By Jon Deak
April 10, 2010
Hola Dani –
You had asked me a very good and pointed question: “If you say that the children can already compose, then what exactly do you give them in your classes?”
So, just to make things clear, I do want to give an answer to that. But first, we must recognize that all children are different, and that they have different needs to be addressed in order to speed them on their path to creativity. Still, there are basic needs and challenges that many of them share. And for that, we strive to provide them with the following: (Sorry if I write in English, it’s quicker.)
1) We provide live instrument demonstrations that are interactive! We believe in the profound expressive fundamental nature of the instruments of the orchestra, the human voice, and folkloric instruments. To help them come alive, we try to give demonstrations whereby the student “interviews” the instrument, asking it questions, listening for the answer, and where possible, it is performed. Thus they develop a relationship to it, rather than being told how to write. At all times, we celebrate and respect the Young Composer’s voice.
2) Rhythmic games and exercises. These are intended to draw out the rhythms that are within the child. This works well in social settings and class groupings. We build up a feeling of teamwork, as well as an awareness of rhythmic layering as a prelude to melodic layering; instruments and voices working together, building, fighting–whatever images naturally arise from the children. Dance rhythms are encouraged, as well as the student changing rhythms where he or she chooses. Nothing is set in stone.
3) General respect for the efforts and ideas of one another. As in the above, we encourage teamwork, mutual support, and respect for each other as Artists. There is no talking or distraction when one composer’s sketch or experiment is being tried by the instruments, and most certainly at the concert, where we all applaud the successes of each other.
4) The Ear Fantasy, or the Sentiments of the Chords and Intervals. In most societies, we grow up listening to harmonic, even contrapuntal music. It is true, that in some societies, most notably China and India, children hear monophonically, and we respect that. That being said, we need to give children access to the harmonies that their ears are already hearing quite well, and in great detail.
In that regard, I’ve taken an idea from Leonard Bernstein: that it is important for the child to feel the sentiment of a chord or an interval, more than its technical name and rigid rules of use. So we give the children basic chords which they identify according to the individual feeling (which is almost always a bit different!). A major triad may sound: happy, clear, sunny, or even glaring and sickening. A diminished triad: spooky, scary, sad, or even scratchy, furry or purple. And so on. A melodic minor 7th: yearning. A series of minor 2nds: like a beehive, or an argument. Then, we ask the children to invent or discover their own chords. The class is repeatedly asked to remember which chord is which, as a kind of game/test. Kids catch on at very different rates, which matters little, and all are encouraged. It is so important that from the very start, they “own” the chords they use.
5) Basic score notation. One of the principles of VYC is that notation is a tool, not a requisite for a composer. After all, there are blind poets! What’s important is the music in the child, not what they write on the page. So while we, in some classes, are able to demonstrate the basics of score notation, even then we insist that the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, timbres, tempi, are all checked by our teaching artists against what they hear the child is producing and if what they sing, hum, tap or play is different from what they’ve written, then we change the score, not the child’s conception. We even generally insist that a given passage is demonstrated three times by the child, so that we’re sure that what is written is really the truth. If we force them to write everything, then what we get are white-key quarter notes. In other words something very, very far from the truth of what the child is really composing.
6) Musical form. Again, we do not introduce Rondo, Sonata, Fugue, or even A-B-A form. We do not tamper with the flow of their ideas. We do encourage development, however, on the models of ordinary conversations–development of feelings, growth, decay, and sometimes we introduce images or encourage stories. In general, we have discovered that about half of all children relate music to story, and half write absolute music that is not connected to any story or text (non-programmatic). This is very important to respect and not so easy to discern initially.
There is one form which I’ve found to be liberating and encouraging for the child who cannot at first get past the “blank page,” and that is Theme and Variations. We find that children intuitively understand this particular form and relate to it profoundly. They seem able to take a melody or rhythm and just “go to town” on it. I seldom encounter a kid who just plays the theme in eighth-notes, say, or merely changes articulation: they change the actual sentiment of the Tema, and that is rich, very rich indeed!
7) And lastly – for now, because I’m sure I’ll think of other things in a few minutes, let me specify how we feel about “borrowing,” or using bits of pop or classical tunes they’ve heard. Well, we all, all of us professional composers borrow in our works, (Igor Stravinsky said “good composers borrow; great composers steal.”) And so of course, it will show up in the kids–even to the extent they try to “cheat” by attempting to convince us that something they copied is their own creation. Actually, I’ve never had much trouble with this, since I tell them it’s okay! Go ahead and borrow, but please give credit to the original by writing it above the staff. It’s fun. But, then, after a couple of measures, go off on your own, please, because who we want to hear is you. You are more interesting to us than someone we can hear on the TV or radio!
And on this subject, sometimes the most satisfying young composer is the child who doesn’t believe that he or she is interesting, who has personal issues, is rebellious, or hates to participate in a group. Getting the core feeling out of this child, whether angry or alienated, is an truly amazing experience for all–one that can be completely unpredictable. That is one of the great joys of the Very Young Composers, and a joy that will sustain instrumental music well into the future