Composer Christopher Theofanidis with students at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School in New Haven, CT
BandQuest® is a project of the American Composers Forum (ACF) that pairs up world-class composers with middle school bands. The program recently came up in conversation, and I realized what a great story it would make for our blog. So I scheduled a call with Suzanna Altman, the manager of education and community engagement at the ACF, to help me fill in the details. As you’ll see below, the timing of our conversation was very fortuitous.
Scott Yoho: What are the origins of BandQuest?
Suzanna Altman: Back in the 1990s the ACF underwent a very extensive survey of music educators. We were trying to learn what the forum, as an organization with a really great resource of national composers, could do for the field of music education.
What we discovered, through an overwhelming response, was a shortage of repertoire for middle school bands. We recognized that we could help by commissioning composers to write new music for middle school band, and we could publish the results nationally.
SY: How does the program work?
SA: BandQuest has two parts: There’s the initial commission, and the residency process. So there’s one specific school that has a very personal experience with one composer. The composer writes that school a piece that’s really for them – they get to premiere it and have a great experience with that composer.
We set up the residency; the composer visits the school several times, and then works on writing the piece for the school. We stay in contact with the composer and the school through the process of the writing. As the composer finishes, they send us files. Hopefully they are Finale files, if they’re not we convert them because we do all our editing in Finale. We can ensure that the final look is always consistent by using Finale. Then we publish the music. Hal Leonard distributes for us, so the pieces get really widely distributed not only throughout the U.S. but also around the world.
SY: How much repertoire have you created?
SA: We’re about to publish our 19th piece with the series – at first we did a few a year, now we do one each year. It’s been highly, highly successful. We’ve added a lot of new pieces to the repertoire that have a very different feel than what was available before.
Michael Colgrass wrote a piece that’s been very popular called Old Churches that calls for metal mixing bowls to be played by the percussionists to kind of sound like church bells in the distance – and there’s a little bit of graphic notation involved in that piece. He spent a lot of time with the students in the school where he did his residency to write the piece, talking to them about graphic notation, and encouraging them to write their own pieces using graphic notation.
The piece that came out last year was by an up-and-coming composer named Chris Theofanidis, who is a professor at Yale. He wrote a piece called Sweet like that for a band in New Haven. He went into the school and asked the students: “This is going to be a piece for you. What would you want?” One student asked to play drum set, other percussionists wanted to play fun percussion instruments, and of course the flutists all wanted to play piccolo (some, but not all of them get to play piccolo in the piece).
The tuba player wanted a solo because he so rarely gets to be heard, so the piece starts and ends with a low brass emphasis. It’s been a really well-received piece in part because Chris responded to what students were looking for and what they wanted.
SY: And Michael and Chris are just two members of an amazing list of participating composers.
SA: The goal was always to get the best composers we could to be a part of these. Our advisory board has a dream list of who they’d love to have participate, and it’s remarkable how many of these composers have agreed to participate and add to the education repertory, and affect the lives of children.
Okay, here’s where the story gets even better. The very day I spoke to Suzanna, she received some exciting news. She learned that this year’s BandQuest composer—who is currently working with the Scarsdale Middle School in Scarsdale, NY—had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music. He is, of course, Kevin Puts!
SA: Kevin is actually the fourth BandQuest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s fun too, because he’s not done with the residency, so I just got to email the teacher to share the news!
Imagine being a band director and sending home a note that your students have been studying with a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer.
You can learn more about BandQuest at the official site. Here you can listen to all the pieces, and several include additional curriculum materials (and more are on the way). In addition, many BandQuest pieces are also available in SmartMusic, so feel free to explore them there too.
Check out the compositions and let us know what you think by clicking on “Comments” below!