Some pages from the graphic score for the musical composition CW Rainforest created by the participants of YOLA at HOLA
Finding Ways to Entice Young Musicians to be Creative
Some pages from the graphic score for the musical composition CW Rainforest created by the participants of YOLA at HOLA

Finding Ways to Entice Young Musicians to be Creative

Uneasy silence filled the room. Tight bursts of muffled laughter sporadically cut through an undercurrent of shuffling sneakers and nervous wriggling in chairs. Here I was, inviting a group of exuberant Los Angeles middle school musicians to make some NOISE with me in a rendering of Pauline Oliveros’s Sounds from Childhood, but all I got was some side-eye, a little healthy skepticism, and perhaps a touch of dread.

These students were the YOLA at HOLA Symphonic Winds, a group of young musicians from Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, an El Sistema-inspired program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic based out of Heart of Los Angeles, a non-profit that hosts programs for underserved youth in academics, arts, and athletics. YOLA at HOLA—a full, cost-sharing partnership between the L.A. Phil and HOLA—is a free, intensive music program in which students engage in 12-15 hours of group music lessons and ensemble playing each week with the goal of empowering young people to be both musicians and agents of change. The YOLA program, which operates at multiple sites in L.A., focuses on neighborhoods grappling with violence and high poverty rates, and is designed both as a haven from the outside world and as a way to provide a new lens through which students can view themselves, each other, and their collective creative capacity.

The International Contemporary Ensemble’s work at YOLA at HOLA was to pilot a new side-by-side initiative, called entICE, and our goals were multifaceted. We wanted to create a new piece of music, collectively, and workshop it together, from the early stages through its performance (much like any piece in ICElab). In so doing, we wanted to invite these students, who were mostly focusing on music from the distant past, to view this process and the resulting sounds, as theirs—their music, their work.

By playing together (literally sitting next to and among the young ensemble members), we were seeking to build upon and reinforce the ancient tradition of creating and shaping music with one another. Instead of “teaching” new music and telling kids how to play these outrageous new sounds, we would play side-by-side, teachers and students both learning and discovering in tandem.

As an intro (an ICEbreaker—tee-hee) and a way to build trust in the first few workshops with the YOLA students, we incorporated methods from ICE’s earlier education program, a graphic score workshop called The Listening Room. We invited the students to invent their own musical language—using pictures, words, and symbols—in order to compose a series of small graphic scores that allowed us to work towards building a big, collective piece.

When they asked what a composer was, I said, “YOU! YOU are all composers!”

The Listening Room has always been a favorite of mine. I’ll never forget the end of my first workshop in Chicago at the George B. Swift Specialty School in a class of first graders. When they asked what a composer was, I said, “YOU! YOU are all composers!” In one particular child, I saw a look of wonder and awe and then a small but palpable recognition of her own POWER wash over her face. That moment still gives me goosebumps to this day.

Beginning with our residency at YOLA at HOLA, we used what we learned in The Listening Room and incorporated it into entICE residencies going forward, keeping the graphic score intensive workshop as a way to empower and get to know new students while creating a shared language and way of working together before venturing back into the world of notated music.

The overarching goals of entICE were clear:

  • Invite the bright minds of a new generation into the creation process, providing them with a sense of ownership over “new music”: THEIR music.
  • Play together, side-by-side, in rehearsals, workshops, and performances—learning from one another and inviting intense levels of collaboration at every turn.
  • Invite students to COMPOSE, to actually create their own work.
  • Illustrate, through the composers we select, the diversity, depth, and breadth of the artistic world in spite of a dearth of representation.
  • Create a space of trust and comfort; a place where there is no such thing as playing the wrong note, and no sound is “uglier” (or prettier, for that matter) than any other sound.

Tania León, the powerhouse Cuban composer, was our first entICE collaborator. Not only did she write a great piece for the ICE / YOLA experience called Pa’lante, she conducted and coached us all towards an incredible performance. She was TOUGH, but her high standards and her ability to relate to students on and off the podium, earned her the respect and awe of even the most skeptical young collaborators.

We learned so much in that first collaboration, and we are ever grateful to the amazing staff of YOLA for their insight and guidance and to the students for their trust and bravery. Over many intense days and several weekends, we worked on building that trust, finding a shared language, and making something NEW!

And the students, with very little encouragement necessary, ended up creating an AMAZING graphic score, which they called CW Rainforest, a dedication to the founding program director of YOLA at HOLA, Christine Witkowski, who had started them all on their journeys as young musicians. They were so successful in building this piece and rehearsing it on their own, we added it to the performance with León’s piece at Disney Hall; though ICE members sat with and among the student musicians, these young artists were the true leaders in every way. The conductorless ensemble was led by a team of internal firebrands: the percussionist who started the piece with a loud BANG; the sole bassist in a room of wind instrumentalists who bravely took a solo; the brass, who self-organized seven consecutive hits inside the macro-structure of the piece. At every turn, it was thrilling to witness to this collective creative energy and drive.

EntICE has since expanded to many cities nationwide. Our next collaboration was with the People’s Music School in Chicago and composer Marcos Balter, and after that we worked with the SFSYO of San Francisco alongside composer Anahita Abbasi.

Now, FINALLY, we’re in New York City! On March 31, we’ll complete a month of deep collaboration in the Bronx with the incredible students of UpBeat NYC and the amazing Nicole Mitchell, presenting both her work, a piece called Inescapable Spiral, and theirs, titled A Musical Storm, at the Five Boroughs Music Festival at Pregones Theater.

Making music together is a powerful tool.

As entICE grows and expands, so too do we learn from all our collaborators of every age and experience level. Making music together is a powerful tool, and I’m immensely grateful for every young student who has invited me to sit next to them (my bassoon possibly WAY too close to their ears for comfort!) and engage with me in the most resonant and human way I know how: by making sound with one another.

Through the constant work-in-progress that is entICE, one thing is crystal clear: there is much work to be done. As a community, we are only just beginning to start on the long road to recognizing and exploring how to upend the implicit and explicit biases that contribute to the incessant strengthening of the status quo and consistent overlooking of the creativity of the young artists.

And yet, in each of these deep collaborations there is a moment: when these kids see a composer who looks more like themselves than Beethoven or Brahms; when they perform their own pieces, written by and for themselves and one another; when, hopefully, they get a glimpse of their own creative power. That moment is why this work is vitally important. Now more than ever.

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Praised for her “flair” and “deftly illuminated” performances by the New York Times, Bassoonist Rebekah Heller is a uniquely dynamic chamber, orchestral and solo musician. Equally comfortable playing established classical works and the newest of new music, Rebekah is a fiercely passionate advocate for the bassoon. An "impressive solo bassoonist" (The New Yorker), she is tirelessly committed to collaborating with composers to expand the modern solo and chamber music repertoire for the instrument. Her debut solo album of world premiere recordings, 100 names, has been called "pensive and potent" by... Read more »


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