Spinning the System: The Joy of DIY Western Classical Training

Spinning the System: The Joy of DIY Western Classical Training

What must we do to really make inroads into how new music is learned and appreciated beyond the concert hall? Recently I had lunch with an extraordinary group of people who are tackling this issue head on. They are working in ways that turn upside down how most of us approach teaching the skills deemed necessary to be a musician of the Western Classical Tradition. I am talking about the teachers and staff of the Walden School. For those of you not familiar with this entity, Walden is a young composers dream—a five-week intensive summer camp for students ages 9-18 with a mission to foster the exploration of one’s creativity through the medium of music. Previous compositional experience is not required. In fact, it is not necessarily a “camp for composers”: the only real music requirement is to have studied an instrument for at least a year.

For over thirty years the Walden School has had huge success with its approach to educating young musicians through their innovative approach of learning harmony and other elements by taking things out of context. Chords are not taught in terms of function but as isolated intervals, in line with the harmonic series. Voice leading is learned not by memorizing rules and examples but evolves out of a series of improvisation games and other sandbox play. From day one, the students are encouraged to explore music by making it up, diving right in and attempting to create sound regardless of the outcome. Through this process, by summers end students attain high proficiency in musicianship skills mastered through the process of composing and improvising works which fellow campmates and resident professionals then perform. It squarely puts into question the assumptions made about Western art music—that in order to master it we must study the way composers have treated it before we can use the materials ourselves.

Even though the final product is not their goal, the results are amazing. Anyone who has met a Walden kid can tell you that the quality of music composed is astounding, showing an originality and technique rarely seen in a pre-collegiate musician. In fact, many of the school’s graduates go on to successful music careers as composers and performers. More importantly, those who do not enter the arts as a profession are instilled with a love for creativity and an appetite for classical, new music, jazz, and indeed all music. It sticks with them throughout adulthood and is passed to their children and students, as evidenced by the high percentage of support and participation Walden receives from alumni decades after their last campfire.

Walden has started a one-week intensive Teachers Training Institute where any musician— whether performer, composer, teacher, or amateur—can experience the teaching techniques used in their musicianship program. As a participant, one essentially becomes a Walden student and dives deep and quick into the game of learning by doing. All are encouraged to leave at the door any previous assumptions or goals one has about music. By the end of the week, choral directors are improvising short vocal pieces, piano teachers are composing avant garde computer music works, and professors are letting loose and doing performance art.

As one of the participants notes, the effect of the program can be wide-ranging:

Learning the Walden Method in this setting gave me fresh eyes with which to examine my teaching methodology and our curriculum. Being a student for a week reminded me of how much fun the process of discovery really is. My middle school students are now composing on a weekly basis using both “found sound” and more traditional methods. My upper school students are now a more cohesive group because of the exercises I learned while at the Institute. Since my students are already quite adept at technology, they find it really useful in their own discovery/creative process. In our 7th grade classes, I have been able to integrate discussions of the harmonic series with the science department’s discussion of sound waves. They get it!

By starting this Institute, Walden’s goal is to impact music education beyond the doors of the camp and their students. It is, in a way, a sort of “viral marketing.” Instead of increasing the number of students in the summer camp, Walden has decided to show adult musicians how to teach this methodology to their students, in whatever setting they find themselves to be working. Eyes and ears are being opened to the possibilities new music has in education and in the culture. It is daring. It is unsettling. It is freeing. And it is beginning to make a real difference.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

32 thoughts on “Spinning the System: The Joy of DIY Western Classical Training

  1. JKG

    The Walden School has a wonderful reputation. It is precisely the notion that music should communicate (which is no doubt what most students are encouraged to do) which ties in effectively with the notion that music does indeed have a purpose and a meaning. Those kids who “get it” no doubt understand the entire range of compositional offering are at their beck and call for use and study, without a single hint of self-consciousness with regard to “sounding like someone else.” In this sense, I’d venture to say the eighth-grader who composes with joy and diligence is far better off than say, Boulez – so paranoid his music will sound like someone else’s it may well signal a personality disorder. One thing he can count on – most adept composers I know aren’t the least bit interested in sounding like him *ROTFLMHO* So yes, bravo for the Walden School!!!

  2. periwinkleturtle

    Bravo, Walden!
    My two summers as a Walden staff member were unlike any other. It is amazing what children are capable of when given the right guidance. I am a music teacher, and had I not experienced Walden first hand, I would not teach the way I do now.

  3. eqcoker

    As a former student and staff member, I wanted to add that Walden not only overwhelmingly prepares students to go into various fields for music, but prepares you for your professional life, regardless of your future career.

    From a rather small pool of students, Walden Alumni have gone on to become Doctors, Lawyers, Actors (Hollywood as well as off-Broadway, local stage, etc.), Animators, Artists, and much more.

  4. ngardner

    I am a composer who attended Walden School some years ago. So I know their program not from a teacher’s perspective, but from having attended the program as a student. In the college courses I am taking in harmony, one learns the history, the legacy of music upon which one can generate the compositional ideas and learn to sound “just like Mozart” or any other composer worthy of imitation. This is a valid goal, I think; too often, however, it spirals down into a vacuum of “understanding” that takes you away from the joy and the real vibrancy of music as it is played and created.

    One asks (and I have talked to other musicians who agree with me) why one is learning so much about the past, and what it is exactly in the present that can be drawn from to create new works. That is why when I write music for pleasure, I depart completely from these other goals of understanding that harmony courses teach you in order to pursue my own self-made goals.

    The beauty of the Walden campus and the sense of balance I found in their program in terms of balancing social and musical concerns was very valuable for me as a student, but I think now as I look back that this was a reflection of a philosophy of which I was only faintly aware at the time, yet which permeated my ability to make music in a fundamental way, leading, in some sense, to the realization of goals which lay dormant at that time.

  5. MareBear

    Wonderful Walden School in Dublin, New Hampshire
    As someone who helped out the Walden team with newsletters, ads, the occasional poster, and a small project website, I can truly say they are a fun group to work with. The Walden ideal of music carrying one through life was evident in all the creative people with whom I worked, as well as the talented Peobody Trio, who are such delight!

  6. TGubser

    What I really like about Walden is it takes its students seriously…kids are listened to and heard, their opinions and styles matter. I’ve heard it said that Walden is the “cure for adolescence”, and I think attention and respect to young people is core to that phenomenon.
    I hope to send my adolescent child!

  7. Alex Shapiro

    In the summer of 2004, I had the delight of being the Composer-in-Residence and Festival Moderator for the Walden School. It is a magical place. Everything Belinda has written above is so true, and then some. The camp resonates with music, friendship and joy, and brings out the very best in students who are– as many of us were– a little different from the rest of their classmates during the school year. The level of natural talent, whether from an eleven year old or an eighteen year old, was completely inspiring, as was the dedication of the faculty and staff.

    Relating to Belinda’s column last week here in NMB in which she discussed the need for composers to attain social skills, again, the Walden experience provides. There are the interdependent community relationships inherent to any summer camp. But for the composer-camper there was an additional bonus that arose during the several evenings’ worth of student concerts at the season’s end.

    As I welcomed each young composer to the stage after their piece was performed, they sat down with me in front of the audience and fielded friendly, professional questions about their music. For many it was the first time they had spoken publicly about their work, and as I noted on more than one occasion, this exercise would become a familiar and necessary one for their future careers. I was so proud of the students, and so glad to see them introduced to the concept of having a relationship with their audience.

  8. neldorf

    I love the idea of the Teachers Training Institute week at the Walden School.

    I became intrigued with the Walden School at a fundraising event this past fall where I heard a beautiful piece performed which was written by a 15 year old. I’m happy to hear that the Walden School teachers will be training other teachers so that the experience of learning creativity in this way will not be limited to those kids lucky enough to attend the school itself.

    Thanks for sharing the wealth Walden.

  9. macbeev

    Walden Rocks!
    And soars and swings and sings… Whatever the style, it’s music 24/7! Our daughter went there for 5 summers in a row and said she DREAMT in music! It was a life-changing experience for her–and us! Festival Week remains one of our fondest family memories. Keep up the good work! –Linda McNeil

  10. spluta

    I have been teaching at the Walden School for six years now, and for this I am one of the luckiest people in the world. Every summer I get to help enthusiastic teenagers realize their compositional goals through the amazing musicianship course, specialty courses, and composition classes. There are a million things I could say about the musicianship course: teaching harmony and counterpoint devoid of historical meaning, its a pattern language, Grace Cushman is a genius, cross-modal thirteenth chords?, ultimate modal triad drill!, and the list could go on and on.

    But what I really want to emphisize is how Walden teaches and teaches how to teach how to be creative in all of one’s life. There is nothing more rewarding than watching groups of teenagers approaching LIFE creatively, not just music.

    Viva la musica!

    Sam Pluta
    Faculty Fellow, Columbia University

  11. Bill S.

    As a former student and teacher at the Walden School, there are many things that I love about this program:

    I love that building community is an integral part of Walden’s mission.

    I love that creative growth so often becomes intermingled with personal growth.

    I love that, while engaging creativity at all levels of the learning process, the curriculum is also both rigorous and diverse.

    I love that Walden is not specifically a program for prodigies.

    I love that the whole camp hikes a mountain every Saturday.

    I love that our students are willing to participate in outlandish fourth-of-July games (such as human sculpture and the eight-legged race.)

    I love that, as teachers, we are encouraged to bring our personalities and our creativity to the classroom, spawning innovations such as “teach with a puppet day” and “functional harmony Twister”.

    I love that the classes are small, the food is really good, and there is no TV.

    I love that we sing so much.

    Ok, have I surpassed my allotted “gush” quota? I think I’d better stop here.

  12. justjonathan1

    Everything above is true. I was fortunate to teach at Walden for two wonderful summers in 2001 and 2002. The energy of the students and faculty still energizes me. Having been a student of many schools and having taught at a few – this is a place that gets compositional training right. I carry a piece of my experiences at Walden with me every day – Jonathan Miller (I teach at Pomona College and compose for film and television.)

  13. e-margolis@northwestern.edu

    The Walden School has been the formative experience of our son’s life, and not just because of the musical education he received there. Walden is as much about community as about instruction: the perfect medium for creative, social and personal growth.

  14. ginkgi

    A former teen composer at The Junior Conservatory Camp (which evolved into The Walden School), I can only thank Belinda for highlighting this unique summer school, which is so inspiring, not only as the faculty imparts Musicianship (the Walden School faculty has a superb text for teachers published under the Musicianship name) to its young composers but as it is also truly the peaceable kingdom described so glowingly.
    Grace Newsom Cushman’s mentoring gave her students (many of today’s Walden faculty) the enthusiasm and the curiosity and motivation to dig deeper into music composition-or botanical structures or genome theory- that is, she taught us how to think, and most valuably for a musician- to think in time.
    Elizabeth R. Austin

  15. JBecenti

    Walden School…
    Attending the Walden school was one of the most life affirming exeriences I have ever had. The attention not only to the technical aspects of music, but to the life of music itself is astounding. Coming from a very rural community, my training has consisted of listening, and thinking. Walden does not diverge from this concept very far in that music exists there, nurtured, as an integral part of conscious life moving amongst the community ever-present. It is truly a wonderful wonderful place-a place of music.

  16. jeffstanek

    I fortunately got to spend three summers at the Walden School when I was in high school. I remember, when I arrived for the first time, realizing pretty much right away that this wasn’t like any of those conservatory-type music camps you see all over the place. Having been practically weaned on that sort of thing, I was a little bit out of my comfort zone — but that was one of the many great things about it. No favoring, no auditions, no competitions, no textbooks, hardly any formal requirements, guaranteed performances by your friends (yes, friends!), and respect for one another that doesn’t hinge upon musical accomplishments — would that more young know-it-all nerds like me have the chance to grow in such an affirmative, alternative environment! By the end of those three summers, my erstwhile conservative ears had really opened up, I started to feel honest humility, and even now I continue to discover more and more that open-mindedness and graciousness is key both for my life and for my composing.

    Thank you for your article.

  17. harrisonfalk@gmail.com

    It really is something special. I went there for the first time last year and plan to go again.

  18. Jeni Shimizu

    Walden School Mom
    Any parent who desires to invest in a child’s passion for music by sending them to The Walden School will be richly rewarded and will have enduring personal fulfillment. The teachers at The Walden School completely demystify the creative process and allow these children to spread their wings and fly! Carlos is a five-year alum and Lucas just started last summer. The Walden School is not just a good idea and something to try out for a summer. The Walden School is a proven, intense and immensely enjoyable musical experience that has lifelong benefits for the young composers and everyone around them.

  19. eb

    As a former Walden student and staff member, I really appreciate Belinda Reynolds’ article on the program as well as the testimonials of friends and colleagues. While immersed in the Walden curriculum, students gain a deep sense of artistic agency that extends into every sphere of their lives.

    Walden’s Teacher Training Institute seeks to impart this powerhouse curriculum to educators who work with all levels and ages of students. The Institute also tackles the challenge of incorporating its methods into more traditional, often performance-based music programs. There are as many fundamental questions raised by this task as there are ways to address it: what are the goals of music education? Which skills and values that students learn in music classes will be most important to them for the rest of their lives? What can music education give to students that they can’t get anywhere else? I’d be interested to hear what the readers of NMB have to say about these basic but vital questions.

  20. JKG

    Bully Boulez…
    Good question; shall I begin by forgiving him of attacking so many others, or are you unaware of his doing that for many, many years??? Yes, in his old age he has become laughable, and when he is gone he will be forgotten. And here’s a little something for your political correctness, something actually nice to say about him – Pierre admitted in an interview that the younger days’ strategies were necessary only because it was the only means of getting anyone to take him seriously. And by the way, my point was that he suffers from a phobia of being imitated – do any of you?

  21. JKG

    Oh yes, I forgot to mention…
    With camps like the Walden School, I feel confident we may avoid in this country the dogmatic narcissism so typlified by the likes of SOME composers, especially over the past eighty years. What is truly liberating is that these young adults are finding out music is actually a LANGUAGE they can choose to speak with. That is light years ahead, unfortunately, of some faculty and students enrolled in composition studies simply because they can afford it (without any real talent). We definitely need more experiences for young folks like the Walden School.

  22. emargolis

    The Walden School has been nothing short of incredible for me from the time I found out about it. As a student for 6 years, and now as a staff member, I am still in the process of finding out what an unbelievable place it is.

  23. aliciajo

    Being a student at the Walden School for six summers was one of the most important experiences of my life, and I’m endlessly grateful for it. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the influence Walden had on my life, from the friendships we formed there to the music we played and studied.

    I didn’t expect to become a professional musician, though I did love music. I kept going back to Walden because I cared so deeply for the community there, appreciated the intellectual challenge, and thrived in that atmosphere of creativity and quirkiness.

    But to my own surprise I’ve ended up a professional musician (but not a classical one–I sing and play traditional fiddle music in rock bands). And I draw on what I learned at Walden almost every single day. Each time I go into a studio to record a violin track over a song I’ve never heard before, or suddenly find myself onstage with a band I’ve barely met, or learn the ornaments and rhythms a new style of fiddle, or come up with quick vocal harmonies for a song I’m working on, or improvise a solo in some club somewhere, or sit up til 3 in the morning making up music with friends–I’m using on the skills, and the love of music, I learned at Walden.

    I guess this is as good a place as any to say thank you to all the wonderful teachers and administrators who made (and continue to make) Walden a magical experience.

    Alicia Jo Rabins

  24. jbunch

    I like Boulez. Maybe they should get him to teach at Walden!

    ps – all my composition teachers have been God-aweful talented. I am a different person because of them. Even if we don’t always share the same aesthetic values – or make the same choices – I can tell that there is a tremendous amount of craft and ingenuity happening there. Universities typically don’t hire talentless schmuntz-cakes.

    pps – the “ivory tower” is actually not that hard to get into – nor is it in my experience the vanguard of elitism. Each of my fellow comp students write music that’s 1,000 miles away from that of another’s – but I think I can truly say we appreciate one another’s aesthetic choices. For me, the ivory is one of the few remaining places where non-neo-romantic types can have access to the needed resources to hone their works.

    How many John Cage orchestral performances do you hear anymore? Probably not too many. With minor exceptions, those institutions are closed to experimental composers.

  25. nbenson

    Mrs Cushman & JCC
    I first went to the Junior Conservatory Camp in 1959 as a 14-year-old violinist with no background in theory or composition. I still don’t have one! but I managed to slide through four semesters of college music theory on what I picked up in a few summers in Vermont. I was more interested in dancing and dish crew, but I must have done some of my homework! Mrs C. became the ideal against which I measured every teacher thereafter. And not a one measured up. She had an uncanny way of affirming what and where you were–while challenging you to produce what you didn’t believe possible. (I vividly recall the relay exercises at the pianos, calling out the next chord two beats ahead of time–and me, with no keyboard skills!) I recently bought the teacher training manual to see if I could remember anything–or re-learn it–after forty years. What a thrill to get re-acquainted.
    If the current Walden staff are carrying on her methods with her drive and enthusiasm, I would have to recommend it as the place to go for a young musician who wants to know what music (and life!) is all about.

  26. meighanstoops

    Wow-I don’t know where to start. So many people have been impacted by the Walden musicianship philosophy.

    This will be my 4th summer as clarinetist in the Walden School Players (the resident ensemble devoted to reading students’ compositions). I am also an alumni of the Teacher Training Intensive (’06) and have been working with two incredible mentors this year on personal musicianship growth and pedagogical implementation.

    Quite simply, Walden has changed my musical life. As a professional clarinetist, most of my training has been focused on the perfection of my technique and, thereby, my ability to recreate someone else’s musical ideas as accurately as possible. That’s fun only up to a point.

    Never in my musical upbringing did anyone ask me to step away from the page and explore sounds. You may say, “Well, you could have done that on your own. You just weren’t creative.” I don’t think that’s true though. I believe that everyone has the capability of working creatively but they need certain tools and guidelines in order to do that. Walden provides that.

    My personal goals don’t necessarily include “become a great and famous composer” now, but I do think that being able to be creative and spontaneous on many levels is really what it is all about. My only regret is that I didn’t go to Walden as a kid. It would’ve spared me a lot of self-inflicted boredom and anguish over the years. Better late than never though. I also have the satisfaction of changing future generations’ musical experiences by giving my students what I now wish I’d had.

  27. RitaMitra

    As a parent of a Walden student and a Board member, I am deeply grateful for the creativity, sense of community, and personal growth that my daughter has experienced during her past three summers at Walden. I have been impressed by the passion for music and moral character of the other Walden students, faculty, and staff. As a musician, I am continually inspired by the excellence of the concerts and forums, composers-in residence, and campers’ compositions. The theoretical and compositional skills that these young composers acquire during the camp is astounding. Our entire family has enjoyed and benefited from Walden’s enthusiasm and commitment to musical expression.

  28. djodorkovsky

    As a nine-year student I can honestly say that Walden was one the most formative experience of my life.

    It formed my identity as a musician and composer, made me appreciate all spectrums of music, developed my ear and my creativity. I also formed deep friendships and a sense of community and belonging. I grew up at Walden.

    Even now as a physician, having very little time for music, Walden is part of my life. There is a stairwell in my hospital who’s smell reminds me of the stairwell near the squash courts. Each time I climb them I remember going there with friends to lie on our backs and reverberate harmonies.

    More abstractly, Walden has made me a better physician by developing my sense of creativity and my ability to “step outside the box.” Never taking anything at face value, appreciating the humanity and soul of my patients, applying scientific values with passion….Walden helped me to do that.

    I am excited to see how Walden will continue to grow and influence young people.

  29. susman

    One of my new jazz piano students attended Walden. I’m impressed with the music theory fundamentals he’s attained allowing him to advance rapidly. This knowledge has made it easy for him to learn my approach to lead sheet chord symbols, voicing chords, and improvisation. What a pleasure it would be if all my new students were so prepared. Bravo, Walden.

    William Susman


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