Two years ago, I had just bought my ticket to the Joint Arts and Education Conference in Phoenix when they announced something radical: the whole conference would be coordinated by high school students. Students wrote the agenda and booked the speakers, led the workshops and moderated panel discussions. Students were in control the entire weekend.
I was rather apprehensive: this is taking student-led programming a bit too far, isn’t it? Am I wasting my precious professional development dollars on a conference where I won’t learn anything?
I was in for a wake-up call. This was perhaps the most smoothly-run, interesting, and informative conference I’d ever attended. The student leaders were articulate and passionate, and I left inspired and full of ideas to take back to the Tucson Symphony. Why had I been so concerned? What was so scary about listening to the students I proclaim to be serving?
Like most orchestras, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra (TSO) holds youth concerts to help engage younger audiences and introduce students to the instruments of the orchestra. In Tucson and across Southern Arizona, TSO serves over 35,000 students and teachers each year, through seven distinct education programs.
I am well aware how much time orchestra administrators, board members, and funders spend discussing how to “build the audiences of tomorrow” – reaching more children, engaging younger audiences, growing our future donor base.
We program more pops shows, use screens during youth concerts, lower prices or make tickets free, and still have to read articles joking about the “sea of white hair” and answer patrons asking, “where are all the young people?” It seems like we try every possible way to serve children, except one. Asking them.
Children and teens today are more worldly, connected, and well informed than ever before. They discuss politics with their friends, encourage those old enough to vote, and spark movements taking on climate change and gun reform. Students already have strong opinions that they share with their friends and online, so this isn’t about giving them a voice. They already have one. It’s about us listening.
Out of our seven education programs, the flagship is the Tucson Symphony Young Composers Project. Students age 8 to 18 spend their Saturdays throughout the school year learning how to compose chamber and orchestral music, working directly with professional musicians and composers. At the spring Young Composers Festival each year, TSO performs and records their original compositions.
We have seen firsthand that when we connect students with the tools to communicate through music, they use them to access their creativity, process their emotions, and interact with their changing world. Our students have written compositions about school shootings, first loves, loss of a parent, and excitement for the future. What these students have to say is important. Orchestras need to work to cultivate a platform for them to share it.
After the conference, I immediately wanted to use my newfound perspective with the Young Composers Project. Updating a successful program with a 27-year history is no small undertaking, but I knew where to start: asking the students. I coordinated a student think tank to hold an open discussion on each aspect of the program. I was the only adult in the room, no parents or instructors, and my job was simply to listen and take notes.
It was a challenge. I wanted to jump in and explain why certain things weren’t possible. We adults are excellent at saying no to things, and that is amplified in non-profits with our scarcity mindset. After the discussion, I was open with the students about my limitations – budget size, union agreements, board of trustees – but I promised to advocate on behalf of their ideas.
This year, based on student suggestions, we launched a third-class level to ease the challenging transition between the Introductory and Advanced classes, and hired a second composition instructor. With the addition of the Intermediate class, they could write first for String Quintet, then for Wind and Brass Quintets, before taking on the full orchestra in the Advanced class.
Students also informed us about what not to do. We were considering adding a competitive aspect, selecting the best composition and offering prizes, but got shot down. Keeping the program collaborative and giving everyone an equal opportunity to be heard meant students were meeting after class, reading through scores and giving each other feedback. They were also more likely to experiment with a new style or technique, opening students up to more creativity.
Creating a supportive educational environment also encourages them to feel like part of the broader music community. Whenever guest artists, composers, or conductors come to perform with the Tucson Symphony, we invite them to meet with our Young Composers students. Most recently, students met with composer Michael Torke and GRAMMY nominee Tessa Lark, who had just performed the bluegrass-inspired violin concerto Sky, written by Torke for her.
The Tucson Symphony’s mission calls us to transform lives through music, and Music Director José Luis Gomez champions the Young Composers Project as central to his vision of our symphony. If orchestras are serious about fostering the future of music, we need to shout it from the mountaintops. We can’t be siloed into a peripheral education program that the community, donors, and even some board members don’t know about.
We also need to give students our best tools and resources. Shouldn’t students learn from the beginning that their time and hard work is valuable, and valued by us? For this reason, the Young Composers Project uses contracted musician services, not university students or community musicians. During the first semester, students write sketch compositions for small ensembles, who then sight-read the works and give feedback.
At the Young Composers Festival in the spring, TSO performs and records each student’s final composition. Pieces are performed twice, allowing the composer to give feedback to Maestro Gomez (“A little faster at C,” “Less trumpet at measure 52,”) before the second performance is recorded. Every step of the way, students receive immediate aural feedback through the lens of our professional musicians, comparing what they wrote on paper to the music they hear in their head.
The students of the Young Composers Project are extremely talented, and we are proud that their creativity and voices have been cultivated here in Tucson. Each year since 2017, Maestro Gomez has commissioned Young Composers Project alumni to write for the Tucson Symphony. We have premiered two orchestral works already, and this year will perform a choral composition by alum Robert Lopez-Hanshaw. We also always feature one Young Composers piece on our youth concerts, sharing with over 10,000 students the idea that they, too, could become a composer.
As we aim to shift the culture surrounding composition, new works, and young audiences, though, promoting our own students is not enough. Orchestras need to program works by other budding composers, commission and co-commission more works, and expand the audience for new music. By appealing to and advocating for young composers, musicians, and audiences, we can ensure our future. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was new once. And people listened.
About the Author: Alana Richardson is the Director of Education at the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, sharing the power of music with over 35,000 students and teachers across Southern Arizona each year. Alana knows that music can transform lives, and aims to do so through TSO’s seven education programs. She began playing double bass in fourth grade, after a string quintet visited her school, and loves connecting with both local and international communities through music. She has performed in programs including Gramado International Music Festival in Brazil, Purple Bamboo Chinese Music Ensemble at the University of Arizona, and most recently, a South Africa tour with the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of Kalamazoo College, Alana earned her Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies with a Music minor, and studied abroad at Beijing Language and Culture University.
Want to learn more about your Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composers Project? Stay tuned for details on our Facebook and YouTube watch parties April 28th at 5 p.m.!
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