09 SepReaching Out to the Kids on the Reservation
By Rik Fairlie
Over the next few days, ETHEL will wrap up its annual visits to Native American elementary and high schools in Arizona and Utah, drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and premiere the students’ compositions at the Grand Canyon Music Festival.
For ETHEL, helping these young composers fine-tune their compositions and then perform them at the music festival has become a cherished end-of-summer tradition.
“It’s a really rewarding experience in a way that is like nothing else is in our concert career,” Neil says. “We leave New York behind and we go to a beautiful place and we get in touch with helping these kids communicate through music. And that reminds us why we became musicians in the first place.”
This is ETHEL’s sixth year to participate in the Native American Composers Apprentice Project (NACAP), which with had its official beginning as a part of the Grand Canyon festival in 2001. The festival, from its very beginning 26 years ago, has always reached out to Native American youth and NACAP now has three resident composer-teachers working in conjunction with ETHEL, according to Clare Hoffman, a founder of the Grand Canyon Music Festival.
For ETHEL, the project now follows a predictable path that begins when the students’ lead teacher, Raven Chacon, travels to five Navajo and Hopi reservations to work with students to polish their musical and notation skills. Raven also helps the young composers–typically five or six at each high school–to prepare the pieces that they will present to ETHEL. Often this requires adapting a guitar piece for string quartet.
Next, ETHEL visits schools on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, traveling from one to the next with Raven. At each visit, ETHEL plays for elementary schools in the morning and in the afternoon works with high school student composers to learn and refine their pieces as scored for string quartet.
And so it goes, from Kayenta in Monument Valley to Montezuma Creek to Hopi to Chinle and finally Tuba City, right outside the Grand Canyon. Here’s the interesting part: Most of these students have never played a violin, viola, or cello. Instead, they compose on guitar and piano.
Just because they may not have played classical string instruments doesn’t mean they lack exposure to music, however. Native American youth live in an environment in which music is tightly intertwined with everyday life. Families often have many instruments in the home, and frequently play them; most everyone will sing among themselves and practice ritual music.
One thing they don’t do, however, is write or transcribe music. “They perform music and they listen to each other, but the idea of reading and writing music is completely foreign,” Dorothy says.
Because they may be unfamiliar with classical techniques of notating music, Native American students often write some challenging notations, such as simply “wind,” or “rain,” or “a grandmother chanting,” Ralph says.
“It’s generally a pretty smooth process for us when the composers tell us what sound or feel they are trying to achieve, rather than how to achieve it,” Ralph says. “After discussion and demonstration, we can usually find a solution that works for everyone.”
This somewhat unorthodox notational approach works, says René Westbrook, who has helped organized the Grand Canyon Music Festival and has attended the ETHEL concerts there for several years. “Sometimes the sound is wind and coyotes, and you can bet that the wonderful ETHELs oblige,” she says.
After the school visits are completed, ETHEL heads to the Grand Canyon Music Festival at the South Rim of the canyon, where the students join them for practice, hiking, and a performance of their pieces on Sunday night.
“We work all morning perfecting the pieces to get what they’re going for, and at the concert we ask the students to say a word or two about their pieces, the title, what it’s about,” Neil says. “It’s a very emotional and happy experience. The kids feel really proud and oftentimes they bring their parents, and they are equally proud.”
For many young Native Americans, some of whom live in communities in which substance abuse and family dysfunction is rampant, this is a transformative experience.
“I’ve been working with kids for 20 years, and in every single workshop I teach, there is a kid or two who I know I’ve given a life experience to,” René says. “I honestly believe that NACAP provides this for close to 80 percent of all the student participants. They are just changed by the experience–they have whole huge doors opened to them to places they didn’t even know existed.”
It’s not just the kids, though. Often parents understand their children in an entirely new way after they hear the performance.
“The best part is the moment when adults, who don’t know this work and haven’t heard the kids from this perspective, light up when they hear us perform the piece,” Dorothy says. “They had no idea that their kids had the inner logic, the patience, the depth of feeling, and the depth of process to create these musical journeys.”
The Native American community as a whole also benefits from the program because it builds bridges between cultures, Clare says.
“The festival and NACAP have opened the door to an honest cultural exchange and have helped developed a trust that’s really exciting,” Clare says. “So often with the Native American community, promises were made and broken. But when you keep coming back and showing that you care, that’s very powerful.”
And for ETHEL? It is, simply put, “the best thing that we do,” Ralph says.