Pilot program teaches elementary school students how to write music

Students from three Charleston County public schools completed a music composition project last week designed to de-mystify the creative process. Nearly 70 young participants were exposed to the symphony orchestra’s special range of sound and color.

“Composition and Critique,” an interdisciplinary pilot program created by James Braunreuther, the school district’s fine arts coordinator, involved students and teachers from three area elementary schools: Springfield Elementary in West Ashley, A.C. Corcoran Elementary in North Charleston and Whitesides Elementary in Mount Pleasant. Musicians from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and three young composers took part.

The experiment in learning was made possible by a grant from the Kennedy Center’s Partnerships in Education program.

It began last fall when students were given the 2006 book “Probuditi!” by Chris Van Allsburg to read. The story is about a magic trick gone wrong.

College of Charleston composition students Craig Budde and Jonathan Milord, and the Charleston Symphony’s second oboist and English horn player Kari Kistler each worked with a group of students, de- constructing the story and creating interesting musical gestures to match it.

The process varied from school to school, Budde said. In his case, he put all the illustrations from the book into a timeline and asked students to associate a certain emotion with each image. Then they created music that fit the mood, working on melodies, dynamics and other musical elements.

“It was a democratic process to decide on the sounds,” Budde said.

In the School of the Arts’ auditorium on Thursday, the students took their positions at the front of the stage, one group at a time. Behind them were core musicians from the Charleston Symphony, led by concertmaster and acting artistic director Yuriy Bekker.

The kids took turns reading passages from the book as the orchestra provided the musical accompaniment the young students had prepared themselves.

“I wanted the kids to get the concept that all of the elements of good writing are the same, whether for musical writing or (literary) composition,” Braunreuther said.

Mary Scholtens, music teacher at Whitesides, said she appreciated this innovative approach to learning about the arts.

“What a thrill it was today to listen to the wonderful composition inspired by the students’ sessions with Jonathan (Milord) and hear in the original score how the themes, settings, character development, voice and narrative they discussed were realized by the members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra,” she wrote in a letter of appreciation to Braunreuther and Charleston Symphony Education Coordinator Stephanie Silvestri. “It is such a unique opportunity for the students to not only hear a premiere of a musical composition, but one in which they had significant input and where their creative ideas and experience were validated at every stage of the process.”

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