Composition Department

Student Activity

2009-2010 Kids Compose Review

‘Kids Compose' and listen eagerly to music compositions

By Peter Jacobi

April 26, 2009

A while back, on a weekday morning, I sat in the Musical Arts Center watching a theater-filling set of third graders from area schools listen to band music. They and I heard some established pieces and two brief new ones, these written by IU student composers and based on tunes provided by a quartet of third graders as part of a project called "Kids Compose."

Eleven days ago, I sat in as a house-filling crush of fifth graders, again from area schools, filed into the MAC for another "Kids Compose" event. This one focused on the orchestra and included bits and pieces from selections the IU Concert Orchestra was to perform in the evening for an audience of adults, under conductor David Effron. Again, however, new music became an element. The "Kids Compose" project, brainchild and object of loving attention for that busy Bloomingtonian named Ruth Boshkoff, resulted in more winners, four youngsters who provided tunes incorporated by a pair of IU music students into new, two-minute orchestral compositions.

Two sixth graders - Javier Rodriguez of Templeton School and Mac Vogelsang of University - contributed tunes they titled "Night Song" and "Riddle Man," which composition major Elizabeth Ogonek then transformed into an evocative, well orchestrated piece that, when played by the orchestra, the audience cheered. Two seemingly shy creators of music, Javier and Mac, came to the stage to smile timidly and bow.

Two more "Kids Compose" winners - fourth grader Wesley Oliver from Arlington Heights and third grader Lauren Bauman from St. Charles Elementary - took their bows to cheers and applause after Maestro Effron and the orchestra played their little inspirations, "Fire" and "A Song," as fleshed out into an impressive item composer Joshua Groffman called "A Flash of Fire, A Snatch of Song."

Groffman, in response to questions from me, said he found the two melodies to be imaginative, that they "made creative use of some very interesting harmonies, and had contrasting characters that I thought would work well together." Lauren's "A Song," he said, "was slow, mysterious, and a little sad, while Wesley's ‘Fire' was more dissonant, fast and exciting. In the piece I wrote . I presented the two melodies one after the other, adding harmonies and orchestrations, and trying to augment the character and emotions that I thought were already present. The piece ends by combining motifs from both melodies, tying everything together."

Asked what it was like to combine two stray items into a work of his own, Groffman noted that the requirement he needed to meet was to write music "easy for an orchestra to play, and it had to be no longer than two minutes. It would've been easy to write a much longer piece using just one of the melodies, so combining both into one piece without feeling rushed was an interesting challenge."

In using ideas "not just of your own invention but of other people," he said, "it's important to respect the ideas they had concerning the work. So, I wanted to make sure that however I ended up presenting the melodies, it needed to be clear enough that listeners would recognize that the melodies were being played, and in a style that was true to the original characters."

And what did he learn from the project? "A lot. As a student composer at a big music school, most of the pieces I write are heard mostly by my teachers, fellow composers and other musicians. It was a valuable experience to try to write something effective for a completely different audience, one with very different expectations and ways of listening to music. A composer in the 21st century has to have a wide-ranging ability to communicate with all different sorts of people, and this sort of educational outreach project was a great introduction to that."

Groffman expressed pleasure at having participated. "I love writing for orchestra," he said, "and a chance for a performance in the MAC, with professor Effron conducting, was too good to pass up. Additionally, it was great to talk with Lauren and Wesley about how they composed the melodies, and what sorts of musical activities they've involved with."

A lesson this writer again took from the hour was that, given an opportunity to hear good music, whether in familiar form or not, children will respond favorably; they're flexible, open to adventure. When the lights dimmed, all chatter stopped, and without reminders from anxious. monitoring teachers.

Effron spoke to them briefly about "the gift of song," then gave the downbeat for a performance of the galloping Presto that ends the Sixth Symphony of Shostakovich. The kids sat still, listened and cheered. It was music they most likely had not heard before; the Sixth is rarely performed. But they took to it.

As they did to selections from a Concerto for Saxophone written by IU composer Donald Freund, for which Jacobs School colleague Otis Murphy came to the stage and impressively poured cascades of notes from his sax.

The program also contained portions of Gershwin's "An American in Paris," carefully selected to show how the composer recreated a city in tones. Student conductor Andres Moran took charge of the Concert Orchestra for this one, as he would at the full-scale evening performance. Again, there was positive reaction, to auto horns honking, the bustle of a city in jazzy rhythms and the blues to represent the composer in homesick mood.

Groffman, who attended the concert to hear his work performed, noted the continuing response. "The orchestra, and classical music in general," he explained, "aren't what most kids have a lot of experience with, but I don't think that's a barrier at all to them understanding or enjoying what's going on. The questions they asked at the end showed that they had definitely been paying attention to what was going on. And obviously, the more opportunities students are given, through programs like this, to see and interact with musicians, the more likely it is that music will become an important part of their lives."

Bravo to that! Bravo to "Kids Compose."

The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music would like to thank the Herald Times for permission to republish this review.