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Teens create their first masterpiece in 'Every Single Note'

South Dakota Symphony Orchestra's Music Composition Academy
Kevin Patten
South Dakota Symphony Orchestra's Music Composition Academy

This interview originally aired on "In the Moment" on SDPB Radio.

South Dakota Symphony Orchestra's Music Composition Academy teaches teenagers how to craft their first masterpiece. The program culminates in the orchestra's professional musicians performing the student's works in a capstone concert.

The composers' musical journeys are captured in SDPB's documentary "Every Single Note." We speak with producer Kevin Patten about the film, the academy and the music.

Watch "Every Single Note."
The following transcript was auto-generated.

Lori Walsh:
What you're hearing now is a montage of music written by South Dakota teenagers as part of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra's Music Composition Academy. SDPB premieres “Every Single Note” tonight on SDPB TV and producer Kevin Patten is with me now for a behind-the-scenes look at the story.

Hey, welcome.

Kevin Patten:
Thank you so much, Lori. Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh:
You've been following the Lakota Music Project, the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and this Music Composition Academy for quite some time. So, tell me, where all has this story taken you?

Kevin Patten:
Yeah, I've been lucky enough to work with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra for many years now, whether it be broadcasting concerts or streaming concerts.

This latest project with the Music Composition Academy has been a fun one to work on. Our first shoot was at Oelrichs School District in September of 2022, and then in the summer of 2023 we went to the Sisseton Wahpeton College, where they were having the camp. And also in July we went to Black Hills State University where they had another round of the camp there.

Lori Walsh:
All right, we're going to hear a little bit from the composers now. They come to this camp with all kinds of different musical ideas and you've got some audio of them talking about what ideas they hoped to express.

Composer 1:
A fishing trip.

Composer 2:

Composer 3:
I'm going for a marching kind of feeling.

Composer 4:
I hope to convey change.

Composer 5:
Something you could put in a horror movie like a chase scene and something to get your blood flowing and stuff.

Composer 6:
It kind of resembles the wind, my piece.

Composer 7:
Something's not how it seems or what it seems.

Composer 8:
You have a story and it's like you need to tell that story because there's other kids like you who probably don't know how to speak about how they're feeling.

Lori Walsh:
Kevin, tell me a little bit about the process as you come with SDPB cameras and microphones and they're trying to do this work, which for many of them is brand new in the first place and then there's coaches in the room. What does it all look like behind the cameras?

Kevin Patten:
When we first got there, we made it clear to them that we wanted to capture what they were doing, but we didn't want to get in the way either. So we made it clear that if we ever were in the way that they could just tell us and we would back off a little.

But they were very gracious and gave us lots of room to capture what we wanted to capture. We were able to get through the whole week from the beginning to the end and capturing them as they're beginning to create these music pieces and at the end of the process when they first hear them on the computer.

Lori Walsh:
But it can be hard for adults trying to get kids in, make them comfortable, help them figure out to do something that they don't know how to do, but they're trying to coax them to get their ideas out.

Did you notice anything from those coaches that they did to help these kids warm up and feel like they were in a comfortable place to just express what was on their mind and in their hearts?

Kevin Patten:
The three coaches, I was amazed at how well they work with the kids. Anything that they do, any sounds that they make are acceptable and they really make them feel at ease. I would say that was the biggest thing. They make the kids feel at ease and allow them to be creative.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, there's a lot of work that goes behind that, so we're going to hear a little bit now from those coaches. We have composer Theodore Wiprud, composer Mike Begay, Maestro Delta David Gier of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, and Composer Jeffrey Paul.

Theodore Wiprud:
Mike and Jeff and I go around and work each of us with several of the students getting their ideas down on paper and then into the notation software. Throughout this process, every note is decided by the students.

Mike Begay:
The composition teachers don't write a single note. Every single note of music comes out of the kids.

Delta David Gier:
So all of the music is very much their own and we just sort of help them write it down.

Jeffrey Paul:
Ted and Mike and I, we each bring laptops with either Finale or Sibelius, some kind of music notation software. Our Thursday nights at the camps are usually like all-nighters because we are fiendishly inputting and inputting and inputting all of the prolific students works that have happened during the course of the week and trying to sift through our notes. We've probably been scratching things down on manuscript paper and things like that.

Lori Walsh:
Kevin, you mentioned there's this first time that the student gets to actually hear their composition played live, they hear it first computer recording, the computer's going to play back what they input into it. But then also they bring these musicians from the symphony and they play it for the composer, for the kid the first time.

What was it like being in the room for some of those moments?

Kevin Patten:
It's really an amazing moment to see the kids the first time they hear their music pieces being played by professional musicians. As it says in the documentary, they're amazed and awestruck and it's really a neat moment when they first hear the music being played by the musicians. It's such an organic sound.

It's such a live sound, and I think for a lot of the students, they may have never heard professional musicians in a live room.

Lori Walsh:
Here's Theodore Wiprud talking about that first exchange between symphony musicians and composers.

Theodore Wiprud:
There's nothing quite like the look on the face of a student composer at the first rehearsal of their piece when they hear live musicians creating that human warm sound that expresses the ideas that that kid got down on paper. It's one thing to hear it on the computer, but when they hear the live musicians play it for the first time, I can't describe the light that goes on on their face, the way their jaw drops and they realize this is me through them, this miracle of live performance.

The next thing is when the musicians then finish their performance, the kid is breathless. The musicians ask, "So what about bar four? Did you want that more detached or more slurred?" The young composer realizes that they're the boss.

It's like the grownups are turning to them for advice. They're the leaders. They're the future. They're the ones we want to hear from.

Lori Walsh:
How are the pieces finally presented to audiences?

Kevin Patten:
So the symphony musicians are on the stage and usually Jeffrey Paul, one of the coaches, will emcee the program and he will introduce the students before their compositions are played.

He usually has the student come up on stage and talk a little bit about their composition. Then the piece is played, and after a big round of applause, the students will come up and take a bow.

Lori Walsh:
The raucous applause and some of these performances is pretty fun. You captured that in the documentary as well. We're going to just play a little more tape from “Every Single Note.” Here are the Music Composition Academy coaches about the overall goals of the program because it's about so much more than that performance.

Coach 1:
I mean, yeah, the music is important and it's very important to allow them to express themselves this way, but I think we're looking to give them validation as human beings to celebrate who they are individually, to give them the attention that they're deserving of.

Coach 2:
I think it's giving them a voice is what's really important. Especially as a young person, it's good to be heard and to express yourself, like I said, in a very healthy way.

Coach 3:
Encouraging students' personal growth through creative opportunities is something very powerful for individual students and for our society, to promote individual creativity as a value that can go into any area of life or occupation. It's essential to the development of young lives.

Lori Walsh:
All right. You spent a lot of time with these kids. Did they inspire you? What did you take with you after watching their process?

Kevin Patten:
Yeah, the students did inspire me. I was really inspired by the three coaches and how they inspire the kids and the amazing work that they do and the amazing work that is done by the symphony to interact with the community of South Dakota.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, it's about much more than the concert hall. Yeah. Well, we're going to wrap up with some advice from the young composers here, but Kevin Pattern, thank you so much.

Kevin Patten:
Thank you, Lori.

Composer 9:
Never be afraid of your ideas.

Composer 10:
I say just have fun and make something that you want to make, something that you're proud of.

Composer 11:
How to be comfortable making mistakes. I think that's one of the biggest things I've learned is that there are no mistakes in there, which is really nice, and to be accepting for yourself because there's no way to grow if you don't learn from what you've done.

Composer 12:
When I listen to a song now, I can hear when something repeats or I can hear when there's a new piece or a high note and something — it really teaches you how to listen to music because before it was just, oh, yeah, it goes high, goes low. I think that's really what I learned the most.

Composer 13:
People actually enjoy the song and it's like, maybe I should be a little more proud of myself for it, because it's not every day. Little 16-year-old gets to be on stage talking about their piece.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.