Friday, February 8, 2013

Composing Through Collaboration

Myron Silberstein, Opera for All Guest Composer
          It was a pure delight to participate in Chicago Opera Theater’s Opera for All Program for my first season as composer at two schools: Clinton and Saint Vincent DePaul. I particularly valued the interactive aspect of my work with COT’s elementary students. Composing is a notoriously solitary act; in both schools, though, we enjoyed a genuine collaborative experience in which each student had input into their songs’ rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. My role as a composer was simply to put the students’ ideas together.

           I began each class by asking students to read the text we would be setting. I next facilitated discussion about the text’s emotional content and asked for another reading emphasizing the emotions of the text. We were then able to notice when students’ voices instinctually went up or down, when the speed increased or decreased, and when volume changed. 

Once the broad-strokes structure of our music was on paper, I asked students at Clinton to form small groups to collaborate on creating the rhythm of their song. As Saint Vincent DePaul, the class size was small enough to continue our discussion as a full group. Each group had five to ten minutes to discuss, and then spoke the text in rhythm to the entire class. And then we voted on which rhythm to use. We did the exact same thing when constructing a melody. This is true composition by committee!

I offered occasional coaching: when a group set a text to a repeated interval, I asked whether the repetition produced the tension they had found in the text. We discussed the possibility of using different intervals or of transposing the same interval to different scale degrees and voted for the transposition. I also presented options for the piano accompaniment: should it be bouncy or flowing? Should it stick to a few basic chords or should it have more harmonic variety? But the ultimate decision was in the hands of the students.

And so I left class each day with a notebook full of scribbled transcriptions and jottings about decisions the students had made. I entered the melodies directly into my notation software and then set to work creating an accompaniment that fit the students’ intentions. 

Among the highlights of my work with Opera for All was the students’ reaction to hearing the realization of their melodies. One young singer, who had improvised a very beautiful alien welcome song, was particularly moved: “That’s exactly what I imagined,” she told one of the school’s teaching artists. And she was one of many young composers who are on the verge of bringing their imaginings to reality.

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