Elliot

When considering new directions in music education, examining how students are taught is important, but so to is developing ways to reach students who otherwise might not have the opportunity at all. Many youth ensemble directors will tell you that if they could choose one characteristic in their students it would be enthusiasm, and my conversation with conductor/composer Hermes Camacho revealed a group here in Texas that has that particular attribute in spades. Camacho is on faculty at Austin Soundwaves where he conducts the wind ensemble, teaches violin, and coordinates the theory program. Austin Soundwaves is part of El Sistema USA, a “support and advocacy network for people and organizations inspired by Venezuela’s monumental music education program.” Through El Sistema, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan musicians have been educated over the past three decades; Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is perhaps its best-known graduate. Growing from just a handful of programs in the US to over fifty in just a few years, El Sistema USA is now providing ensemble music lessons to thousands of underserved students throughout the U.S. as well.

Austin Soundwaves rehearsal

Austin Soundwaves Rehearsal
Loren Welles Photography

Andrew Sigler: When did El Sistema come to the U.S.?
Hermes Camacho: I’m sure the ideals of El Sistema have been felt in the United States for quite some time, but the 2008 formation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Orchkids program is generally recognized as the spearhead of the El Sistema USA movement. There are only about 35 programs in the country and only three in Texas. We are in our third year and this is my second year. It’s been great to be a part of something that is still new in that I’ve been able to have a lot of input and a real hands-on experience.
Austin Soundwaves pullquote
AS: How does one go about starting a program like this?
HC: There’s no official certification, but our program director Patrick Slevin completed the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory where they are fully immersed in the teaching culture and philosophies of El Sistema.
AS: What are those philosophies?
HC: I think of El Sistema-inspired programs like Austin Soundwaves in much the same way you might think of the Boys and Girls Club or other similar organizations which are focused on youth development, but in this case music is the vehicle. It’s a really amazing program; I gush over it, honestly. The staff and kids are great. It goes to show you that no matter what socio-economic background you come from, the reaction to music is the same. Often after a concert I hear, “I missed all those notes!” to which I respond, “No one noticed those, they heard the good stuff!” I’ve found that no matter if they come from a musical family or not, the kids have the same concern and drive to do it right.
AS: Are there particular similarities/differences between the original program and what Austin Soundwaves does?
HC: The emphasis on ensemble playing is shared between the two. It’s more about everyone coming together and working as a group. We teach sectionals, which are essentially group lessons, and last year started a music theory program which acts as a basis for fundamentals. I can count on one hand the number of students who have private lessons outside the program, so virtually all their music education occurs in-house. Also, Soundwaves has actively pursued new music opportunities for the students. Between performances at the Fast Forward Austin festivals in 2012 and 2013, as well as several premieres of new works for band and orchestra in the last year, we have made a point of bringing plenty of new music into the mix. Patrick and I have spoken about this on occasion, and he doesn’t know of any other El Sistema-inspired program that has as much new music activity as Austin Soundwaves.
AS: Are they doing any private lessons through Austin Soundwaves? Is there a private element to it?
HC: There is to a certain extent, but it’s not part of the structured curriculum. It’s really informal; if a student needs extra help for an audition or on their orchestra music they arrange to work it out with the teachers.
AS: Where is the program located?
HC: It is based at East Austin College Prep, which is a charter school. It’s co-ed and completely free and a big part of their goal is to provide opportunities to underserved communities of east Austin. Their emphasis is not only on getting students through high school, but getting them to attend and graduate college. In particular, it’s the goal of the Hispanic Alliance for the Performing Arts (HAPA), the non-profit organization that oversees Austin Soundwaves, to not only reach communities with limited resources but also target the artistically underserved.
AS: How many kids are in the program?
HC: Between the campuses of East Austin College Prep we have over 100 students in grades 5-10. At our finale last year we had nearly 100. In the three years it’s nearly tripled in size, starting with just under 40 students in grades 6 and 7.
AS: To what do you attribute that growth?
HC: I think that the opportunity to play an instrument is the big contributor. The students pay a $15 insurance fee, but everything else is covered. If you ask them, the answer is always, “This is something I wouldn’t get to do anywhere else.” They are jumping at the opportunity and recognizing the chance to play an instrument, to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Also, there is often the stigma which is sometimes associated with playing in band or orchestra, right? In many schools, if you’re not playing a sport you’re not cool. None of that really applies to these kids. A lot of the “cool” kids are musicians, so there’s a social element that partly drives the growth. Speaking to that social aspect, a lot of the Austin Soundwaves kids also participate in football, volleyball, cheerleading, soccer, baseball, and a variety of other activities.

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra
Loren Welles Photography

AS: What is different about this teaching experience relative to your past involvement?
HC: Many of the kids come in with a variety of challenges, socioeconomic ones being the most common. I’ve taught students in other programs who come from backgrounds where music lessons are a given, and sometimes those students are less personally motivated and more parentally motivated—do you know what I mean? Now, the Soundwaves parents are certainly supportive—they are extremely supportive!—but most of these kids are here first and foremost because they want to be here. In my past experience, there have been times where I wasn’t sure if a student was doing it because they enjoyed playing music or because their parents enjoyed them playing music. That has never been the case with Soundwaves; the kids are doing it because they love it. Also, the parents and siblings are always so excited! The applause at the concerts is deafening, every single time, for every single piece. And I’m talking about Go Tell Aunt Rhody and unison versions of Iron Man. They are cheering like it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, and the enthusiasm is, in my experience, unprecedented. There is no pretense of formality in terms of applause or reaction, nothing is pro-forma. The kids say, “I wish we could have a concert every day,” especially right after a show, and before a show they are truly as focused as any group I’ve ever run, including college and professional new music groups. They do it because it makes them feel special. They are wholeheartedly throwing themselves into it because of their love of music. They work very hard on their own. And I find I can be harder on them, in a constructive way of course, than other ensembles. They respond well to discipline because they want to be good, they want to play well. They don’t hold it against you; they seem to crave it.

The other day the group was particularly rowdy and with six minutes left in rehearsal, I’d had enough. I said, “You’ve wasted most of this rehearsal today. You’ve wasted my time and your time. You are all better than this. For these last six minutes I want you to sit; don’t talk, don’t pack up. Just sit.” Two things happened afterwards. One was that most of the students came up and apologized, both personally and for the group, for their behavior. The other is that the other teachers and aides who remained with the students during the six minutes said that nobody moved, they sat there in perfect silence. The only exception was when, after several minutes, someone asked if it had been six minutes yet, which was met by a resounding “shhhhh!” by the rest of the students. These students know that when I get frustrated or angry, it’s only for the moment. It’s not something that I ever hold onto. Many of them have even said I don’t stay angry long enough. That I smile too much!

Post-concert meet and greet

Post-concert meet and greet
Loren Welles Photography

AS: It seems like the kids in general are quite enthusiastic. Have you had any students who are indifferent or treat it like a compulsory class?
HC: Well, one student comes to mind who was having some issues. He’s a tough kid, concerned about his reputation as being “very cool,” and had started talking back, missing rehearsals, and generally seemed like he’d grown indifferent. So we sat him down and had a talk with him and asked if he really wanted to be here or not. And he started crying. He said, “This is the best part of my day. It’s what gets me through the day. I don’t want to leave.” And that was the end of the issue.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

AS: How would you describe your experience working with Austin Soundwaves? You are an active composer, new music ensemble director, and you teach at a university, so how does this fit in?
HC: I never take a job that I don’t want to do, and when I took the position at Soundwaves I thought it would simply be another teaching gig like the ones I’d taken before. But I’ll tell you that this has affected me personally much more than I ever could have imagined. A year ago, I never would have thought, “This is the best part of being a musician for me right now.” I love all the things I do, but this is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I’ve done as a musician. These kids make me want to work harder and to be a better musician, teacher, and person. It’s a challenge like nothing else.

Forest for the Trees

There has been a good deal of handwringing over the past few years about the glut of information and interaction that many of us voluntarily subject ourselves to every day online, but every once in a while I find myself seeing patterns and making connections between seemingly unconnected items. This may be because of my own distracted mindset—I tend to multi-task to a fault—but it’s occasionally helpful nonetheless to make sense of the chaotic and granular nature of the world we live in.

Recently there’s been quite a lot of “stuff” ricocheting around the social echo chambers that resonated in one way or another. For example:

Let’s start with the Common Core Standards scores in New York. Basically, you have external administrators (many with little to no experience in the subject area) foisting unreasonable and unproven expectations upon those for whom they are responsible. It is feared that many of those administrators have skewed agendas in regard to curriculum and teacher performance, and now that the first batch of disappointing scores have been announced, those in power will be able to push for changes—namely cuts in subjects outside of their STEM-colored worldview. (Hear a group of students from Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School respond to the statement, “The Arts are extra-curricular and disposable,” here.) Even those on the periphery—the media—act as myopic cheerleaders; the New York Times editorial linked to above does not question the viability of the tests themselves, but rather argues that more teacher training is needed in order to facilitate better test scores:

These scores should be seen as a kind of baseline to evaluate student progress from here on out. Instead of sniping at the outgoing mayor, the candidates who are vying to succeed Mr. Bloomberg need to figure out how to advance the reform effort. That means making sure that teachers are fluent in the instructional methods that help students reach the new learning goals. That, in turn, will require high-quality professional development programs that help teachers master the necessary classroom skills.

This idea is rebutted by one of the top educators in the state of New York, Carol Burris, principal at South Side High School in New York City. She points to those very fears about expectations, evidence, and agendas I mentioned earlier:

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include ‘cuneiform,’ ‘sarcophagus,’ and ‘ziggurat.’…

What is equally disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases…

The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools—from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations—all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change…This is all to be enforced by their principals, who must attend “calibration events” run by “network teams.”

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

Proof of that last statement can be found in the article regarding the changes at the DeKalb School District. In order to make room for a double (88-minute) period in math for their 7th and 8th graders, the school board voted earlier this week to phase out a period during which students could choose to take elective courses in general music, art, computers, and health. Here again, skewed viewpoints and agendas are in place:

“We’re behind where we probably need to be in acceptable standards for math teaching time, and this will bring us to where we need to be,” Board President Tom Matya said.
“… There’s a give and take here, but we only have so many hours, so many minutes in the day that we can teach, so we need to prioritize what items we are teaching.”

What Matya does not say in this statement is that the change will also enable the school district to cut the equivalent of three full-time teaching positions. This is indicative of changes happening all over the country—those who hold the purse strings using narrow content models in order to cut positions, increase revenue, lower taxes, and appeal to the base desires of their “audience”—the voters.

So what does this have to do with new music?

Besides the obvious disintegration of our future pool of audience members, performers, and composers altogether, the current situation in education in our country in many ways mirrors our own situation within the concert music community. Symphony orchestras and other artistic organizations have been weathering similar onslaughts for the past two decades and the current landscape is strewn with deceased and injured ensembles that succumbed to poor planning, narrow programming, and weak financial stewardship. A 2010 Anne Midgette article I recently came across outlines the almost-humorously low numbers of classical recordings being sold.

And yet, there seems to be an equally strong pushback against this paradigm within the new music community, as can be seen by the other articles I listed above. The number of festivals, camps, and workshops focusing on new music is steadily rising, spurred on by the ever-growing number of entrepreneurial chamber ensembles who see such endeavors as integral to their missions. Princeton’s programming concept, where a new or recently composed work is placed on almost every concert, is a model that other orchestras and large ensembles could copy with ease. Steinberg is demonstrating how good can come out of disaster (most of their developers were senior employees from Sibelius who were let go in a restructuring shakeup by their parent company, Avid) and why the common wisdom should always be vigorously questioned.

All of this loops back to the one article I haven’t yet mentioned. In his essay for NPR answering why he writes symphonies, Kevin Puts lays it out simply and effectively:

The symphony is not a trifle. It is not cute or hip or light. It says something important—about life and death and cosmic stuff—and it does so without embarrassment. What it needs to say cannot be said in a few minutes; it is not short attention span music. It is music for the patient listener.

This is the crux of the whole thing—the forest for the trees, so to speak. Life, in its many facets, is all we have. We cannot learn about life simply through the sciences or technology or business or marketing or law or even education. Artists need—must—be allowed to “say something important” about life: in a symphony, a sculpture, an art film, a poem, a monologue, a ballet, even an exquisitely designed building or a subtly crafted meal. If children are denied the chance to explore the rich world around them through omission and distraction, then not only are we losing our potential artists for the future but also the vast number of non-artists who won’t have that patience or understanding to hear what those artists are saying.

The Ties that Bind, Part II

Family Concert

Shepherd speaking at a Reno Philharmonic Family Concert – Photo by Stuart Murtland

In my last NMBx post, I explored what I believe to be some big issues surrounding notions of community on the part of arts organizations in the U.S., and titled the essay with a “Part I.” At long last comes “Part II,” which was always intended as a reflection on what my experiences with “the hazy nebulae of education and outreach” in my residencies with orchestras have taught me. I said that I was in for lots of surprises. Very true. But since July 11, I made another trip to Reno (continuing my tenure as the Reno Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence), and I now have even more thoughts to share. We (Reno Phil President Tim Young, Music Director Laura Jackson, Education staff Amy Heald and Grace Hutchinson, and myself) spent time and effort taking those surprises and doing our best to capitalize on them: moving from a general introduction—“Hey everyone, here’s a composer!”—in my first season, to something deeper—“Maybe composing is interesting?”—and finally, working toward a definite goal—“Let’s compose.”

Out of all of the possible responsibilities discussed in my early conversations with Tim and Laura, education made me the most nervous. I had my reasons. My family still points out that I wasn’t really ever a kid even when I really looked like one, and I’ve barely spent any time amongst them since. How do I talk to them (a genuine concern!) and how could my work be interesting to them? And really, how would I frame a class or activity to find the right balance: I wanted to walk out knowing that they had learned something, but I really wanted to replicate my own outreach memories; I wanted to connect.

Every residency is different, and it became clear, due to a strong, long-forged partnership between the orchestra and the local school district, that a large focus of my time in Reno would be devoted to facing my fears. As we began shaping our plans, I began researching. I talked to Derek Bermel and Andrew Norman, composers who’ve had experience with composing and kids. I re-read Belinda Reynolds’s posts on NMBx about working with and composing for kids, and I talked to lots of people with lots of experience, like Ralph Jackson and Steven Stucky, about presentation. How much is it about my story, and how much about them? (About 10%/90%, it turns out.)

We cast a wide net at first. Last season I spent time with students at the University of Nevada, speaking in composition classes and to the entire music department, visited and chatted with the Philharmonic Youth Orchestras (of which I was once a member), and worked in classrooms with students from varied backgrounds at the high school, seventh/eighth grade, and third grade levels. I also worked closely and observed an elementary after-school program of the Philharmonic’s, which puts string instruments in the hands of kids as young as five years old. My conversations and approaches were different for each group, and overall I was surprised at how responsive the kids were, although there were some frustrations on my part. I felt openly disrespected at one point, and made it clear to organizers afterward that I did not intend to return. And nope!—the attitude didn’t come from a bunch of rowdy 13-year-olds as I might have guessed; in this case, the offending parties were paying by the credit-hour to be there. It certainly made me aware of my expectations for different audiences, and it’s possible that the 13-year-olds would have gotten more of a pass in my mind. At every turn, I was reminded that I did possess a skill set, and I thoroughly depended on my classroom teaching experience in graduate school; reading the room, setting the pace, when to dig in, when take the reigns, when to relax, when to interject, when to stop talking.

Everyone told me, “The third graders will be the best. They’ll be your favorite!” I couldn’t believe them, but oh, how right they were. Brimming with positivity and curiosity, able to focus and happy to work together, they are shrewd and sweet at the same time. An early moment, as I was coming around to speak with them in small groups, with three girls, sitting upright, cross-legged on the floor:

Me: “So, ladies, are you ready to share your ideas for your group piece with the whole class?”

Them, completely ignoring my question, and staring intently: “How old are you, Sean?” (They leapt at the chance I’d offered not to call me by Mr., of course.)

(aback) “Well, you three are all 8 or 9 right? I actually left Reno before you three were born. I’m pretty old.”

“Yeah, probably over thirty, but *you* look young enough to pass for 26 or 27.”

Oh, how I loved these kids: wide eyes, a hand shooting in the air, fleeting moments of self-satisfaction and disappointment throughout the class, and when it came time to listen to music, a hush and a focus. Their insights about what they heard were amazing to me; their intuition led them toward the conclusions I’d expect much more quickly than the twelfth graders, who second-guessed themselves.

Treasured correspondence. Image courtesy Sean Shepherd.

Treasured correspondence: Thanks for the memories. Image courtesy Sean Shepherd.
This fall, we took a look at areas where my longer stay and some specific planning would prove to be most useful. I wanted to work with 9-year-olds again, and we developed a larger project, with homework and group work, bridging vocabulary and sound and, in the end, encouraging the students to think abstractly about a concept and responding creatively to it. We were composing. A pet project of mine—seeking out and mentoring young composers, who, like myself years ago, were excited about stretching their wings—also came to fruition on this year’s annual Philharmonic family concert (theme: Composers!). A piece by a 13-year old named Paul was programmed and performed by the orchestra: the culmination of months of his composition work, email attachments, phone conversations (involving transposing instruments, part formatting, percussion writing, Finale fixes, the frustrations of Kinko’s, etc., etc.), a reading by the youth orchestra, a rehearsal by the Philharmonic, an on-stage interview, and lots of edits and changes. I felt privileged to be witness to so many firsts and “A-ha!” moments for a composer, and distinctly remember a similar feeling while escorting him back into the hall after his piece was performed. The first time hearing an orchestra play his music, his first applause: it was an out-of-body experience for him, and he seemed to have momentarily lost his sense of direction. He just needed a little help finding his way back to his seat.

Shepherd working with young composer Paul Novak at an RPYO rehearsal.

Shepherd working with young composer Paul Novak at an RPYO rehearsal.

That family concert provided another special moment: the culmination of another composing project; this time with students in the advanced group of Celebrate Strings (the Title I School after-school strings program spearheaded and funded by the Philharmonic), who arrived dressed to the nines for their first time in the concert hall. We had spent two weeks working on a variations project, taking a tune out of the Suzuki book that everyone knew, and composing variations (all by ear and from memory) using devices like mode mixture and changes of textures/techniques. The two most advanced students, fifth graders Julien and Javier, composed a few solo variations of their own, branching out harmonically while the rest of us devised an appropriate accompaniment. This was the boys’ second appearance with us onstage; Julien, already the professional, wondered aloud if and when they would be getting paid. This group of musicians played for a captivated audience full of their peers (children of all ages were welcome to bring their families along, and if you’d assume that a concert hall full of 2-11 year-olds isn’t a discerning and attentive audience, I’d stand to correct), and behind them sat the beaming faces of the members of the Reno Philharmonic. I also had a piece performed on that concert, and never did I pay so little attention.

Earlier that morning, I had spoken with Laura at an impressive triennial conference on art and environment at the spectacular new home of the Nevada Museum of Art, giving a talk about the importance of place in my work to a room full of fellow serious artists from around the world. And during those weeks, I had donor lunches and drinks with the musicians of the orchestra. I hosted a pre-concert social gathering for young professionals in Reno and thanked them for their continued curiosity and interest in the arts, and attended several beautiful events in my honor at extremely beautiful homes and thanked the hosts for their support of the arts. I spoke to the board about my work and my plans and gave lots of pre-concert lectures and onstage teasers. On the phone, via email, on camera, in the classroom, in the studio: I gave a lot of interviews. I wrote two pieces.

But if you ask me now what being a composer-in-residence has shown me so far? In seeing kids from ages 5-18 respond to music and to sound (often of my making), I’m gleefully reminded that what I do can have a visceral and immediate impact on those who are curious. I remember that sometimes the thing you fear is thrust at you right when it will do you some big favors. And I learned, all over again, that in art, it’s 10% me/90% you; a pretty good equation to remember.