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Okanagan Children’s Choir: Digital composition project

Okanagan, British ColumbiaOkanagan (British Columbia)

Story Seeker: Anju Singh
People interviewed: Gerda Blok-Wilson, Composer and Frances Chiasson, Artistic Director
Interview dates: August 27 and October 4, 2021

Okanagan Children’s Choir Artistic Director Frances Chiasson continued with her organization’s programming through the COVID-19 pandemic despite the challenges posed by government-mandated restrictions. Due to concerns around increased risk of viral transmission from singing, the choral arts were strongly affected by British Columbia’s health regulations, which closed down all in-person singing events. Frances knew that many children and families depended on the programming that the small Kelowna-based organization provided so that the children could keep up with their singing and music training. In this context, she decided to explore new ways to engage the children that didn’t require meeting in person.

She reached out to Gerda Blok-Wilson, a Vancouver-based composer who had previous experience with children’s choirs, to see if she had ideas for a creative project. Frances said that she wasn’t sure what the project would look like when she first approached Gerda, but she did know that the priorities were for the project to be available to the children virtually (on Zoom) and to ensure that the children would be engaged.

Gerda and Frances decided to run a four-week project with one-hour sessions each week, during which the children would gain hands-on experience composing choral music, with the assistance of a composer. This strategy ensured that Frances’s main goals were met: “the prime concern was to engage children in a new way, to practice singing, and to talk to a real life composer,” she said.

The Innovation: Using digital tools to teach composition

The project was Gerda’s first time using Zoom and other digital tools to teach composition to children, and she was pleased with the results in terms of engagement and learning. “I thought it was a great way to access composition and technology; there was so much learning for the children with this kind of thing. And for a choir, we kept them singing and sharing each other’s compositions, so the musical learning was unreal.”

The project focused on a different compositional approach each week: graphic scores, rhythmic composition, and melodic/lyrical composition in weeks 1 to 3, followed by a combination of all three elements, which led to a production that was recorded and shared on YouTube for family, friends, and supporters.

Drawings and artwork by children as part of the Okanagan Children’s Choir's digital composition project

Each week, the children created scores and sent them to Gerda before their next session. In advance of the session, Using an open-source audio production software called Audacity, Gerda would interpret the scores and create something tangible for the children to experience. This approach of showing the children how their compositions could sound using digital tools allowed the children to understand the relationship between the scores and the choral arts, which also kept the children singing as a group despite being at home on their own. While Gerda shared that “it wasn’t exactly like singing in a choir because you didn’t have the sounds around you”, she also saw the benefits of the exercise: “each week they heard what they sent to me. The feedback was really neat, and they sang along.”

For Gerda, the interactive nature of the sessions was key to the project’s success. In performing hands-on tasks and composing regularly over the four weeks, the children started thinking more actively about composition. “It gave the kids involved a different perspective of a composer; it gave them an inside view of what a composer does, or how a composer starts, or how to build and develop a song”, Gerda said. To increase interactivity, Gerda had the children hold up their scores to share what they had composed. By sharing their work, the children could learn from one another.

The project allowed all the children to keep singing and learning, regardless of distance and location, showing that the format has the potential to increase the reach of arts learning programs. For Gerda, this is a strong argument to continue this project in a virtual format beyond the pandemic.

This project was the first time that the Okanagan Children’s Choir engaged a composer to guide children in creating their own compositions. Frances shared that the Zoom format allowed the Choir to run this project in a cost-effective manner. Furthermore, Frances indicated that these cost considerations would make a future iteration of the project more viable in a virtual format.

The Challenge: Adapting to digital, both for the composer and the children

Moving to digital meant preparing for the sessions in a different way. Gerda had much more prep work for the one-hour digital sessions than she would have for in-person sessions, including compiling all of the pieces into one digital file for easy display. She also used a music notation software called Sibelius to digitize the children’s handwritten rhythmic, melodic, and lyrical compositions for an easy-to-follow visual with which the children could clap and sing along during the session. While this extra prep work was time-consuming, Gerda felt that it enhanced the in-session time that she had with the children and ensured that the hour together was interactive and valuable for the children. This involved quite a bit of work this first time, but she felt that it may be less work and time in the future as she becomes more familiar with the digital tools.

Another challenge was to support all of the children in the digital format. Some had difficulty submitting their works to DropBox (the tool Gerda used to collect the children’s compositions) and required support with this part of the project. However, Frances said that Gerda was able to navigate this challenge by having the children hold up and share their work with the full group in cases where someone had not submitted their work in advance of the session.

The Financials: An internal investment

The Okanagan Children’s Choir invested its savings into this project to make it work. While the project was an additional cost for the organization, it was still able to run within the organization’s budget due to the digital nature of the engagement of the remotely-based composer. Gerda had Frances’ support with the technology, and the Choir provided Gerda with the Zoom account she needed to execute the project.

The project’s main goal was to engage the children, not to increase audiences or generate revenues. The investment helped the organization meet this goal.

The Takeaways: Early learning of composition and an emphasis on interactivity

Gerda believes that learning the art of music composition makes better musicians. For children, early access to this skill allows them to better understand the relationships between musical elements. Providing composition training through digital formats increases access to learning opportunities, and she believes that “everybody is capable of composition, so if it’s available online you can get started and grow”.

Gerda stressed that interactivity is a key element in a successful digital program: “If you go on Zoom for an hour and just sit there, it’s not inspiring. But when it’s active and you’re doing it, it makes such a difference.” She recommended thinking about “what are those activities that I can do to keep people active and engaged and doing part of the creating at the same time, even just holding up the composition to the Zoom camera – communicating what they had just done”.

For Frances, from an artistic director’s perspective, “engaging with composers is a marvellous thing for the kids to experience. Usually, we receive what is composed for us, so we create our own versions of the composition in performance. We had never engaged in the process of composition or talked to anyone about composition before.”

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