A funny thing happens when you return to a teenager after a year. You realize they’ve changed. This may be obvious, but it’s worth noting the kinds of changes that happen – especially when original music provides a window into developing minds and personalities.
My second summer leading the Music Composition Academies of the South Dakota Symphony, in Spearfish and Sisseton, South Dakota, evoked these thoughts last month. Together with two other gifted composer/educators (Jeffrey Paul and Michael Begay), I worked with a total of 19 students this summer, 12 from the “West River” reservations of Pine Ridge and Rosebud, and from Rapid City; and 7 from the “East River” reservation of Sisseton/Wahpeton. (Most if not all are Native, but the distinction is not always obvious or even important.) About half of the students were new to us, each bringing a surprising personality that was clear from the very first group warm-up. The other half were returning from last summer, and these are the ones I’m thinking about today.
Last year I wrote about a student (actually a composite of several) who began the week’s work completely withdrawn, head down under a hoodie, unresponsive; and who emerged during the week as the proud creator of something of rare beauty and power. Every one of the students I was thinking of last year came back to experience the Academy again. And – lo and behold – most of them were like different people. Outgoing, enthusiastic, confident, ready to work.
And what did they produce? Music with a personality recognizably the same as last year, but with dramatically greater complexity and depth and precision. They still depend on us composer mentors to notate their music, but they make every choice in a very deliberate way. They may not have composed anything on their own since last summer, but so what? They came to work, and they produced “opus 2’s” that, frankly, few composition majors in college could produce.
There’s something about an approach of radical trust and listening – there are no mistakes, only sounds and feelings – that uncorks such authenticity and individuality. They discover a voice within that can speak through music. And if they continue to get opportunities over the years as they mature, what they have to say becomes that much more articulate. Already at 16, they have more idea of their own voices than I had when graduating college. I think they are ready for all that great theory and music history in ways I wasn’t.
Of course teens do grow up with or without composing (thank goodness). And it’s always delightful to see the mature person begin to emerge from the chrysalis. Still, it’s not only possible, but likely, that the experience these kids have had composing plays a part in that emergence. In some cases, it could even have made part of the difference in survival, the teen suicide rate being what it is on some reservations. (In fact, one student returned this year to compose a piece on fighting teen suicide; another, about the crisis of MMIW, missing and murdered indigenous women.)
Everyone who returned this summer has said they plan to come compose again next summer. I can hardly imagine where they’ll go next personally and musically. But I think I know the general direction.