Composing with kids

“Can a string instrument play two lines at the same time?” “How can the cello make a sound like a wolf?” These were a couple of the many questions first graders at P.S. 11 posed Airi Yoshioka while writing The Tailor of Vienna, a piano trio commissioned by the Damocles Trio. Through The Juilliard School’s Morse Fellowship program, two interactive concerts in January and May became the highlights of Airi’s weekly visits to Lynn Rusignuolo’s first grade class. The compositional project was the culmination of the school year during which the students grappled with such challenges as creating an organic whole from three independent parts, turning an idea into a melody, and writing a large-scale work based on a story.
At the beginning of the year, each student experienced what it feels like to be “one of three” in various ways. In one exercise, the class was divided into groups of three, each member of which drew a shape on a piece of paper. The students then translated the shapes into sounds and thought of different ways to bring them together. Various combinations of sounds emerged through experimentation with dynamics, pitch range, layering, and texture.
The Damocles Trio's first appearance at P.S. 11 included a performance of Enrique Granados's Piano Trio, Op. 50, providing the 6 year-olds with a vital, first-hand experience of this musical genre. Sharon Golub, P.S. 11's music teacher, wrote words to one of the first movement's main themes and taught it not only to the first graders, but to the whole school. When the Damocles Trio arrived on the day of the concert, the entire student body assembled in the school's auditorium greeted the trio with an enthusiastic rendition of the song.
The 45-minute program also included an introduction to each instrument as well as several interactive exercises designed to give students a sense of collaborative music-making. In one of these activities, the auditorium was divided into three sections, each of which learned to sing and clap one of the three parts. Airi then put together the diverse sections, conducting the students in a joyous synthesis of contrasting musical elements. Later, students were guided through the Damocles Trio's performance of Granados's masterpiece by counting the number of times a particular musical theme recurred, raising their hands at each instance.
The second concert was scheduled at the end of the year and involved a little more work for the first graders. They were given the responsibility of writing variations on the melody “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” ("I am the Tailor Kakadu") by the Austrian composer Wenzel Müller. Although Beethoven had used this same theme in his 10 Variations on Wenzel Müller’s song “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” for piano trio, op. 121a, the students heard the piece only once at the start of the project, as a way to spark their imaginations and suggest a range of possibilities.
In preparation for this compositional project, numerous visits were dedicated to studying the ways different composers have handled this musical form. Mozart’s Variations on “Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman” (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), K. 265 and Charles Ives’s Variations on America were a couple of the works that provided valuable insights.
Before the students could embark on their own compositional process, they needed to internalize Müller's theme. To this end, words were written to the melody*, and a plot was developed as a format for the variations. The class was divided into groups of three to four students, each of which was responsible for writing music for a segment of the story.
Layer by layer, The Tailor of Vienna came to life. The first task of each group was deciding which of the three instruments would play the theme and how. Once that was determined—often after much heated discussion—the next challenge was to write a part for the second instrument and finally the third. All this would not have been possible without the assistance of pianist/composer John Novacek, who took the students' ideas and helped to notate them musically behind the scenes. Sibylle Johner and Adam Kent recorded the cello and piano parts, which were brought back to the classroom each week for further refinement. The young composers learned to listen, observe, and suggest changes for the trio to work out for the following visit.
Prior to the premiere of the work in front of the entire school, the students had the opportunity to work directly with the Damocles Trio, giving everyone involved the opportunity to collaborate in person. The students listened critically as each variation was played. Setting aside the excitement of hearing their work take shape before them, the students challenged the trio to respond imaginatively to their requests. Several students also participated in the actual performance with percussion instruments, announcing the beginning of the piece with three resounding strikes on the lollipop drum, tolling the passage of time with scrapers, and imitating the sound of bells with a triangle. A certain amount of time was allocated for rehearsing these special effects.
The concert was a resounding success: The Tailor of Vienna was acclaimed by students, teachers and administrators of P.S. 11! Following the first graders’ work, the Damocles Trio performed Beethoven’s adaptation of the same theme. The young composers beamed joyously as they sensed the connection to their own work.

updated: 8/11/2011