Art Works Blog

Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project Gives Students a Voice

NACAP student composers from Chinle High School work out their compositions with composer-in-resident Raven Chacon. Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon Music Fest

Today at the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama presented a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award to the Grand Canyon Music Festival for its ten-year-old Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP). Over two months each fall, NACAP places four composers in high schools (and one middle school) on Hopi and Navajo reservations. The composers-in-residence work one-on-one with students on composing works for string ensembles that eventually receive world premieres at the festival. This year the program worked with approximately 35 students, each of whom was immersed in the program for about three weeks.

The Grand Canyon Music Festival was inspired by an unlikely muse: Willa Cather. “The festival started 29 years ago when my husband and I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon,” explains executive director Clare Hoffman. “The trip was inspired by a book I’d read by Willa Cather called The Song of the Lark in which the heroine has an artistic reawakening.” During that trip Hoffman---a flautist---and her husband---who had packed his harmonica---gave an impromptu concert at a ranger’s station. A light bulb went off, and the Grand Canyon Music Festival was born.

Outreach has always been an important element of the festival’s mission; its first outreach concert in Tuba City, Arizona---part of the Navajo Nation---took place in its second year of operation. In 2000, the festival was chosen by the American Composers Forum to write an Arizona-based piece for its Continental Harmony project in celebration of the new millennium. The commission was undertaken by Brent Michael Davids, a young Mohican composer, and told the story of the Havasupai who inhabit the Grand Canyon.

Davids’ initial residency was the catalyst for NACAP. “We’d been talking about composer residencies but nothing really gelled until that year. It was that synergy of the right people, the right place, the right time,” says Hoffman. In 2001, the project’s first year, the team worked with five students in three schools.

“It so far exceeded our expectations in terms of the quality of work the students were doing, the reaction we had from the schools, and the audience,” remembers Hoffman. “It was just so overwhelmingly positive. We thought this is a model, this is something we can do as a small organization.”

The student-composers undergo a rigorous curriculum. “On day one, we tell the students, ‘You’re going to write a string quartet,’” notes Hoffman. “And some of them have not even seen a string quartet before.” The young people get a crash course in notation, rhythm, and the use of composition software.

Most important, they learn how to develop an idea into a fully fleshed-out piece. “It’s the compositional process. Basically you’re a writer. No matter what you take on, you have to have an idea first…You have to have something to work with. Sometimes the students come in and they’ve been strumming their guitars so they have a few guitar chords, they have a melody, and that’s a start. They have an idea---'I want to write a piece for my best friend.' Then you have to take that idea and develop in it some way, elaborate on the chords. How do you expand on a chord progression? How do you expand on a melody? How do you develop a melody? How do you conclude in a satisfying way?”

After students compose their pieces, they move on to step two of the workshop---working with a professional string ensemble. Current ensembles-in-residence include ETHEL and the Sphinx Organization’s Catalyst Quartet. Hoffman notes that it’s empowering for the students to work with the musicians and to be the ones to direct the adults on the dynamics, tempo, and other specifics of their scores. “In these very intense workshops….the composer sits down with the ensemble and listens to the ensemble play their piece,” describes Hoffman. “The students have to express to the ensemble how they feel about the piece….[They] have to realize the ensemble is at their service, [and] a lot of communication and dialogue happens.”

The ensembles and teaching composers also learn a great deal from working with the students, especially about Native-American culture. For example, students would note on their scores that they wanted a particular note or phrase played with “vibrato.” The musicians responded that they always played with vibrato. Subsequent conversation revealed that the students were seeking a specific kind of vibrato associated with Navajo musical traditions, as opposed to the Western musical idea of the technique.

Public performance is the next step in the workshop. “After students compose their pieces, we then tour their pieces to [their] schools and some of the elementary schools and tell the kids that these pieces are written by their friends, their neighbors,” says Hoffman. At these public performances, the student-composers are expected to talk about their pieces to the audiences.

The student-composers and ensembles then head off to the Grand Canyon for the culminating events of the workshop. “When the workshops are over, we have what we call the NACAP Fair Day, and that really starts in the morning, and we go all day. It’s one last chance to workshop your piece with the ensemble, to get your piece exactly right, the way you want it. And then we have a world premiere concert and recording of the students’ pieces,” explains Hoffman.

As many students return to the program for several years, they also have branched out into writing quintets, sestets, and octets. One ambitious composer even wrote a nonet. “We told them [that this year] we’d have two string quartets and a flute---me---available, so she took advantage of all of us,” says Hoffman. “It’s just wonderful to see them stretching their wings and trying new things.”

It is evident that the students’ success in NACAP often translates into greater success with general academic work. One of the first student-composers was Michael Begay. As Hoffman describes, Begay was a talented musician at a school with no music program at all and very little motivation to graduate. NACAP gave Begay the encouragement he needed, and he has not only gone on to higher education but he works in Navajo Radio and has composed scores for independent films. Begay is also the first NACAP graduate to return to the program as a composer-in-residence. As Hoffman notes, “He’s a role model for the kids in the area.”

According to Hoffman, however, there is something even more important than academic success that the students gain from NACAP. “They’re being given a voice. They’re kids that live on a reservation. They’re marginalized, they’re isolated by their geography. Resources just don’t get to them because it’s so far from anything….It’s hard for them to see where they fit, where their traditions fit in the dominant culture. [NACAP] is giving them a voice, and a lot of people want to hear what they have to say.”


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