Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kids CAN Compose

Julie B. Nichols - Composer Guest Artist at Hampton, Reilly, and Armstrong Elementary Schools

Being a guest artist for OFA was so amazing and rewarding. I must admit I was a little skeptical at first, going into classes where the kids are learning about jazz and opera - two things that are not necessarily at the top of the ‘hip radar.’ But these kids have taken to these art forms like nothing I have ever seen. With incredible guidance from the teaching artists, they have found ways to make these seemingly far away art forms very close to their lives and their musical experiences.

We started off our sessions by listening to all different types of jazz - soul jazz, latin jazz, smooth jazz, funk, etc. I wanted to show the kids that there are no stylistic limits to what they can compose under the umbrella of jazz. Throughout Jazz’s history, it has been influenced and modified by all sorts of different genres and world sounds, which makes it one of the most malleable and fun genres to compose within. Anything is possible! And the kids definitely got that. In one of the Reilly classes,  a student actually asked if our composition could be more like the Cannonball Adderly tune we listened to (Inside Straight, our example of Soul Jazz) I said of course we could! It was thrilling to see the kids listening to the examples and wanting to integrate them into their own writing.

I tried to encourage the kids to reach to the furthest of their imagination in how to build melodies and bring energy to the songs we were writing, while still trying to teach good melodic structure. We assigned the notes of a scale (1-8) to the words of the lyrics they wrote.  Five different kids would give a suggestion then we would all vote on which was the strongest. We would then talk about WHY it was the strongest -- was it easy to sing? Did it end on a one or an eight? Why does that make it sound good? They quickly began to figure out what makes strong, singable, stable melodies and started creating their own.

I’m telling you, these 3rd, 4th and 5th graders ended up writing some pretty darn catchy songs. I was incredibly impressed. They seemed to enjoy hearing what their melodies sounded like, and it made them more excited to put them all together. They loved to get up and dance to their songs, too, which I of course loved! Very often they naturally wanted to start talking about choreography and other aesthetic elements of their operas as we were building the music. I found that very exciting and inspiring, as it was clear the music was helping them visualize their overall creative vision.

I can’t say enough great words about these kids and their teachers, and OFA in general. It’s inspiring to see these kids so hungry to learn about these incredible forms of art and music - both opera and jazz. It gives me hope that those genres will continue to thrive for generations, and maybe one of these talented kids will be the next big star! 

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