A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   July 31, 2006   next

The focus and energy of children is astounding.

I say that having worked with kids for years, but never having been a biological parent myself. That fact meant a respite for my attention and patience, so their insatiable curiosity and demands could be met again the next schoolday. Right now, the Vermont Chess Camp is open for the year -- about 40 kids from ages six to fourteen. While parents were jockeying to pay tuition and give last kisses for the morning, the kids were already gone from that dull world of the practical & quotidien. Chess boards were unrolled and games were underway, play commencing on chairs and whatever table or rug would support a square foot of knights and pawns.

In an hour or two, these small ones had grown, outside the world of parents, into the near-equals of their teachers. They snap back into child size when they jump in the pool or swirl a creemee in the cafeteria, but in between, they reveal the hyperspace of genius that waits inside all of us for the unfolding of dimensions. It might be a single flash or a lifelong growth. Yes, you can see the moment in their eyes.

The child's eyes
Looking across the board at the instructor six times his age, the 10-year-old's eyes are all ready to win.

Often it's written that the educational system, particularly with respect to the arts, is in a serious state of disrepair -- decrepitude, really. My composer side agrees with that. Schools with the resources produce technically able instrumentalists and singers, and some students who do well later and whose lives are enriched. Perhaps they will even return to music after work or in retirement. But all too often, our unprepared corps of elementary music teachers, limited by time and budget and laws and administrators and respect and their own expertise, are relegated to singing a tune or two, pounding on the aging Orff instruments, and trying to discern which of their charges (for forty minutes a week) might grow in the hands of an individual instructor. Their enthusiasm grows into heroics and then devolves into educational recidivism.

Having complained publicly and privately about music education, I decided some years ago to put the concepts of composer-as-educator to the test. The local school was without a music teacher and without much of a budget to hire one. What would they think of a composer teaching music? Yes, I'd taken a complete music education certification program in college, but that was nearly twenty years earlier. In the meantime it was mostly about composing and teaching adults and individual mature students. What could be done with a Kindergarten through sixth-grade program?

We made a deal. They could have me for the program at their microscopic budget -- but only if I could carry at least one class through the full six grades. It was done. To them it seemed like a deal; to me a nearly impossible challenge. Only six years? What could they learn in so little time? The answers were two -- that they could learn a great deal, and that I could learn even more.

They were insatiably curious. No, it didn't always follow my program. It rarely did. Each day (much to the distress of an adminstration concerned with consistent lesson plans) was constructed as an improvisational topic tree, beginning with my plan and ending with the youngsters' plans. It was critical that every direction be an open door for them into a room filled with treasures. Somehow I had to fill the room before they got there. It was exhausting to run ahead of them, just fast enough, and sometimes not quite. (How confounding. An adult saying, "I don't know.")

For them, there was no difference in difficulty between a Bartók string quartet and a pop song -- qualitative differences, yes, and they could find them. They learned to analyze their own favorite songs in ways that didn't diminish their enthusiasm for them. They learned to build instruments, to read and write scores in traditional and graphical notation (how else to notate a piece for vacuum cleaner, blender, and hair dryer?), to record their own compositions by 'hiring' other students to be performers and engineers. They could relate to the Mozart of Amadeus better than I could. They could sit in rapt attention to both a live performance of A Soldier's Tale and the recorded restored ballet version of Rite of Spring. They could discover ways of listening near train tracks, in culverts, and even in the classroom. They performed Benjamin Patterson's Paper Piece and Larry Austin's Square and Henning Christiansen's Incompatibility.

We had a band. A real elementary school band with every student but one -- he was the band's technician, helping repair the borrowed clarinets and flutes and trombones -- playing an instrument. Of course, it fell to this composer to write new arrangements every week to include every new note or technique that had been learned. No music purchases, no scores, no music books except an old set bought years before -- no budget for anything new. And there was a chorus. The kids sang and danced poppishly and modernly and gymnastically (they challenged me to do a cartwheel. oh, ouch.) and connected anything they could imagine to an early sampling synthesizer's keyswitches, having swordfights and making electric wind chimes and dance pads that emitted snorts and hoots. We eventually did pieces with some federally funded Orff instruments and bowls brought from home and homemade zither-like oatmeal-box things that convulsed us in laughter until we got down to the business of creating music, real music, with the detritus of basements.

Fellow composers and performers were drafted into the melee, and other teachers helped weave the threads of art and history and math and science into the music.

Oh, and there were children's songs, too, sung heartily. Delayed auditory feedback. Resonating fifths. Clapping polyrhythms. Recording howls. Recording noises. Recording voices and slowing them down. Learning to play together. In parallel. In sequence, calling and responding. Matching notes. Imitating rhythms. Doing the little things and the big ones. Writing, those who could write at all -- it was a very poor town, affecting their development -- and those who could read, reading. But poverty could never affect their intensity and focus and energy.

They went on to become college students and loggers and clerks and secretaries and inmates. We still cross paths, and we have never forgotten each other. Never forgotten when the logger played the trombone solo, when the clerk performed the animals in her barn, when the political scientist became a singing actress, and when the nascent MBA danced and sang before the entire town with a single white-gloved hand.

I imagine all of us composers, with our unique ways of thinking and working, taking our places as teachers -- to fulfill an obligation and be tested for our artistic beliefs. The child will not lie to you. For a while we could bring the other side of music to young people, the side that was always open-ended, always challenging, perhaps even worthy of their energy.

Vermont Chess Camp at registration
Vermont Chess Camp at registration. The day hadn't yet begun, but the chess games were going.

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