Composing with Children and young People

„When I want to hear music, I open the window.“ (John Cage)

The Conservatorium in La Rioja, Spain, was the venue for the first composition course for children and young people between the ages of 8 and 23 given by Wolfgang Zamastil.
The 26 participants were divided into groups (8 - 11, 12 - 14, and 15 - 23, with individual lessons for especially productive participants and for a blind girl). Teachers too, who expressed an interest in the project, were given the opportunity to compose together with Wolfgang. After a short „meeting and greeting“ phase, the different groups went their separate ways, in order each to compose a piece internal to the group.

The 8-11 Group
developed a story out of a piece for solo cello composed by Carlota (11) and entitled "La voz de cuenta cuentas" (The Voice of a Storyteller). This story tells of an old house in a wood, in which there lives a hunter – and concerns, of course, also the surrounding world of woodland animals. Claudia (11)'s composition for piano evoked the moon and Diego (also 11) used various instruments - three flutes, an instrument specially put together by Selma (8) and the two plants which were placed on the stage - to evoke the idea of a snake vanishing into the bushes. The whole group joined together in evoking musically a hunt for a little hare, which the hunter ends up sticking into a big sack. Gabriel (8) composed a piece for cello which evoked a swan describing circles on the surface of a placid lake. It was also Gabriel who composed, for flute and piano, the scene which closed the story : the hunter's being punished for his deeds by the animals, who send him sinking into the lake.
In the concluding concert, all the children played from a score, having learnt by now a little about how one organizes one's musical ideas and gives a fixed form on paper to the sequence of musical events.
The end result was a highly contemporary piece : wild, amusing, at times tonal, at times atonal, noisy, dreamy, and executed by the composers themselves. So much was achieved in three one and a half hour sessions!

The great interest of the members of the middle - 12 - 14 – group was in the specific sounds their instruments were capable of producing, above all the piano and the celli. They developed the musical picture of a ship that was slowly sinking : quietly burning (viola) in the wind (celli), it faintly sounds its horn (cello solo), before it is finally drawn down into the depths (tutti). We gathered ideas for sounds, melodies, harmonies and rhythms, which we then jointly put together in the form of a score. Which notes in the score were to represent the ship's horn? Which the wind? How was one to express in the score the preparation to which the piano was subjected? There was much discussion which resulted in the end in a lovely five-minute piece, at the conclusion of which some members of the ensemble leave off playing their instruments and gather around to play together on the open grand piano, while others move over to the light switches and give emphasis to the final disaster of the ship by turning on and off the lights.


The young people in the 15- 23 group

were rather shy. They were afraid of doing something wrong or of proposing what might be a poor idea. Likewise there were much longer and more emphatic discussions in this group, by comparison with the younger ones, about what an idea was “worth” and how it might be carried out. On the suggestion of Miguel (15), we decided to try to compose a piece representing a development from complete chaos to a moving beauty. But how does one operate with effects? Why is a degree of laughter indispensable? Is it important or not that the effects be precisely organized? Is that really music? How far can one go? We tried to build our ideas, and the recording made during the performance of the piece, as meaningfully as possible into the score. The end result was a piece which everyone involved could recognize and acknowledge as theirs and which made an interesting, above all a beautiful, impression on the audience.

On Composing with
Children and Young People

What children know is all that which one learns to forget as soon as one begins to think about how one is going to become master of one's own life. In order to do what they want to do, they must pay no bills and win no contests. Children just do it. Sometimes I can still remember how, when I was a child, I perceived certain things.
It was a world of feelings which were at the same time completely concrete and completely abstract – feelings I hardly notice today. These feelings were totally individual and I knew that it was me alone who felt this way. Many of them were unpleasant, even extremely so. Strange images, consistencies or sounds in the form of very strong feelings. Sometimes, I still have them in my dreams. This is not to say that I no longer have any feelings. It is just that they are becoming more monotonous with time and they are subsumed under general names, these feelings which, as a child, were so important to one but which one was unable or unwilling to name.

Why am I saying all this?
Well, because it is, I believe, these things that, when one is composing, one is looking for. One is looking for one's quite individual perception of one's world and one's environment and it is from this that one selects whatever is so strong that one is forced to compose it in music. This decision is important. It resembles other decisions in life which are often difficult to take. Music, whose tones are not tangible but rather abstract in themselves is an ideal way of capturing such very personal experience.
On a composition course, my task is simply that of making it clear to the children and young people that music is everywhere. All that one needs to do is to examine one's surroundings closely and then to “translate” them. The ideas can certainly also arise purely in one's head. The pursuit of ideas and images in the head is one of the most exciting aspects of composition. What one must learn, though, is to express the music in a language which is understandable for musicians.
And here I can help.

You want to organize a composition course also at your school/music school?

Here is some information about this :

Duration : 5 - 10 days, circa 6 hours a day
Number of participants : varies according to the length of the course
Costs : Journey costs, board and lodging (outside of Berlin) + ? 150 per day
Languages : Courses in German or English, with good simultaneous interpretation into other languages
On request, an info video is available by post (Mpeg)