Teaching Composition at Illinois Summer Youth Music With Special Guests!


July was such a highlight for me this year because I was teaching music composition at Illinois Summer Youth Music. Talking about creativity, collaboration, and how these ideas connect with self-respect and respect for others is such a joy.  The only hard part of week long sessions, which my fellow composition teacher Lucas Marshall Smith would agree with, is how do you fit what feels like a decade’s amount of training and insights into each week-long session?

The answer is… you don’t!

Instead, you have to pick your battles and, in the case of an upcoming announcement of a call for works from ISYM by All Score Urbana, you find ways to continue to support the students’ musical exploration and try to offer opportunities going forward.

With experience from a previous summer teaching at ISYM in mind, I reflected on how I could use All Score Urbana as something for these young composers to aspire to after the week was over. My experiences at All Score also shaped how I ran my classroom. Using a workshop format with an emphasis on interactivity and showing appreciation for each classmate’s efforts, we worked toward creating a final composition at the end of each week. I tried to emphasize the power of community in a number of ways, including inviting special guests including composer Dr. Ivette Herryman and bassoonist and All Score teaching artist Annie Lyle Mason.

Another strong influence on how I approached making each week’s session meaningful was from conversations with Dr. Stephen Andrew Taylor, particularly about how musical pattern-making can be a great avenue to help new composers explore, especially for ones in the age range that attend ISYM.

As we explored this we had pieces of the day that we discussed in terms of the presence or absence of pattern making. While we would often explore different aspects of this in each class, two mainstays of all of the classes were Benjamin Britten’s Playful Pizzicato from Simple Symphony and Tania León‘s Alegre.

Britten’s string orchestra piece would be played in excerpt and later entirely as we learned about musical parameters including as pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, and articulation. The dramatic use of dynamics and the different kinds of pizzicato (a very guitar-like strumming happens!) led to some wonderful musical observations and creative interpretations.

León’s concert band piece was perhaps the best teaching resource during these weeks. After the students had spent the first two days thinking about and trying ways we could make or change a melody, each Wednesday Alegre proved to be a beautiful way to show how a musical gesture can be renewed through these kinds of careful adjustments and variations. Because many of the young composers were trying to keep a sense of consistency as they made the next version of their melodies, they identified heavily with Alegre and tended to be extra excited all class long. (This was also one of the most consistent note taking points of the week–everyone wanted to hear this music again).

Inviting Ivette and Annie as special guest presenters was meant to inspire the students in a number of ways. Both of them love supporting other people’s creativity and working with young musicians. Having them in class allows them to share their different artistic viewpoints and expertise. One principle I try to bring to teaching and to teaching composition is that a single classroom’s teacher is not the final word on everything. I think this encourages students to seek out better mentors, role models, and resources in the future or at least not to let the first negative personality keep them from pursuing something they want to do. I also tried to apply the “Fun Uncle/Aunt/Grandparent” principle wherein anything the students hear from a special guest, even if I have said it before, will seem much more interesting and exciting.

During Annie’s Wednesday visits, the students saw a professional performer who patiently discussed how to write for bassoon, answered all of their questions, and someone who clearly knew more about bassoon than me. I think that kind of collaborative expertise, which Annie talked about as well, shows strength in working well with others.

When Annie returned for her Friday visits, she was greeted with a new piece by every student in the class. Some had lurking, spooky gesture-filled pieces and others had written bouncy variations that asked her to play secco (that very staccato sound bassoons can do). One student’s piece was a neatly constructed non-retrogradable melody! Another explored extended techniques they had vaguely heard of before coming to ISYM that Annie had been able to clarify that Wednesday. In every case, Annie showed the kind of respect, curiosity, and followthrough any composer would dream of seeing while working with a performer.

During the second week, Ivette visited on Thursday. She played a video of one of her choral pieces Sigue, and asked the students enthusiastic questions about what they were composing. She shared about her journey as a composer, including the plucky way she began composing when she was about the class’s age by helping a friend who was stuck on a piece they were working on. She talked about her love of playing piano and about how this enjoyment of composing has led her to receive a doctorate in it from Michigan State University and to teaching at University of Illinois and Western Illinois University.

After her presentation was over, I asked the class if she could stay and give feedback as we continued to write our pieces for Friday. Because of Ivette’s warm presence and the encouragement she gave the students earlier, they were especially receptive to this. As we played through the pieces-in-progress, I particularly enjoyed how we had different observations. The following day, as the class and I listened to the music they had written, I noticed how a few of the students had particularly taken Ivette’s advice to heart and had found some new, beautiful variations on their melodies. Hearing more than one supportive voice seems to have made an impact on my ISYM students and I am so glad that is the case.


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