Empowering the Voices of Tomorrow

Classic Arts Features   Empowering the Voices of Tomorrow
Across the world something truly eventful is happening inmusic education. Jon Deak talks about the Philharmonic'sown celebration of children's creativity : the Credit SuisseVery Young Composers program.


Across the world something truly eventful is happening in music education. Jon Deak talks about the Philharmonic's own celebration of children's creativity : the Credit Suisse Very Young Composers program.

On May 24 and 25 the doors of Avery Fisher Hall will be closed to traditional Philharmonic audiences to make way for concerts for a very exclusive group: New York City _area schoolchildren. In addition to works by American icon Aaron Copland, those attending these School Day Concerts, led by New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Joshua Weilerstein, will hear music created by their peers.

Children? Composing? The term "Children's Music" used to be dismissive, but should be no longer. An idea that I introduced to the New York Philharmonic 15 years ago has grown into the Credit Suisse Very Young Composers (CSVYC) program: it now serves some 14 public grade and middle schools in New York City, has become a nationally award-winning program in locations across the U.S., and has been brought to eight foreign countries on four continents. The staff, led by Director of Education Theodore Wiprud, encompasses CSVYC Teaching Artists, who go into schools to provide a framework for our next generation to have the confi dence to understand and even create the future of music.

What astonishing beauties of musical creation we have now experienced! We have honored the children's unedited creations and have treated them with seriousness, respect, and professional performances : and they have returned the compliment a thousandfold.

It works like this: children ages 8 to 12, starting with varied, or little, musical background, choose to attend after-school sessions that culminate in at least one composition : which they themselves have conceived and orchestrated : that is performed by New York Philharmonic musicians and Teaching Artists. The goal is an interactive experience in which the student-composer personally engages with musicians while they prepare for a live concert performance.

The child's creation gradually, miraculously comes to life through singing, playing, tapping, and visual drawings. Rhythmic and dance games are played, group and individual improvisations keep things lively, and "Ear Fantasy" games develop deep emotional links to intervals, harmonies, and tone colors. The atmosphere is nurturing and supportive; the class is a team in which each member honors the others' individual accomplishments and, in the end, the musicians play what the child has written.

A key player in this process is the Teaching Artist, which is a relatively new role. Arts learning specialist Eric Booth was among the fi rst to celebrate the Teaching Artist both as a fi rst-class musician and as a highly trained educator; he or she guides but does not direct, striving to empower students without overpowering them. Senior Teaching Artist David Wallace explains: "We serve as the link between the young composer's imagination and the printed score. Every sound must be created, organized, and developed by the children, not by us! Last year, Musa Jatta, age 10, created a piece called Disco Vibe. The rhythm was so complex and syncopated that it took me several hours to notate it so that the orchestra could play his groovy, jazzy rhythms with ease."

The student-composers appreciate the results. Claire Wegh, who wrote a work for the Philharmonic three years ago, when she was 10, says: "I am now composing and conducting my own music which I wrote for a Shakespeare play at Interlochen, as a result of all I learned in the CSVYC class." This involvement and understanding enhances the appreciation and prestige of more established and academically trained composers.

As for the children's own training, Fran Richard of ASCAP and others recently extended a challenge: CSVYC students should begin to master an instrument and compositional technique, the better to enter the world as composers. So we instituted a Composers' Bridge program for middle school students, to prepare them to enter specialized high schools and conservatories, or at least to enable them to notate and prepare their own scores accurately. Bridge now involves 29 children, and it is largely students from this group, orchestrating for the entire Philharmonic, who have composed works that will be performed on this month's School Day Concerts. These performances are always special events for the kids and for the Philharmonic musicians because the feeling shared by the composers and their classmates in the audience is, "Hey! I can do that, too!"

That is truly music to our ears.


Jon Deak, former New York Philharmonic Associate Principal Bass, is a composer, the Young Composers' Advocate at the New York Philharmonic, and founder of the Credit Suisse Very Young Composers program.

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