In Praise of Music-COMP!

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This is a story about how I began composing, and a love-letter to the organization that led me to do so.

I went to a public high school in a small town in the region of Vermont locals refer to as the Northeast Kingdom. The school is, in fact, a “union” middle and high school – students from five very small towns attend, bringing the total student body to about 350 (grades 7-12). Despite being in a primarily poor, rural setting, I was lucky to have two truly fantastic music teachers at my high school – they’re a married couple; he taught band and she taught chorus. They worked as a team, and were unwaveringly dedicated to the students’ needs. Over a third of the student body was in chorus, and each student (in both ensembles) received a private weekly lesson in addition to daily rehearsals.

My brother and I were among a handful of kids at our school who had taken private music lessons at any point – and because we had been homeschooled until high school, we’d had more private study than any of our peers. We quickly became friends with the other music nerds, and spent every free moment of every day in the auditorium and practice rooms, playing songs, listening to music, and goofing around. Even in such a microcosm of the music world, this was a male-dominated space, and the singers-as-secondary-to-instrumentalists stereotype seemed to go unchallenged amongst the music kids. I was very serious about playing the flute back then, so I thought of the serious instrumentalists (all of whom in my age group were boys) as my most serious and talented peers. During the fall of my sophomore year, I got wind that some of these Serious Music Boys were participating in a mysterious extracurricular they referred to as “Opus.” I didn’t know what it was, but when the band teacher asked me if I’d like to miss a day of school to come hear a concert I didn’t have to think for a second. I hopped in his car – just us and the kid whose piece was being performed – and off we went.

What it was, it turned out, was the Vermont MIDI Project (Now Music-COMP)’s Opus 15 Concert. That day was the culmination of a semester’s work; students from middle and high schools all across the state had been writing chamber pieces on Sibelius (in those early days, Sibelius must have sponsored Music-COMP – I remember T-shirts with a huge Sibelius logo on the back and a tiny “Vermont MIDI Project” logo on the front – and so schools had access to the software; now they use Noteflight and Muse Score). Every week or two, the novice composers sent their Sibelius files to their online mentors – local professional composers and composition students at the University of Vermont – and received feedback, primarily about playability and notation. The day-long festival featured a chamber ensemble who played each student’s work – in a rehearsal early in the day, and in a (professionally recorded) performance that evening.

At the time, I was not particilarly blown away by how fantastic this program is. However, the idea of having a music-centric independent study at school (i.e. an excuse to be in the music room and not wasting my time with, say, gym) – and then getting to miss a WHOLE DAY of school at the end of the semester – had piqued my interest. I asked the band teacher if I could participate in Opus 16 that spring. Each semester the ensemble was different – there were always 4-6 instruments available, and students could write for the full ensemble or any subset. My first piece was a string trio, I believe. After that I wrote for solo piano, solo flute, and brass quartet. By my senior year of high school, composing was one of my favorite parts of the day. For logistical/financial reasons, I was not able to participate in Music-COMP’s concert during the spring of my senior year – instead I wrote a piece for concert band, which was performed at our spring concert and again at my high school graduation. Ah, the joys of being a big fish in a small pond.

In the few years that I took part in Music-COMP’s Opus program, it grew enormously. The first time I did it, all 15-odd students who had composed pieces got a performance on the final concert. By my final round, there were 75 participants in grades 3-12 (yes, you read that right), and only about 20 pieces were selected to be performed. The organization has continued to grow – according to their website’s FAQ Page:

“Our mentors work with young composers year round on a number of different types of projects. Right now we have students working on pieces for the Vermont Symphony, student-designed projects of all types including a composition for their school’s orchestra, and silent film scores. . . . Every year our young composers have their music performed by the Vermont Symphony, the Vermont Philharmonic, the Northern Third Piano Quartet, and more. They are also regularly featured on VPR with Kari Anderson and our Student Composer Showcase.”

This is an organization that has grown organically (and through hard work) into a very substantial part of the music education landscape in Vermont. They have a page on their website that enumerates their Key Composition Tenets:

1. Composition is an essential element of a well-rounded curriculum

2. Using notation software develops music literacy

3. Begin notational composition with structured guidelines

4. Reflect and critique frequently

5. Encourage revision

6. Promote personal composition for the teachers

7. Provide opportunities for live performance of student work

I think this list is brilliant. For more detail on each tenet, visit the page.

If I had not participated in Music-COMP, I don’t know if I ever would have started composing. As a moody teenager, I loved shutting myself in a practice room and writing music (not much has changed), but it was not a totally isolated experience. I began each piece knowing it would be played by real, human, high-level musicians, and this knowledge pushed me to broaden my understanding of the instruments I wrote for and to think practically about every note and rhythm I wrote. In addition to turning me into a composer, Music-COMP led me to believe that composition can, and indeed should, be taught to young students. My piano students write pieces and then play them, and it is such an effective tool to help them truly understand notation and especially rhythm.

In a nutshell, I just love Music-COMP. It is a nonprofit organization (if you’re feeling inspired to donate to their awesome cause, you can do so here), and it exists because of the dedication and passion of the people who run it. I am so grateful for all they have done and continue to do for contemporary music. What an inspiration.

Me, a moody teen.