How did it start? As a composer, some of my favorite and most meaningful experiences have happened in the classroom or rehearsal room, working with students on my music.
So I was pretty pumped last year when Alec Wilmart, the band director at Kellogg Middle School, reached out to me about commissioning a new work for concert band and having me come work with his students in Shoreline, Washington. This project soon expanded to include Mariko Lane and her students at Einstein Middle School, and Alec applied for (and received!) a grant from the Shoreline Public Schools Foundation to cover the costs.
The plan was for me to compose a piece for the two combined middle school bands to perform, and then I would work with the students in rehearsals a few days before the concert. With that all sorted out (!!) I started work on what would become TAHOMA—which I’ll be sharing more about in a separate blog post later.
I’ve gotta be honest, doing all of this, while finishing my masters and all of my other responsibilities, on top of life stuff was A LOT, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with all of these wonderful people. It was an inspiring time for me, getting to watch those musicians and their directors bring my music to life in rehearsals leading up to the concert this last April. I am still blown away by how beautifully Alec, Mariko, and the combined bands performed that night.
I had no words after the performance was done, which also marked the end of my residency. Both bands were incredibly professional and played with such a high-level of musicianship that I had no idea what to say. Thank you? Didn’t seem like enough, but I said it many, many times, to whichever performers I could make eye contact with… fantastic job, wonderful, congratulations, amazing— I probably said it all, but still, none of it seems like high-enough praise.
Now that I’ve had some time to relax and take a breath, I felt like sharing more about this experience:
What was it like? I had already completed and delivered the piece, and then in mid-April I flew back to Washington for a few days. I would be spending time with the students in band rehearsals, Q&A sessions, and a combined rehearsal before the concert premiere.
Being able to work face-to-face in rehearsals with the students is always fun. You never know what they’re going to say, or how they’re going to react, but the time spent together is always well worth it! Being physically present in the room is valuable, as I’m able to encourage players who might need to play out a bit, etc.
We of course had multiple Q&A sessions for the students during the various rehearsals, but being in the room also makes me available to the students that might not feel comfortable asking questions in front of the entire group. Hanging out in between rehearsals lets me answer those questions that might not otherwise have been answered, which is important to me.
And then there was the concert! The culmination of months of work. I love having the opportunity to see a piece through, from start to finish, with the same group. There is something very inspiring, as a composer, in watching the performers take your music and really bring it to life. Having the opportunity to experience that with all 91 kids was especially immense.
On top of that, to be sharing the experience with their parents, families, and community was special. Hearing afterwards from students and adults alike that they were able to connect with the piece meant a lot. It gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you know you’re doing the right thing— it’s a little addicting.
Why is this work important? I believe that as you learn more, it is your responsibility to help educate others less privileged. For me, that means using the education I’m privileged to have received to uplift my community. I want to bring this to as many students as I can, but with a focus on young musicians of color.
I am constantly working to be the representation I wish I would’ve had 15 years ago as a young percussionist—as a white-passing, light-brown kid playing in band. And so I will continue to compose music inspired by the various themes and concepts I come across as I work to decolonize my identity and explore my own indigenous roots. Creating this way is empowering to me, and I believe it can be for others too.
I find this work incredibly rewarding. Young musicians of color deserve to see themselves proudly represented both in the thematic material of the pieces they’re playing and in the composers whose music they’re performing. I believe that the future depends on people of color collectively reclaiming their identities, and I believe that I can best help that happen through the composition and dissemination of classical music that subverts the colonizer.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Please let me know what you thought! Also, if you haven’t already: be sure to follow me on social media and enter your email below, to receive emails about new blog posts!
Friends, I want to know: how do you give back to your communities? Why? Is there more we could collectively be doing?
Comment below, I’d love to start a discussion. - EJG