Spring Lake Park High School in Minnesota has a national reputation for innovation and inclusivity. They are also breaking barriers this spring by becoming one of the first high school bands to tour Cuba. Co-directors Nora Tycast and Brian Lukkasson have been featured on NPR, The Washington Post, and MPR thanks to their unyielding effort to program excellent music written by composers of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. Their famous Composer Wall now features a talented composer from Leading Tones Music!
Before departing on their international trip, their March 4 concert featured a premiere performance of Sky Macklay’s X+X=?, an alto sax and French horn double concerto for mixed ability levels.
Like all Leading Tones Music composers, Sky Macklay was happy to share some personalized insights about her life, career, and composition strategies with the Spring Lake Park band students (video below). A nationally-celebrated composer of modern music, Macklay said of her concerto, “I really like writing music that uses math or processed-based composition, so I just thought of the simplest mathematical formula I could think of: adding. First, I introduced the themes in both instruments, and then I combined them in different ways: totally on top of each other, with shorter motives from each melody, and adding them together.” How about that for an interdisciplinary approach to music-making! Of the mixed-level music concept, Sky expressed, “I really like writing music that brings people together, so I’m really excited that this piece brings together a more advanced band with perhaps soloists who are more beginners.”
Band director Nora Tycast expressed that Sky Macklay’s personalized video clip “completely personalizes the composition for the students and for us [music educators].” Her band director colleague Brian Lukkasson agrees, "It is so important to get composers’ voices and stories in rehearsals and for students ‘meet’ the composers of their music. X+X=? is such a creative and intellectual piece that is also really accessible and enjoyable for students and an audience. That’s a tough balance to strike!"
Stephen Mitton is an accomplished composer, educator, and performer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He holds a master's degree in composition from Arizona State University and has written for a wide variety of genres ranging from contemporary dance to full orchestra. Stephen is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, and his string quartet, Caricatures, was recently selected as a finalist in ASCAP’s Morton Gould Young Composers’ Awards. He has received commissions from various performers across the country, as well as several groups and organizations in the American southwest, including the Arizona State University Bands and Orchestras, the Arizona State University BioDesign Institute, Utah State University, and the Arizona Flute Society.
Mitton is currently employed as an orchestra and general music teacher at BASIS Phoenix Central – a charter school in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. As an educator, he is passionate about sharing new music with young audiences as well as underrepresented groups. As a platform for this effort, he co-founded Leading Tones Music in 2017, which is an online publisher of pedagogical and mixed-level band and orchestra music written by living composers throughout the world.
Stephen is also an active performer, having received a bachelor’s degree in cello performance at Utah State University where he studied chamber music with the Fry Street Quartet. He has participated in master classes with such groups as the Emerson, Ying, and Brentano String Quartets, and has given performances with various chamber and orchestral groups throughout Utah and Arizona. Mitton is also the founder of the Logan Quintet, which released its first studio album of Stephen’s sacred arrangements in March of 2018. This album, as well as several of his other studio recordings, is available for purchase on iTunes, Napster, and other distributors.
Stephen has wholeheartedly embraced the movement to create more mixed-level music for bands and orchestras. As of December, he has become the most prolific composer of mixed-level concertos for adult and school-aged ensembles (3 concertos total: tied with Zachary Bush). His most recent composition, Heroes, was commissioned by Hinsdale South High School and Middle Schools. Their band director, Alex Baxmeyer, writes:
Claire's Waltz (2017) and Reverie (2016) were premiered and recorded with musicians from Arizona State University and the Harmony Project Phoenix. When asked about what excited him the most about the intergenerational performance collaboration between those two organizations, Stephen stated that he greatly enjoyed "hearing so much new music, meeting the soloists in person, and seeing the positive response from the community." Clarie's Waltz is for solo violin with wind band accompaniment and was written in honor of the birth of his first daughter, Claire. Reverie features solo clarinet with wind band accompaniment and is written in a poignant and romantic style akin to Tchaikovsky's Serenade Melancolique.
After writing his first two mixed-level concertos, Stephen firmly believed that experiences such as the collaboration between a university band and a nonprofit music school for young students can and should be duplicated. The premiere of Heroes on December 5, 2018 brought together musicians from different schools and grade levels. Alex Baxmeyer reflects:
Dominic Dousa (b. 1973) a native of Rochester, Minnesota, has been a member of the faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso Department of Music since 2004. He holds degrees in music from Ball State University (D.A.), Central Michigan University (M.M.), and Harvard University (A.B. summa cum laude), and in statistics from Iowa State University (M.S.), and has also studied composition in Prague. His primary composition teachers include Jody Nagel, David Gillingham, Craig Weston, and Milan Slavický. Dousa’s compositions have received performances at recitals, festivals, and conferences in the U.S. and in eleven countries worldwide. He has works published by TRN Music, Dorn Publications, and Grand Mesa Music. Blue Griffin Recording has released two CDs of Dousa’s chamber music, one of which has received critical acclaim in Gramophone Magazine and American Record Guide. Dousa has remained active as an accompanist and chamber musician, performing in numerous recitals with faculty, guest artists, and students, including presentations with his fellow UTEP faculty member, world renowned cellist and 2017 Grammy-award winner Zuill Bailey.
Janne Ikonen (b. 1975) is from Lieksa, Finland. As Lieksa is the host town of the world-renowned Lieksa Brass Week, his experience of brass and wind music started at a very young age. He began his musical career as the Lieksa Youth Wind Orchestra’s second euphonium player. He later switched to tuba and finally to percussion. His experiences with the LNPO and the Pielisen-Karelian music school were influential in the production of many of his youth wind orchestra compositions. Many of his compositions are created for youth orchestras, and his output for aspiring young bands is especially prolific. His featured piece, Shipman's Song gives young and accomplished bassoonists a chance to showcase their talents (and their instrument, which is usually not played by elementary school instrumentalists) to young musicians in the wind band. In addition, Ikonen arranged an alternative solo part for B-flat treble clef baritone horn, an instrument popular in Finnish brass septets and European brass bands.
Mr. Ikonen studied classical composing at the Sibelius Academy as a student of Erkki Jokinen and is currently finishing his master studies in music education at the University of Jyväskylä. In 2003 he graduated as a percussion player at the Conservatory of Central Finland, and in 2015 he graduated as a percussion teacher at Savonia University of Applied Sciences.
Mr. Ikonen was the conductor of the Jyväskylä University Symphony Orchestra from 1997-2000, the conductor of Ala-Keitele grand symphony orchestra from 1998-2000, the associate conductor of the Puhkupillit wind band from 1995-1998, and has worked as a guest conductor and clinician for several wind orchestras, including the Jyväskylä city orchestra, the Jyväskylä chamber orchestra, the wind band of the Finnish Air Force, and the Academic Brass Band. He currently is the conductor of Mikkeli Winds and the Rantasalmi Wind Band.
Mr. Ikonen has lived and worked in Rantasalmi, Finland, since 2003. He has instructed and directed several orchestras and ensembles and has worked as a percussion studio teacher in multiple schools and music institutes. His wife, Marja Ikonen, is a well-known composer, conductor, and educator, and their three children all play wind instruments.
Mr. Ikonen has played percussion in various symphony orchestras (e.g. the Finnish Philharmonic Orchestras of Kuopio, Jyväskylä, Oulu, Joensuu, Lappeenranta, and Mikkeli) and in several military bands. He worked as the sub-principal percussionist (sergeant) in the Military Band of St. Michel and is performing regularly with ensembles across Finland. During the last few years, Ikonen has been sought after as a performer and clinician in Estonia and Latvia.
Ikonen’s music was first premiered in 1996, and his first feature concert occurred at the 2003 Lieksa Brass Week. His works were first performed in the U.S. in 2012, during concerts in Lake Placid and Plattsburgh, NY. His music was also featured in concerts across Finland in 2013 and 2017. Most of his 200 works are composed for wind bands and chamber ensembles. Additionally, he has composed three concertos, three musicals, and many arrangements for different ensembles.
His works have been recorded by several wind ensembles in Finland. Two of his compositions have been filmed as a music video and can be found on Youtube.
Stephen Mitton is a full-time music teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and co-founder of Leading Tones Music, LLC.
This summer I had the great pleasure of visiting the peaceful, beautiful, and musical Nordic country of Finland! As a former conducting student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, I was thrilled to catch up with friends and build new memories in the “land of the midnight sun.” Naturally, the trip also connected me with several Leading Tones composers and included a stellar concerto performance by talented young musicians.
The first destination on my journey was deep into the Finnish countryside, where a unique music camp is held every year for both adults and children. The Suomen Työväen Musiikkiliitto (Finnish is an impossibly difficult language--let’s just call it “STM”) music camp in Aitoo, Finland, hosted over 100 student, amateur, and professional musicians. The STM camp is unlike any band experience here in America. Bands are organized by ability level, not age. The bands range from the A-Orchestra, which performed music such as Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, to the D-Orchestra, which is a band that teaches complete beginners how to play a wind instrument in an ensemble. In each of the bands, adults sit alongside children and perform together throughout this 10-day-long intergenerational music camp.
I had the opportunity to study saxophone with Leading Tones’ own Daniel Gordon. I met Dan at the STM camp back in 2011. In a camp entirely comprised of Finns, I was shocked to discover that my saxophone teacher was an American guy who had busked across Europe twice with his soprano saxophone and studied with both Sigurd Rascher and Jean-Marie Londeix (two completely different ends of the classical saxophone spectrum). How did this guy end up at a music camp in the forests of Finland?! While that’s a story for another day, it goes without saying that we have been great friends for many years, and our time at the camp was a blast!
On the second day of rehearsals with the B-Orchestra, a gaggle of bassoonists stood in front of the ensemble and played Janne Ikonen’s concerto, Shipman’s Song. The soloists were comprised of teenagers and adults, all of whom had been studying the bassoon for around four years. For each of them, this was their first concerto experience. From the first rehearsal to the concert, the piece was a great success! Janne, who was teaching percussion at the camp, was very pleased with the performance.
The music of Marja Ikonen and Jukka Viitasaari was also featured in the STM camp’s final concert. The wind band scene in Finland is tight-knit; all of these composers attended the concert and supported the musicians. Janne, Marja, and Jukka are also incredibly popular composers in Finland. In fact, you will probably hear the music of at least one of the three Finnish Leading Tones composers at any given wind band concert. It was a delight to catch up with these three friends over coffee and pulla (Finnish donuts) at the STM concert.
My time in Finland also included many serene and reflective moments that were heightened by the natural beauty of the countryside. In what other place can you watch a lakeside “sunset” at midnight? In what other place is sweating in a sauna set at 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit!) not just a fun activity to do with friends but also a way of life? Where everyone’s favorite “candy” tastes like salted black licorice and the rye bread is darker than the midsummer evening sky, Finland is definitively a unique country.
My experiences at my dear friend, Hanna’s, family cabin at the lake will surely shed some new light onto my next performance of Marja Ikonen’s A Day at the Lake. My day around the bustling streets (and rollercoaster rides!) in Helsinki with my friends, Marjo and Risto, reminded me of the festive energy of Jukka Viitasaari’s Three Aspects of the Toddler Song. Finally, the vast forested landscape and the stoic tradition of sitting quietly in the sauna brought me back to the Shipman’s Song. Finnish traditions, cultural and musical, are certainly worth exploring. I’ve found that Finnish music sounds and feels just a little different than what I’m used to. With Sibelius’ masterworks and the scores of world-class Finnish conductors, what better way to embrace this country’s culture than through its music?
Melanie Brooks is the Director of Bands at Winona State University and co-founder of Leading Tones Music, LLC.
Daniel Gordon is a Professor of Music at Plattsburgh State University of New York, where he teaches studio saxophone, directs the Symphonic Band, and teaches various classroom courses. He is founder, President, and Music Director of the Adirondack Wind Ensemble, a professional wind orchestra that consists primarily of music educators from around upstate New York. He is also a founding member of the Frontier Saxophone Quartet and the Metamusic Trio (saxophone, violin, and piano), both comprised of performers from the Plattsburgh region and Montreal. He has served as Music Director of the McGill University Wind Symphony and the Adirondack Youth Orchestra.
About his Old McDonald Concerto, composer Daniel Gordon explains, “The idea of concertos for beginning players inspired me to write this piece…Beginners deserve to experience the thrill of being a concerto soloist just like older and more experienced players.”
A collegiate and adult amateur band director and saxophonist by profession, Gordon had experimented with mixed-ability-level concertos with his ensembles prior to composing Old McDonald. In fact, he introduced me to Petri Juutilainen’s beginner-level concertos several years before my 2016-2017 pilot study and the 2017-2018 project. Seeking to experiment with creative performance experiences between the audience and musicians, he had great success programming Juutilainen’s concertos with local elementary school students as soloists with his adult community band, the Plattsburgh State University Symphonic Band.
When the idea arose of commissioning many concertos for young soloists, Gordon was interested in contributing to the repertoire. Specifically, he aimed to write a piece that would be a crowd-pleaser. He wrote, "I’m thinking of writing a simple piece based on Old McDonald, because in my experience, the kids’ concertos based on familiar material were the most successful. I’d like the soloist to play the theme three times (it has five pitches in it), with members of the ensemble making different animal noises at each statement of the theme (clarinet mouthpieces will be geese, half-valve trumpet will be a horse, and glissando bones will be a cow."
Ultimately, Gordon created his Old McDonald concerto with six verses featuring various instruments in the wind band as farm animals. Three of the verses (“Duck,” “Sheep,” and “Shark”) are optional, and the three verses of “Cow,” “Horse,” and “Geese” are required. The concerto is between 5’30” and 3’00” in length, depending on how many verses are performed. Each verse showcases a different group of instruments from the band with extended techniques, such as a trumpet horse whinny, and musical quotes, such as the William Tell Overture. The accompaniment therefore is engaging for advanced-level players, while the soloist repeats the same five-note melody in the familiar key of E-flat major. Finally, the solo part is designed to include a variety of instruments. Gordon wrote solos in C, B-flat, E-flat, F, and bass clef, making it possible for any wind band instrument to perform them.
Gordon’s background in pedagogy proved especially useful to him as a composer. In a personal e-mail correspondence, Gordon wrote, “I think that part of the reason I ‘get’ this is because I have experience as a conductor who deals with ensembles of limited skills. I have learned what works and what does not, and put all of that to use in this piece. I have always believed that my activity as a conductor informs my instrumental playing and vice-versa. I think it is true of composing, too. Far too many composers are not performers, and as such they just don't get what works in the real world. The worst is the frequent mentality of composers (and performers) that harder is better. I also have a great appreciation for making something of quality with limited technical demands. The finest example of this, which has inspired me, is Dr. Seuss. This hit me like a ton of bricks one day while I was reading The Cat in the Hat to my then 6-year-old daughter. I suddenly realized that over 90% of the words in that book are one syllable. It takes real craft to write an interesting story using almost exclusively one-syllable words.”
Old McDonald Concerto has been performed in Finland by the Finnish Navy Band and by the Junior Wind Band at the Turku Conservatory, as well as at the Building Bridges Through Music Festival at Arizona State University.
Melanie Brooks is the Director of Bands at Winona State University and co-founder of Leading Tones Music, LLC.
There are very few times when I have been so moved by a concert featuring young musicians than I was at Arizona State University's recent Concert Band and Philharmonia concert. Three of Leading Tones Music's composers (Eric Xu, Zachary Bush and JP Lempke) had works premiered at the event by grade school soloists from The Harmony Project Phoenix - an organization dedicated to providing after-school music lessons to students who otherwise might not have the opportunity.
The ASU Philharmonia accompanied seven students ranging in age from seven to fifteen on new pieces for string orchestra written specifically for the project. Eric Xu's Brightly as the Summer Sun featured grade 1 flute and clarinet playing simple intervals over rich and dynamic string writing. While the young performers seemed a little nervous to play in front of so many people, the warmness of the audience was palpable. Xu's piece was followed by Dominic Dousa's lush and lyrical Songs from a Mountain Trail, which featured three soloists on the violin. Dousa's brilliant string writing in the accompaniment made me forget for a moment that the simple melodies in the solo part were performed by students who had only been playing for a year or less. The rousing applause that followed made it clear to me that many in the audience had similar experiences.
Zach Bush's concerto for double bass, Dusk Mountain, showed young bassists that there is equal room in the spotlight for their instrument as any other. Bush's energetic solo part showcased the great strengths of both the low and high ranges, and represented an optimism for an expanded pedagogical bass repertoire in the future. Perhaps the most daring offering of the evening, however, was JP Lempke's aleatoric Fill in the Colors White. Pedagogical works rarely feature nonstandard notation, harsh dissonances, or sounds borrowed from electronic music (Lempke's usual fare). The inclusion of all three elements made Fill in the Colors White a standout piece of the evening, which was otherwise almost entirely consonant and tonal. The singular experience of hearing Lempke's shifting textures was only heightened by the fact that the violin soloist was perhaps the youngest of the group.
This year's collaborations between ASU and The Harmony Project Phoenix have clearly demonstrated the educational and cultural value of mixed-level musical experiences involving living composers. In nothing was this made more apparent than the ear-to-ear smiles of the young students as they acknowledged their audience's appreciation. The future of such collaborations is indeed bright.
Stephen Mitton is a full-time music teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and co-founder of Leading Tones Music, LLC.
Leading Tones Music made its official debut this past weekend at the College Band Directors' National Association (CBDNA) West/Northwest Regional Conference on March 21-24. Hosted by Dr. Andy Collinsworth at Sonoma State University, the conference consisted of daily lectures, presentations, and performances by some of the best ensembles in the country. I was honored to give a presentation about the Concertos for Young Soloists project and the Building Bridges through Music festival. Attendees explored ways to engage with young musicians in meaningful collaborations and also learned about the exciting new repertoire that was created by composers from around the world and is now being published and promoted by Leading Tones Music!
I was fortunate to have many meaningful conversations with college band directors and composers amidst the idyllic landscape of the Sonoma Valley (and occassionaly over a glass of California vineyard-fresh wine!). I left the conference feeling uplifted about the great potential of mixed-ability-level music. Our Concertos for Young Soloists series is just the beginning of an exciting journey to connect diverse communities together in purposeful collaborations!