Whether you last set foot in a middle school building in 1999 or 2019, getting lost is an inevitability. Finding the music room, however, has become trickier. In 1999, you could follow a trail of piano and keyboard sounds. In 2019, while looking for a classroom during a composition workshop, you’ll still see a handful of students hunched over keyboards—but now they use headphones.
Such was the scene one recent Saturday morning at El Puente Community School in Williamsburg with eight students and three teaching artists. As part of the National Sawdust Student CoLab, each El Puente student has spent the last three months composing a new three-minute work to be presented in a June 11 concert with cellist Amanda Gookin. The performance will mark the first presentation of the newly-minted, interdisciplinary program, whose methodology was inspired by the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Program, which partnered with National Sawdust from 2015 to 2018.
“I have an idea!” exclaims one student, Yara Perez, at the beginning of that day’s session. “Can my piece be called Different?”
“Your piece can be titled anything you want,” responds composer and performer Angélica Negrón, a lead teaching artist in the program. “You’re the boss.”
The students are going over a checklist for their works-in-progress, each inspired by their experiences of the world and life. As they check off items like a title and a clear explanation of the work’s inspiration, another student, Victoria Paredes, hits on one of the most important checkboxes: Does she like her piece?
“I don’t like my piece; I love my piece,” she says.
The conversations during this check-in come to a close when Negrón starts tapping out short rhythms with her hands and feet, and the students, whose ages range from 10 to 15 – and who all are especially energetic on a sunny Saturday following a long week of rain – respond. Then the topic of the concert being open to the general public comes up.
“Audiences are hungry for your music,” Negrón says, responding to one student’s nervousness about sharing her work with strangers. Fellow student composer Taina Diaz-Stanton adds, “It doesn’t matter if other people don’t like it; it matters that you like it.”
This attitude is at the core of the Student CoLab, which works with students not only to build the skills required for composing a new work, but also to develop broader skills in listening, music critique, and collaborative teamwork. It also dovetails with the community values of El Puente (which include respect, determination, and empathy), whose Beacon Leadership Program is a partner with National Sawdust for the Student CoLab.
El Puente’s focus on the arts and sports, as tools for young people to create and influence social change, factors into the pieces that are being developed this year. One example is a work-in-progress by Paredes, which begins with a buoyant cello melody that sounds like something out of Janáček’s or Bartók’s folk songs. A poem written and read by the composer accompanies the musical lines, and begins with a sense of hope at the prospect of moving to New York.
Both the text and music take a darker, more discordant shift when she touches on the uncertain side of the experience. After a group listen, student composer Amelia Cervantes says that the line “The day that I might be illegal” stuck with her. “It’s not just your experience, but maybe the experience of someone else,” she says of how the line may resonate with the audience. Diaz-Stanton adds that the emotional resonance can go deeper for listeners: “It’s not just feeling illegal, but feeling excluded.”
If these themes sound like they’re part of National Sawdust’s Artist-in-Residence and Projects programs, that’s by design. Over the last three months, students have seen performances at Sawdust and met with some of its artists. The 2019 Student CoLab is also inspired by Forward Music Project, Gookin’s own ongoing collaboration with projection designer S. Katy Tucker. Driven by social justice and empowerment for women and girls, the project features 12 works by female and non-binary composers written for solo cello, voice, electronics, and video projection. The project dovetails perfectly with El Puente’s theme for the 2018-19 school year of educational justice and gender empowerment.
The 11 Student CoLab composers have a similar set of tools to work with for their pieces, which also include projections developed by five of their classmates in collaborating with Tucker, lead teaching artist Gil Feliciano, and assistant teaching artist Megan Gomez. The art students are also creating a film documenting the program, to be shown as an introduction to the concert.
While a focus on the technical skills in both composition and video production is undeniable, these elements of how are driven by the main core of why. What are students hoping to communicate? If they can answer this question, the teaching artists can help with everything else.
“I’m not looking for those fancy music words,” Negrón says to the group before they break off into one-on-ones with assistant teaching artists Kyla-Rose Smith and Stephanie Garcia, and with Negrón herself. “I want to know exactly what you want.”
This is what prompts Diaz-Stanton, in her session with Negrón, to set aside her growing vocabulary of musical terms for something more tangible, as they work out what will eventually be a song that she sings with Gookin on cello.
“It’s like ice cream,” she explains of the piece. “Chocolate ice cream from the machine is the worst. Chocolate ice cream from your freezer is better, because it’s so rich.”
Négron, who is transcribing Diaz-Stanton ideas into notations in Ableton, mulls this over: “So you want your music to be like rich chocolate?” Diaz-Stanton nods emphatically.
“It’s hardest for the kids who know music,” Negrón says in a quick break between students. The program accelerates the process of “unlearning” centuries of music theory in order to find a voice authentic to the individual—one that most composers go through in the years (if not decades) following conservatory.
This immediacy, however, is foundational to open, honest, and clear communication. One student in the program, now in her third year, came in highly influenced by classical piano lessons. “It’s so great,” Negrón says of this young artist’s multi-year progress, “to hear something that’s authentic to her.”
Student CoLab presents new works alongside Amanda Gookin at National Sawdust June 11 at 6:30pm; nationalsawdust.org
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.