In an effort to shed light on what composers are doing and how they are doing it in the ongoing effort to educate future generations of musicians on how to engage contemporary music, we will spend time interviewing and reporting on composers talking about their projects in schools.
This first interview is with composer Jeremy Podgursky, a composer from Louisville, KY who recently devised a project wherein he went into local high schools and worked directly with students in an after school settings. Currently a doctoral student at Indiana University, Podgursky reflected and wrote to us about his experiences with young musician/composers.
Podgursky says that he loosely based the sessions with the high school students on how he teaches private composition lessons to beginner/young composers. Every week he focused on a specific element of music (rhythm, harmony, melody, time, form, etc.). The students would be given an exercise which addressed the specific element for the week. Since the high school students were meeting in a group setting for only 90 minutes once a week, they were given simplified exercises that would meet the expectation of the exercise while not overwhelming them with a presumption of musical knowledge.
The meetings with these students largely centered around listening to and discussing musical examples. To this end, Podgursky says, "The most important element of playing music for the kids was to mix up the genres and include pop music." He goes on to elaborate that simply because the students were mostly writing for acoustic instruments didn't mean that he had to limit the reperatoire to only the standards for those instruments. Further, he says:: "just because they were composers didn't mean the focus was on 20th/21st century high art music. I played them Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Bjork, The Beatles, Bartok, and Berio."
After five to six weeks of topical discussions, listening, and compositional exercises, Podgursky turned the students loose to compose their own pieces. Subsequent meetings would involve Podgursky floating among the students and discussing their individual projects with them. He notes that at one particular rural high school where he did this program, the students were involved in a successful band program, were highly motivated, and could read musical scores with ease. In that environment, during the latter half of his program, he could place one of the students' scores in front of the class for discussion.
The eleven to twelve week program culminated with a recital of the student's music. Podgursky offered the following final reflection on his experience:
I would say that the biggest difference between the high school students and college students is the emphasis placed on fun. I was very conscious not to pressure them to finish anything. I had to make sure that they always felt the extra-ciricular nature of the program because it was totally optional.
If he were to run the program again, he said that he would offer more opportunities for improvisation. He cites Murray Schafer and the book The Composer in the Classroom as sources of inspiration for future endeavors.
Thank you, Jeremy Podgursky, for creating an opportunity for interested, young musicians to encounter contemporary concert music in a meaningful way and for sharing your reflection on these experiences with us. We hope that as you continue in your career as a composer, there will always be a space for endeavors like this.