Classroom of the Week | Taking on a new composition, measure by measure

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LEE — Hanging between the marching band banners displayed at the back of Joanne Nelson-Unczur's room is a poster that reads, "The bigger the challenge the greater the opportunity."

It's a motto the Lee High School band conductor and her young instrumentalists seem to fully embrace.

On Wednesday, a small group of band students spent the morning working with West Hartford, Conn.-based composer Melanie Guerin to put together their own original composition, variations on a folk tune. Then, in the afternoon, and again on Thursday morning and afternoon, the entire band had a total of three rehearsals with Guerin as they learned to perform her new work, "dysCONNECT," commissioned just for them. It is the fifth work during her career at Lee that the band director Nelson-Unczur commissioned for her students, with financial support from the Lee and Otis Cultural councils and the Lee High Band Parents Committee.

"It's my favorite thing that we do," Nelson-Unczur said.

And the students, she said, always rise to the occasion.

This year's group includes 23 high schoolers, some the lone instrumentalist in their respective section. There is only one flute player, one oboe player, one trumpeter, one tuba player, as well as one student each playing tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet.

For Guerin as the composer, this also presents a unique challenge. Speaking of trumpet player Elias Keiderling, Guerin said, "The challenge is, how do I make sure he's not bored and also not expecting him to sound like a five-member section of a band."

The great thing, Nelson-Unczur said of her students, is that "they figure it out and they're willing to roll with it."

The students received their piece from Guerin in January. It includes four movements: "Reaching," "Echo Chamber," "News Cycle" and "Synergy."

"I wrote it after becoming frustrated with how people don't listen to each other," Guerin said. Indeed, the movements include discordant measures and require the musicians to literally speak up and over each other to put emphasis on the sense of disconnect and detachment people might feel in today's world.

"Bands don't usually sing, but I'm a theater person, so I like something a little dramatic," the composer said.

The last movement, as the title indicates, allows the composition to "end more hopeful," Guerin noted.

"Phew," Keiderling said while exhaling after practicing "News Cycle," which includes the speaking parts and something Guerin describes as a "circus sound" before melding into a groove.

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"It's interesting, to say the least," Keiderling said of the piece. "The last commissioned piece we did was slow, deliberate. This has just moments of chaos."

Melodic mayhem aside, Keiderling credits Nelson-Unczur for arranging this opportunity.

"She'll fit you in for parts you can play," he said.

Keiderling's sister, Olivia Keiderling, a sophomore and trombonist, said she loves the fact that they have a commissioned work and get to work with the composer.

"It's fun because it's yours," she said.

"It's fun to do something new," sophomore and alto sax player Asa Stone said.

Nelson-Unczar agrees, saying that a lot of compositions frequently played by bands "are by old, dead masters."

A commissioned piece gives the director, the composer and the musicians something fresh and lively to work with.

"I'm excited to be here for that," Guerin said. "I like to compose a piece where students have a voice. Each part says you are each important. It also means you have choices in how to interpret this, so you have to make some decisions."

Nelson-Unczar said that, at first, the students in the composition group, which is new this year, seemed amazed and overwhelmed with having to make composition choices. From dynamics to note length, "you can have 65 decisions to make for four measures."

"But they seemed to warm up to it and recognize that they do have preferences and that their ideas matter," she said.

The band director said she hopes her students understand that about themselves.

"This group, they are fun and they're kind and they take care of each other," she said.


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