On stage at Colchester's Elley-Long Music Center, four professional musicians with shiny brass instruments face eighth grader Ben Hunt and his Edmunds Middle School music teacher, Betsy Nolan. Ben is about to hear his composition "Fanfare of the Zombies" performed for the first time.
The tuba starts, soft and low, then the music grows in waves as two trumpets join in. There's a mournful trombone solo before the opening theme returns, this time stated thunderously by all four instruments. You can hear, and almost see, the undead marching through the hall, trailing their rotten limbs. It's a modern-day "Danse Macabre."
When the music stops, there's a pause. "Does it sound better than the Sibelius file?" asks trumpet player Chris Rivers. "Yeah," Ben replies with a satisfied grin.
They're talking not about Jean Sibelius, the late-Romantic, Finnish composer — but about a computer software program that helps translate musical ideas into the language of standard musical notation.
Many aspiring young Vermont composers like Ben get guidance and support from Music-COMP, a group formerly called the Vermont MIDI Project, which provides online mentoring to students in school music programs. Using software such as Sibelius or Noteflight, kids as young as 9 or 10 can get those snippets of song out of their heads and onto the computer screen. Students work with Music-Comp mentors for six to eight weeks, composing and revising. From their work, Music-Comp selects about two dozen pieces to be performed by professional players in concerts held twice a year.
Ben caught the composition bug several years ago. He has now written about 10 pieces, often inspired by noodling on his bass clarinet.
"Fanfare of the Zombies" started with a simple idea to compose something in a minor key. "I'll play something by accident and think, Hey, that sounds cool."
Music educators consider composition to be a key component of music literacy, but it can be hard to teach and to learn. Computers level the playing field so all kinds of kids can participate, according to Music-COMP director Sandi MacLeod. She founded the nonprofit back in 1995. Today, more than 50 Vermont schools — and more than a dozen homeschooled or independent-study students — participate in the program.
"Students have incredible sound libraries. They've been hearing sounds since the womb. Composition helps to organize those sounds," says MacLeod. She sees many social and academic benefits to music composition: Students develop their communication skills, persistence and concentration. And composing enhances their ability to listen and analyze.
"Anybody can compose if you stick with it and listen to what the mentors tell you," Ben claims modestly. "It's fun to create something. And I like getting it performed live." Nothing dead about it.