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A (Very) Young Composer Gets His Chance At The New York Philharmonic

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A (Very) Young Composer Gets His Chance At The New York Philharmonic

Music Articles

A (Very) Young Composer Gets His Chance At The New York Philharmonic

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Imagine if you were 10 years old and composed a piece of music that was played by the New York Philharmonic. Well, for a few New York City school kids, this is a dream come true. Jeff Lunden has this look at the Philharmonic Very Young Composers program.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Jon Deak, who played bass with the New York Philharmonic for over 40 years, says the idea for the program came when he and conductor Marin Alsop visited an elementary school in Brooklyn several years ago.

JON DEAK: As we were going in, I saw all the children's art on the walls, which was so superior. I said, that's it, Marin. We've gotta get kids to compose music on the level of this art right here, because look, doesn't that look like a Picasso? Doesn't that look like a Paul Klee?

LUNDEN: So, Deak set about getting the musical equivalents of paints, paintbrushes and canvas for children in elementary schools which partner with the New York Philharmonic. Each year, 72 very lucky kids in six New York area schools participate in this free after-school program funded by Credit Suisse. Theodore Wiprud is the Philharmonic's Director of Education.

THEODORE WIPRUD: The kids are not chosen for being musical geniuses. The guidelines we give the schools in trying to identify some fourth and fifth graders for the program is that they be kids for whom this could make a difference. Whether or not they study an instrument is not necessarily a good predictor of whether they're going to do something creative in music.


LUNDEN: It's a Tuesday afternoon in January. Twelve kids have gathered in music teacher Paul Trust's classroom at P.S. 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to start their musical journey. Teaching artist Daniel Felsenfeld begins, by getting them in sync with the rhythms he's clapping.


LUNDEN: Over the next 12 weeks, each of these kids will learn some of the rudimentary elements of composition - a little bit about musical notation, a little bit about the instruments of the orchestra through classroom demonstrations. Cellist Rose Bellini demonstrated all kinds of cool effects she can do on her instrument.

ROSE BELLINI: You can also...


LUNDEN: Program creator Jon Deak says the central idea of the Very Young Composers program is to tap into the kids' creative spirit without getting in the way.

DEAK: Some of these kids have trouble locating middle C on a piano. Does that mean they can't compose music of depth? No. What do they have to do? They have to hum it for us, sing, whistle, tap the rhythms, even if they can't notate them. And we get their piece.

LUNDEN: Or, as teaching artist Daniel Felsenfeld puts it:

DANIEL FELSENFELD: The most important thing about this class is that you never, ever, ever write their music for them, even a little.

LUNDEN: One of the children at P.S. 39 is already a vet. Milo Poniewozik is a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Last year he wrote a quintet which was played by musicians from the Philharmonic. This year, he's going to expand his piece, so it can be played by the Philharmonic.

MILO PONIEWOZIK: It's orchestrated for the entire orchestra, meaning not just the double bass, violin, flute, all that, but also the harps, the horn, the trumpet, more woodwinds, stuff like that.

LUNDEN: He and Daniel Felsenfeld have gotten together and worked with a musical notation program called Sibelius, which allows Milo to listen to a digital approximation of the orchestra.


PONIEWOZIK: I also had to make a lot of decisions because with only five instruments, you don't really need to think about how big or how quiet you want the music to sound because it's really not a lot of instruments. But, with the orchestra, you can make it sound like everything or nothing.

LUNDEN: Still nothing quite prepares Milo for the experience of hearing 100 musicians, conducted by Joshua Weilerstein, playing his piece.


PONIEWOZIK: I thought it was really cool being able to hear the orchestra play my piece for the first time. It was definitely a lot different than hearing it on the computer.


LUNDEN: Program creator Jon Deak...

DEAK: It's a knockout little piece. It really is. And I just gave a whoop when I saw it because it shows both a child's spirit and yet some grasp of adult issues in a way you just can't predict.

LUNDEN: In late May, with over 2,000 New York City school kids in Avery Fisher Hall, Milo introduces his piece, called The Globetrotter, in an interview with education director Theodore Wiprud.


LUNDEN: And The Globetrotter receives its world premiere.



LUNDEN: Afterwards, Milo was a little bit breathless.

PONIEWOZIK: It was really cool to be able to stand up in front of the entire audience and have my piece performed. I was a little nervous, at first, that something was going to go wrong; like, you're afraid that you're going to fall off the stage or your shoes are going to slip off or something. You know, you're just afraid you're going to make a mistake.

LUNDEN: But, he added...

PONIEWOZIK: It sounded really good. It was how I wanted it to sound.

LUNDEN: Milo says he's definitely going to continue to compose music. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


SIMON: To hear the New York Philharmonic - I mean the New York Philharmonic - play Milo's piece, "The Globetrotter," in its entirety, go to I'm going to do it immediately. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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