“You know, we [classical musicians] kind of live in the shadow of Beethoven and Bartok,” says Clare Hoffman, co-founder and Artistic Director of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. “We’re kind of afraid to put paper to pencil because it won’t measure up . . . These students, they don’t have that burden of history on them. They’re just going to write what’s in their head. They’re just going to write what they want to hear.”
Who are these fearless composers? Thirty high school students. They are participants in the Native American Composer Apprentice Project or NACAP, part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. Each year, professional composers drive to remote schools stretched out over hundreds of miles across the Navajo, Hopi and Salt River Pima reservations near the Grand Canyon. In an intensive, weeklong course the composers teach students to develop musical ideas and write them out to be performed by a string quartet. The program culminates during the Grand Canyon Music Festival over Labor Day weekend.
Performance Today has previously featured concerts from the Grand Canyon Music Festival, but we wanted to see this collaboration in action so photographer/videographer Nate Ryan and I traveled to Grand Canyon National Park. This morning, we’re sitting large classroom at the community building in the park. Inside the room there are two rings of tables and chairs, one inside the other. Teachers and students sit in the outer circle to observe. In the inner circle a student composer, a teacher and a string quartet face each other while everyone compares musical notes on the page. The NACAP participants are rehearsing their compositions with the quartet Sweet Plantain ahead of the public concert later in the evening.
It takes a lot of courage to reveal your innermost musical ideas to perfect strangers. One by one, the NACAP students sit in the middle with Raven Chacon, the NACAP composer in residence who has taught them how to write down their music and refine their ideas. The young composers have given the performers a lot of techniques to work through: there are coordinated pizzicato or plucked notes, slides that mimic the sound of a Chinese erhu, ricochets with the bow bouncing up and down on the string, grand finales emphasized by a stomp.
Most of the students approach the conversation like Brevin Norton, a 17-year-old senior at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, Utah. He’s all business. Norton gives Sweet Plantain a few notes at the beginning about dynamics and clarifies some of the instructions he’s written in the score for his piece called “It’s Just the Beginning.” As Sweet Plantain plays his music, a shy smile creeps across Norton’s face. When they finish, Norton quietly encourages them. “Yeah, that was good. Thanks,” he says.
To be clear, these pieces sound nothing like the music of Beethoven and Mozart that might come to mind when you hear “string quartet.” That would be impossible. To begin with, Chacon—the composer and teacher—says despite a lot of community interest in music, many of the schools he works with do not have music or arts programs that would expose students to music history. Second, these students write music that reflects their lives today—lives that are considerably different than that of young Ludwig van Beethoven as a teenager in 18th century Bonn, Germany.
According to Chacon, the NACAP students bring in musical ideas from all over. “It might be the traditional music from their tribes,” he says. “It might also be popular music. And we’ve had students say they’re influenced by movie soundtracks or video game soundtracks.” Many of the students share Chacon’s interest in heavy metal and horror movie scores. “Every year,” Chacon says, “a student will create a new sound that I’ve never heard before and it’s always done because they’re experimenting with combining effects and combining techniques.”
Jared Wonnacott is Norton’s teacher at Whitehorse High School in Utah. He’s driven with Norton and four other students about six hours across the desert to get to this rehearsal and performance. That is a big commitment for a school assignment, but Wonnacott says the stakes are a lot higher than writing a piece of music.
“You know schools generally spend a lot of time talking about academic and mental success,” he explains, “but I think music gives you a chance to address the emotional health . . . I think it’s important for students to see the good of being sad and the good of being happy and the good of being angry and being able to express it in a way that is healthy. If every student could express their anger and frustration through music, then we’d have less violence in the schools. If every student could express their sorrow and longing and depression through music then we’d have less suicides and things like that. I think that there’s so much emotional health that can come from being able to express your emotions through music.”
Working with the non-profit NavajoYES, Brevin Norton and his classmates have come all this way to kick off their school year to a memorable start. Some of the students have never seen the Grand Canyon before. This weekend they camp in the national park, hike in the canyon, go to music festival concerts, meet students from other NACAP schools and hear their music performed. Wonnacott says this kind of positive encouragement sets the tone for the year. Being a teenager is rough. There are the typical ups and downs of relationships and academic stress and there are the traumas you can’t predict. The uncertainty of life out of school. Car accidents. Teen suicide. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Indian and Alaska Native young people ages 15 – 24 are more than three times as likely to take their own life as the general American population in the same age group. Wonnacott says the creative experience and affirming feedback of the NACAP program give these young people coping mechanisms. To find emotional release in music “makes them better musicians, but also makes them better people,” he says. Norton agrees: “For me, music is like a way to express yourself.”
The Grand Canyon Music Festival has been initiating education outreach projects since 1984, its second year of existence. Often Hoffman and the other performing musicians would drive to Tuba City, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation and play a special concert. But “we started to feel like Brigadoon,” she says. “You know the story of Brigadoon, this town that emerges once every 100 years or so and then disappears without a trace. We’d come once a year, play a concert for the school students and then leave. And it felt as though we were sort of leaving people scratching their heads . . . We really wanted to do something that had more of an impact.”
In 2000, the Grand Canyon Music Festival teamed up with Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids and together developed the idea for the Native American Composer Apprentice Project, based on a similar program he developed in Minnesota. Rather than play for an audience, in 2001 Michael Davids drove to Tuba City to listen.
To get to Tuba City from the Grand Canyon, drive northeast about 80 miles across the Painted Desert of Arizona. Along the south rim of canyon in the national park, the photographer and I were surprised to find a verdant forest of pines, junipers and pinyons, but the road to Tuba City is the Arizona we recognized from rugged truck commercials.
The dirt is red and the brush is green. It was monsoon season in the desert. We could see the rain coming as we drove up over the bluff and in no time, the windshield wipers were on maximum speed and the flat road gained inches of water. Motorcyclists pulled over to wait it out. It was easy to imagine getting caught in a flash flood. But just as quickly as the rain started, it stopped and we were treated to a beautiful, full-arc rainbow. Approaching Tuba City, we passed several arts and crafts stands lining the highway. We stopped at one as the road dried out and a Navajo woman offered us delicated beaded and silver necklaces. One for $6, two for $10.
Even though we had just been through a heavy downpour, Tuba City was dry. The town of about 7,000 people rarely gets rain. Tuba City is supremely modest: compact homes, a tidy but not sprawling medical center, lots of American-made cars and trucks. The modesty belies some exceptional talent. This is where U.S. Marines first recruited 29 remarkable Navajo young men to create an impenetrable military code during World War II. The “Navajo Code Talkers,” as they were called, baffled German and Japanese cryptographers. Tuba City has turned out some of th best athletes in the state, especially in girls’ volleyball and basketball and boys’ cross-country. It also has what Clare Hoffman, the Grand Canyon Music Festival artistic director, calls “a culture of composing.”
One of the first NACAP participants in Tuba City was Michael Begay. As a high school student at Greyhills Academy, Begay and the school librarian often talked about music, but Begay had never considered writing music other than improvising on his electric guitar. Then in the early 2000s the librarian encouraged him to sign up for the new NACAP program. Begay was hooked. He wrote music with the NACAP program every year, even a few times after he graduated high school. Begay studied music recording in Tempe and worked as a radio producer in Tuba City for a few years, all the while playing and writing music. He started volunteering with NACAP in 2006 and in 2007 became the NACAP assistant composer in residence. (Performance Today interviewed him in 2009). Since then NACAP has expanded to schools in four towns, but the Tuba City contingent is still one of the biggest, including Tuba City High School, Greyhills Academy and now the junior high school students of Tuba City Boarding School. NACAP has been teaching students in Tuba City to compose music for 15 years or half of a generation. This year Begay coached all of the Tuba City students.
“I’m always sort of nervous” before the final concert, Begay says, “but I was in their shoes before once and I can’t wait to hear it.” Although the NACAP students preview their pieces using computer programs that generate the sounds of the instruments, they usually doubt that their piece is going to work in performance. Begay says he always tells them that the musicians make all the difference. “Once you get the human spirit behind it,” he tells us, “it just comes alive.”
The final NACAP concert takes place at the Shrine of the Ages, a stone building in the national park that also hosts religious services. The string quartet Sweet Plantain has rehearsed the music and sits ready on stage as the young composers, their teachers and family members and other park tourists file in. Begay enthusiastically greets each student while Clare Hoffman makes sure that everyone has a program. Raven Chacon announces that the concert will have a slight delay because the students from Whitehorse High School were caught in a thunderstorm while hiking and are trying to dry off in the restrooms.
Brevin Norton’s piece “This is Just the Beginning” is first on the program. This is where the emotion tumbles out. He introduces himself and then with a lump in his throat explains that he wrote the piece for two friends and classmates who died recently. Sweet Plantain takes a moment to collect themselves and then play the piece with serious conviction. Then another student stands up, introduces herself and says her piece was inspired by her recovery from a difficult moment in life. The next student dedicates her piece to a deceased family member whom she misses dearly. Student after student from Whitehorse High School, from Red Valley Cove High School, from Salt River High School, from Tuba City and from Chinle High School talk about the things that have made them happy or sad or nostalgic or mad or curious as they put those ideas into music. We happen to sit behind Begay who is giddy with excitement. Each time the quartet plays a phrase with passionate energy or digs into a line, he vigorously nods his head and smiles at the composer. At the end of the concert, the audience claps for the quartet and then everyone gives the young composers and their teachers a standing ovation.
After a few photos, the musicians of Sweet Plantain go back to their dressing room to pack up their instruments, still riding the adrenaline high of a performance. “I had some moments up there where I had to kind of hold it together,” violinist Orlando Wells says. During the rehearsal earlier in the day, the quartet and the NACAP students had mostly discussed the logistics of their pieces such as how to play the tremolo or how wide vibrato should be. This concert brought emotional depth to the music that Wells and the other musicians didn’t realize was there.
The next day we meet again with Clare Hoffman, the artistic director of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. It’s another gorgeously sunny, gentle day so we sit on a log outside the Shrine of the Ages. Thirty-three years ago, Hoffman and her husband came to the Grand Canyon for the first time, looking for inspiration. She was having a tough time as a professional flutist and had just read Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark about a singer who comes to the canyon. Hoffman told us that on that very first trip, she often thought of the novel’s most famous line, spoken as the singer examines a piece of ancient pottery:
“What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?”
To be a classical musician, one must obsess over the perfection of technique, the competition, and the recognition but in making such a flawless sheath, it’s easy to overlook the water it contains. Hoffman knew she would come back to the canyon and that she would play a concert here.
“People are really moved when they come here,” she tells us. It’s “almost a spiritual feeling that people have when they come.” The Grand Canyon National Park tries to meet every tourist need with gift shops and restaurants and IMAX movies, Hoffman continues, but “where’s that other thing that people can experience while they’re here that is about that kind of spiritual connection that they find when they’re here?” She hopes it’s in the music of these concerts.
This place, the Grand Canyon Music Festival and NACAP have changed her, she says. Hoffman would have been very happy playing in an orchestra she explains, but this experience has forced her to “open my eyes and to look beyond, just as the canyon does.”
“I’m always just amazed and proud of the students and proud of the teaching composers,” she goes on. “One of the reasons we started [NACAP] was because we felt that there aren’t enough Native American voices in the American music mix. We really need to hear more of these voices and we need to empower the students. And let them know that we want to hear their voices and their voices need to be heard.”