Special Report: Very Young Composers - Elementary School Students See Composing Potential

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Social development, pride in accomplishment, and promotion of musical learning are some of the benefits a study published only a few months ago noted on a program taking place in Central Wisconsin. The leaders of this music program are looking to make music education history.

The magical chromatic of a xylophone, the light staccato of a flute and saxophone consumes a concert hall. With the right amount of imagination, the music resonating from the instruments transports to another world and it takes a creative composer to put that adventure on the musicians' stands.

For three weeks, the U.W. Stevens Point music department transforms into a creative haven for 4th and 5th grade students. They come from elementary schools throughout Central Wisconsin and together, through Very Young Composers Program, are changing the face of music education.

When asked the difference between VYC and traditional music classes, the program's Executive Director, Dr. Robert Rosen said, "it's a simple but major difference. That for the kids to compose, conventional wisdom is, first they need to know a whole series of things. They need to know all sorts of stuff. This program assumes they already know everything they need to know."

The task of composing a piece is done with the help of volunteers.

"This is not your composition. This is the kids'. You're literally there to transcribe everything that they're saying to you," said Teaching Artist, Katie Del Giacco.

The program was started by Jon Deak who was the Associate Principal Bassist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years and a composer himself. In Stevens Point, it is run with the help of Teaching Artists. The former and current U.W. Stevens Point music students volunteer to give the kids one-on-one assistance.

"They don't have to know any sort of theory or background," said Del Giacco, "because as a kid, I remember wanting to have my sister write down stuff that I played on the piano like oh this is brilliant! I need to write this down and you didn't know how to write it down and your ideas are lost as a child."

The young composers are introduced to instruments and the sounds they make, then they are taught to invent their own way to remember those spots of brilliance.

"So we show them ways they can use graphic notation or pictures or write a story that represents the flow that they're interested in," said Rosen.

Each story is as unique as the composer.

"Horror movies and the bad things that happen in them," is how Damian Kessler, 9 describes his piece. A stark difference from that of Abby Erwin, 10.

"It's about a butterfly and a firefly. There's like dangerous stuff that will happen in their adventure thing. The firefly will go in a jelly cave that's actually a jelly jar and then there's a really exciting ending," she said.

"It's such a great opportunity for the kids with the arts being cut so much in the elementary schools," said her mother, Bobbie. "Any chance we can get to get more exposure to the arts or give them more music art education really helps and I think it helps them become a more well-rounded person."

The program's effectiveness is also inspiring some teachers to weave VYC into their own classroom curriculum alongside traditional music theory.

"Having them start with an idea or at least a form sometimes. Giving them one piece of the information and having them figure out the rest of the puzzle," is how Teaching Artist and Plover Whiting Elementary School Teacher, Brent Platta, describes his VCY add in.

When the program is over, a concert is held where the teaching artists will play all of the kids' music. The kids will stand up on stage, introduce their piece and have the opportunity to watch it come to life.

"When you have children enabled to express their own ideas in their own way, and have those ideas honored by adults, that's significant," said Rosen.

After asking several students, many said they never thought they could compose music before they took this program, but now they think they're genius and really cool.

"I think I already had it inside of me," said Erwin.

The results are proof of the potential and greatness that can come in small packages.

Another study currently underway about this program and the National Endowment for the Arts granted the university some money to have an outside study done as well. If you want to check out these kids' works in action, you have several opportunities to do so, including Friday as the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra plays some pieces. See the information below along with a few other dates, along with a link if you would like to sign your 4th or 5th grade student up for the next session.

Performances of VYC compositions by the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra:
- Feb. 20th 9:40 am and 11:00 am - Sentry Theater, Stevens Point (two performances for an audiences of 600 4th grade students from area elementary schools called the Vetter Concerts) The four VYC composers are from the classes of 2011 and 2012 and are now in 8th and 9th grade. They will be present and introduce their music.

- Feb. 21 at 7:30 pm and Feb. 22 at 4:00 pm - Sentry Theater (performances for the regular subscription concerts) The VYC composers will be present at the concert but will not introduce their music. There are a few other VYC programs in the US including the original one run by the NY Philharmonic. This will be the first time VYC compositions anywhere have been presented at a regular orchestra subscription concert.

The names of the Young Composers and the titles of their compositions are:

Jordyn Eddy
Dragonflies in a Lily Garden

Emma Kowalski
Spring Morning

Hope Mahon
The Adventure

Natalie Van Time
Morning Glory

Performances by the SPASH Orchestra and Wind Ensemble:
- May 7th 7:30 pm - SPASH Auditorium (three compositions from the end of the VYC program will be orchestrated by the Young Composers in the next several weeks and performed by the SPASH Orchestra)

- May 20th 7:30 pm - SPASH Auditorium (three compositions from the end of the VYC program will be orchestrated by the Young Composers in the next several weeks and performed by the SPASH Wind Ensemble)