Feb. 23, 2021 | by Arindam Jurakhan
As a composer, I have escaped many of the ways COVID-19 has impacted the world of music. While the ability to lock oneself in their room without distraction could be a blessing for composers, the lack of collaboration has taken a toll on all artists. However, this void was filled by being a part of the Peabody Conservatory’s Junior Bach Program, where Peabody composers mentor middle school students on writing a piece so they can hear it performed. Founded in 2006 by then-undergraduate composer Kevin Clark, this program provides invaluable teaching experiences for composers and meaningful creative opportunities for local students.
Currently run by Dr. Judah Adashi – faculty in the composition, theory, and professional studies departments – the program was adapted into a virtual context due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To teach effectively over Zoom, teachers had to figure out specialized methods that worked for their students. My student, Angel, didn’t know music theory, so we did everything through sound on Ableton, whereas Daniel Collins (MM Composition) used flat.io for his student with basic knowledge of theory. Dr. Adashi also established an incredible connection with the Bergamot Quartet, which provided an opportunity for students’ works to be performed by a premier ensemble in January 2021. As a result, these students, from either the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women or St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, were able to freely imagine without technical restrictions. I can confidently say that helping these students actualize their music was a wonderful experience for all involved.
The Bergamot Quartet, comprised of Peabody alumni Ledah Finck, Irène Han, Amy Tan, and Sarah Thomas, commented that “the young composers of the Junior Bach program were so inspiring to work with, and they wrote music that was a great joy for us to learn and perform. They brought both curiosity and creativity to the table, which is the perfect combination.” I was especially surprised by the variety of styles present in a 30-minute concert and the dedication of the ensemble to realize each piece in a unique way for the composers.
It was also exciting to see my fellow Junior Bach teachers adapt their pedagogical practice for these students. Ashna Pathan (BM in New Media & Recording Arts) said, “The most rewarding part about Junior Bach is getting to help such young, gifted composers develop as artists. Many of them don’t read music, so we get to be their scribe, helping them put their creations that previously existed only in their minds on paper.” Being a part of this experience as a teacher highlights how magical composition really is. Ashna’s experience shows how each teacher-student relationship was highly individualized:
“Kenny had so many genius ideas but was only limited by the fact that he couldn’t read music himself so needed a scribe to put his ideas on paper. To communicate his ideas to me, he would hum melodies, describe how he wanted things to sound, or draw a picture. Sometimes, if I was unsure of what he wanted I would give him choices, such as “this, this, or neither?” Kenny is a huge K-pop fan, so we will often look at his favorite songs and discuss what he likes about them. Usually, I’ll try to find a song or piece in a different genre that does all of the things he likes to build his internal repertoire of sounds. So far, I’ve shown him some electronic and classical music, and this semester I plan to show him some jazz and experimental music.”
This intensive process requires the teachers to once again approach music from a state of childlike wonder. The lessons varied based on what compositional process worked best for them; however, all were focused on finding ideas that the students thought “sounded good.” In a time where we are stranded from one another, it was a necessary reminder that art does not need to be complicated or “worthy” of anything – as artists, all we must do is trust our intuition when creating. It is a privilege to work with these young composers because it has shown me how much we can still learn from each other through creation despite age, isolation, economic instability, and more.
Ultimately, the Junior Bach performance evoked the feelings of when I first heard a piece of mine performed live. Seeing these students create such unique works, even in such trying times, gave me hope for how we can all engage with art to endure and process hardship. I helped my student write her own lyrics and it ended up becoming a hectic story about aliens that, when analyzed, is a harsh critique of the government and what has occurred in this country over the past year. Being let into the creative process of this young, brilliant composer was truly beautiful and humbling. It continues to amaze me that art can find avenues to prevail and inspire in such horrific times. As creators, we all must remember the “wonder” in what we do – through this experience, I now approach writing with openness and freedom that I have not felt since I was their age.
JURAKHAN is a composer, producer, and rapper driven to create music that communicates with others for the sake of activism, understanding, and unification. Since he has been fortunate to have amazing mentors, he strives to become one himself.