“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
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
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.