Nine Reasons to Go Back to High School

As I sit here in a Bakersfield coffeehouse, gearing up for the tenth performance of my wind ensemble piece, Foolish Fire, I’m reflecting on the road that it took to get here. This modestly successful piece is, I hope, nowhere near the end of its life, and it’s already been more successful than I had ever expected. Foolish Fire started as a project for Loveland High School’s wind ensemble, and at the time I wasn’t sure of my own interest in writing, let alone ability to write, music for an educational ensemble. For all the wondrous leaps and bounds school ensembles have taken in this country, many composers have neglected high-school musicians in their writing, either out of choice or otherwise. But on the other side of this long journey from inception to composition to revision to great fruition, I am thoroughly convinced now more than ever: every composer should write at least one educational piece.

Don’t like wind ensemble? That’s okay. Write a high-school level orchestral piece, wind quintet, piano trio, or violin solo. Get high schoolers to play it. Will they deliver a superstar-quality performance? Will you get that sterling recording for your portfolio? Will their limited abilities stifle the creative juices that run through your music like a river of sound? Doesn’t matter. I’ve come up with (at least) nine reasons why all composers need to set these trivial concerns aside and write for younger musicians.

You’re not Beethoven.
Sorry, you’re not. I’m not either. It has nothing to do with talent, or craft, or compositional prowess. The pantheon of world-changing composers is very small, and it’s unlikely that any of us will enter it in our lifetimes. The members of that pantheon have established their reputations through not only greatness, but time – for many, upwards of two hundred years beyond the grave. No living composer can compete with that, no matter how luminary. For our entire compositional careers, we will walk in the commanding shadows of other, greater composers who came before.

And yet we continue writing music. Why? For me, it’s because we have relevance on our side, an ace in the hole that Beethoven could never hold. The music we write is music of our time: the time of Facebook, the cell phone, the Iraq War, Kim Jong-Il, and Lindsay Lohan. We are the product of a society so diverse and colorful no composer in the pantheon could have predicted it, and as artists we are charged with the task of documenting it. This is the contribution we can count on making with our art, no matter what place history proves to hold for us. This is the service which we can offer a discerning audience. Which brings me to my next point…

It’s hot and crowded in the ivory tower.
If you’re not looking for performances outside your university campus, you’re doing yourself and your potential audience a disservice. The performers may be great, the audiences may be appreciative – but ultimately you’re preaching to the choir, presenting your music to a group of people who, like you, hold its value as new art to be self-evident. And no matter how much money your school or department throws into community outreach, the chance of new faces at a new music concert on campus is slim.

But at a time when we hear all sorts of gloom and doom over how classical music as we know it is dying (again) in America, it’s exactly the people who won’t be at your university concert that we need to convince of our legitimacy.  But if they love music – or if their kids love music – then the high school concert is one place where we can count on having them. And better yet, they’re a captive audience (no matter how much they hate a piece, they won’t walk out on their son or daughter’s concert). Meanwhile, the high school students are helping to bring to life a piece that no other group might have seen, heard, or played before. Talk about a teaching moment.

The kids are smarter than you think.
Anyone who’s been to a state solo/ensemble or large ensemble competition needs no convincing that American high schools are full of gifted performers (if you need proof, check out these). Even when they’re not tearing Paganini to shreds or raising your hair on a chorus of I Could Write a Book, the musical culture that many high schoolers consume is full of complex musical ideas about rhythm, harmony and melody. Pick up a Kanye West album, or listen to that new Ke$ha single a bit closer – judgment aside, these aren’t simple musically. If they can keep track of rhythm and form in this music, they can keep track of it in your music too. You may have to pull some technical punches (stay away from multiphonics and high G-string passages, maybe), but they could surprise you. And here’s the kicker: they might even practice.

You WILL find performances.
Are you a composer? Did you go to high school? Then you have a performance venue that will at least take a look at anything you send, if not give you a well-rehearsed performance (yes, I have used this resource myself). High school music teachers in this country are in a constant struggle to defend their program’s existence in the face of budget cuts and a lack of standardized-test results. The prime resource for keeping a school music program is a community that’s willing to fight for it, and so outreach and visibility are high on the list of priorities. Well, a local high school graduate who is making it as a professional artist is quite a story, for directors and communities alike. Your music teacher will appreciate the visibility, especially since any ties you have in the community can be used to drum up even more audience members. If you’d rather not go back home for a premiere, try making contact with a local high school – very few, if any, would say no to a brand new piece that they could call their own. They’ll throw real rehearsal time around it, too, unlike any professional orchestra.

The stigma is disappearing.
The college wind ensemble has been well respected as a medium for a while. For younger groups, though, there was a such a thing as a “band composer,” and until very recently that composer often sacrificed any opportunity he may have had in other mediums to write for high school band, so most band composers were niche musicians and, honestly, not very good. As a result, it wasn’t long ago that high schoolers were routinely subject to music that sounds like this:

But slowly and surely, more composers are turning to the high school as a legitimate vehicle for their artistic message. See composers such as Michael Colgrass, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose young band music (Old Churches, Apache Lullaby) has been performed in every state. Also see the BandQuest series,  that has attracted such major figures as Chen Yi, Gunther Schuller, Libby Larsen, and many others to write for younger band. As for other ensembles, like high school string quartets: they’re already playing Mozart. They’re certainly good enough to play you.

It will challenge you as much as it challenges your students.
An educational piece is not a throwaway project that you’ll be able to crank out. Writing easy music is not easy. In fact, I humbly submit that it’s a lot harder than writing difficult music. Neither is it easy to rehearse and perform a piece for which you can’t just look up a reference recording on YouTube. The performers will have to practice, they’ll have to stretch their ears, and they’ll have to get deeper inside the music than the surface understanding required to perform Haydn (no offense, Franz).

It will improve you as much as it improves your students.
The unique set of challenges new music provides is vital to a music student’s growth. It teaches him/her important lessons about aural skills, about the value of musical insight and dramaturgy, and of course, about playing nice with other artists. Meanwhile, you’ll learn something too. Gunther Schuller, one of the venerable composers featured in the aforementioned BandQuest series, says of his foray into the young band world:

I eagerly accepted the commission and the creative/compositional challenges implied thereby, that is, to reign in my creative imagination to some extent and limit the technical/conceptual demands to a more moderate level than is to be found in the dozen or so other works for band (or wind ensemble) that I had previously composed. Nonetheless, since the process of rehearsing, studying and performing a work created specifically for the non-professional school student market is- and must be (in my view)-primarily educational, i.e. a teaching/learning experience, it was very clear to me that my work would (and should) challenge the players at least to their top levels, and then even a little beyond that.
Thus Nature’s Way in no way represents a compromise of my personal style (basically atonal, or highly chromatic), nor my long held concepts of form, continuity, texture, and instrumentation, inherent in all my music.

Still not convinced? Well, Schuller’s not the only composer who felt a drive to write for young musicians. Remember that even dearly departed Uncle Milton had a piece for children’s choir.

The students care what you have to say.
In 2009, the NEA published results of a survey stating that the average age of the classical music concertgoer was at an all-time high of 49 years old. These are the blue-hairs that you’ve read about: the people that music and artistic directors bend over backwards to please, who are evidently content to hear the same six masterworks year after year but will walk out of the first Pierre Boulez performance they come across. They’re why the new works are heavily stocked towards the beginning of the orchestral season, when many season-ticket holders are still in hibernation; and why any performance of new music outside of New York or LA is couched between two masterworks, relegated to the role of sorbet.

But even as support for the arts has dwindled, high school music programs’ numbers are holding strong; nearly half of American high school students in 2008 participated in performing arts programs, a similar number to the percentage in 1991. And these are kids who are willing to give their heart and soul to a piece of new music. Consider this testimony from Jonathan Newman regarding his string quartet for the New York Youth Symphony:

So these were high school kids that were actually playing the piece. It was very similar to the excitement that you get working with students in the band world… it was a great performance and it had so much energy and they really cared about it, and they just put their hearts into it. And yeah, maybe it wasn’t technically the best performance and some of the rhythms were off or whatever. But then a couple of months later a professional group did it and in many ways the kids were better. Sure, some of the rhythms were cleaner and there were things in there were I was like “oh, I guess that is the right way to play that” when the pros were playing it — but I actually like the recording from the kids better.

The schools need you, now more than ever.
It’s hard to overestimate how important the arts are for primary- or secondary-school students. Yes, music enhances creativity and teaches critical thinking. Yes, arts programs have a documented link to improved performance on math and science assessments. But let’s set aside such trivialities as increased test scores and problem-solving skills to focus on just one statistic: In 2008, when at-risk high school students were asked whether participation in an arts course directly affected their decision to remain in school, 83% said yes.

An arts education helped keep 83 percent of high-risk children off the street. This is not an insignificant number, and it proves that the public school arts are not just a luxury for the rich, white kids who could afford music outside the public school anyway.

We don’t need to be convinced of the arts’ value to students, but there are voters and legislators across America who do. Likewise, we don’t need to be convinced of classical music’s value as a public good, but there are potential fans and consumers who do. And both of these institutions (professional classical music and school music programs) are on very unstable ground in our society. Together, we can lift each other up. The schools can provide us with a new generation of music lovers and new-music lovers, of intelligent and discerning listeners and performers. We can provide them with a connection to people (ourselves and our new-music audience) who aren’t directly affiliated with the schools, but who pay taxes, vote, make campaign contributions, and see firsthand the value of school arts programs to the arts tradition they enjoy. Together we can be much stronger than we can be apart.

Yes, there are technical limitations to high school ensembles. No, maybe you can’t count on high schoolers for your symphonic masterwork or your opera adaptation of Waiting for Godot. But while you’re waiting for the New York Philharmonic or the Santa Fe Opera to call, writing a piece for young performers is a wonderful use of your time and energy. It may be that your piece will take off and receive a thousand performances, and even if it doesn’t, the high schoolers you work with will take the experience with them far into their lives and careers, musical and otherwise. As we head into spring, and music teachers across the country begin thinking about next fall, consider picking up the phone and calling your nearby high school. Write them a piece, for any or all of their musicians. Work with the band, choir, or orchestra director. It’s possible you’ll make a lifetime music lover out of someone; you might even make a lifetime young-musician composer of yourself. No matter what happens, you’ll be the coolest person in the high school; and let’s face it, that’s more than any composer could ever have expected.

~Greg Simon

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