Instrument cases and winter coasts were pushed up against the wall, and black chairs were arranged in a circle. On a cold, gray Saturday morning, 17 Grand Rapids Symphony Mosaic Scholars held their instruments – woodwinds, strings, and horns – and sat in a large circle inside a recital hall at DeVos Performance Hall.
After each Scholar played the opening seven-note sequence from Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” as performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, they shared their expectations and dreams for the week ahead of them.
“I want to step outside of my comfort zone,” said one student.
“I’m excited to push myself creatively,” said another Scholar.
“I’m excited for making a bigger family of Mosaic Scholarship,” came another earnest statement.
Part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music Initiative, the Mosaic Scholarship program provides local African-American and Hispanic music students, ages 12-18, with 24 one-on-one lessons with symphony musicians over the course of one year. Selected through an application and audition process, Scholars, with the help of music lessons, enhance their musical capabilities while simultaneously developing skillsets that empower both personal and professional success.
In addition to the individual lessons, scholars have the opportunity to form an ensemble that performs an original composition at the Grand Rapids Symphony's upcoming Celebration of Soul dinner and Symphony with Soul concert, both on Saturday, February 24. This year’s concert, titled Ella, a Tribute, celebrates Ella Fitzgerald’s phenomenal, prolific music career with special guest vocalists Aisha de Haas and Nova Y. Payton.
Symphony with Soul is at 8 p.m.Tickets for the Grand Rapids Symphony's 17th annual concert start at $18 adults, $5 students.
Facilitated by Creative Connections, an international organization that provides unique opportunities to creatively explore and express stories, ideas, and emotions through music, the Mosaic Scholars begin their work of creating musical alchemy with a week-long, intensive process that is as off-beat and meaningful as it is effective.
Grand Rapidian Jill Collier Warne began Creative Connections in 2009 with several colleagues from the Peabody Institute of The John Hopkins University in Baltimore, including Traverse City native Daniel Trahey. As its director, Warne, working with Trahey and Camille Delaney and Peter Tashjian in Grand Rapids, provides the conceptual framework that guides the student-centered creative process.
That framework rests on a simple premise: Empowered students can create meaningful, original music, and, along the way, form a community that helps nurture them as musicians and young adults.
Students engage in multiple workshops where they are treated as creative collaborators – the generative force of the musical enterprise. Watching students as they crafted compositional elements in real time was watching a team be formed right before your very eyes.
“I have an idea,” one lanky, jovial Mosaic Scholar began as he walked into the circle formed by his fellow Scholars on Saturday morning.
After telling drummer Peter Tashjian what kind of beat he wanted, all of the Scholars played along, trying the same seven-note sequence in an entirely new way.
Not long after, another Scholar stood and suggested a different, jazzier feel for the music, something akin to Bernstein’s West Side Story, with unusual intervals and jagged beats – at once compelling and interesting. The musical backbone of the original composition the Scholars would create was beginning to take shape.
Large-group and small-group workshops gave scholars the chance to try those new compositional elements: rhythmic sequences inspired by cadences of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, lyrics inspired by a free-write association with the word, “dream,” and melodies inspired by Ella Fitzgerald’s extensive jazz catalogue.
With this synthesis of social justice themes and free-form musical possibilities, the Mosaic Scholars were encouraged to take risks, both individually and corporately, toward the shared endeavor of music-making.
Speaking to Johns Hopkin’s The Hub in 2013, Warne explained that she’s learned to trust the process of facilitating students’ creativity.
“I think that kids are super empowered by it because the whole process is saying ‘yes’ all the time, and any idea goes. Why not go for something that maybe some other teacher might say was impossible or that you’ve never really been given the opportunity to try before?”
Such an opportunity is rare.
In May, the Mosaic Scholars also will perform at their free recital at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 12 in DeVos Recital Hall. There they will perform solo pieces they have been perfecting in their lessons by familiar classical composers.
All symphonic music, like team sports, is collaborative by nature. Still, those enterprises, particularly at the middle and high school levels, ask students to collaborate on something that’s already been created. How often does the high school football coach ask his cadre of players to design and then practice entirely new plays for the upcoming football game?
“Let’s look at Belichick’s latest Super Bowl footage, young men, and then, in small groups, you can riff off those plays and brainstorm five original plays we’ll use next week in the playoffs.”
How often does the band or symphonic director invite her students to fashion new melodies and rhythms for the upcoming concert?
“Now, after listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, go ahead and create your own opening sequence that is exhilarating and cinematic to be performed at our next concert.”
It’s likely, such phrases have rarely, if ever, been uttered.
Perhaps it’s an approach that high school music and athletics should take. To watch the Mosaic Scholars as they came to trust each other, forming, as one Scholar put it, “a musical family,” was remarkable; a creative enterprise with long-lasting impact.
Written by Jenn Collard, Public Relations Intern