Jazz Down the Middle
by Hope Tinney | © Washington State University
A little before 8 a.m. one Tuesday last spring, the jazz band at Pullman's Lincoln Middle School, a bit bed-headed and bleary-eyed, was working on a tricky rhythm. Standing at the whiteboard in Room 806, the director, Joe Covill, wrote out the notes and sang the syncopated notation.
"This is how it looks," he said, "and this is how it sounds."
It was only a refresher lesson, one they'd heard before, not only from Covill, but from the composer himself.
Greg Yasinitsky, a music professor at Washington State University, has been the middle school's composer-in-residence for the past four years. In two days' time, this band of teen-aged musicians would perform the world premiere of "Room 806," a song they helped Yasinitsky write, and they wanted to nail it.
Two days later in the multipurpose room at Lincoln, the standing-room-only crowd applauded all of the night's music, but heaped extra cheers on the jazz band's performances of "Room 806" and another Yasinitsky piece, "Muscle Car," both written especially for this concert.
Yasinitsky is a member of The Commission Project, a national composer-in-residence program. In 2000, he started working with high school students in Clarkston, then moved to the Pullman middle school in 2002.
Ned Corman, who taught music to high school students in upstate New York for 30 years, founded the program in 1994. Corman says Yasinitsky's work is a great example of why he undertook the effort of bringing composers and school kids together. "He's one of the best," Corman says. This year 30 composers-in-residence are at work in schools around the country.
It makes a difference when students see the thought and hard work that goes into creating something beautiful, says Corman. "Almost always it is the best played piece of music on the program, and it's the most enthusiastically received."
Yasinitsky's work has been performed by famous artists like trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Louie Bellson, as well as by the United States Air Force Airmen of Note, one of the few touring big bands in the country today.
He will tell you there's no great difference between composing for middle school students and world-class musicians. "The truth of the matter is, there are always limitations," he says.
"If I'm writing for my college band, I have to think one way; if I'm writing for a high school band, I have to think another way," he says. The important thing is not to "dumb down" the music, he says. Even young students with just a few years of musical experience see through that. "They know when the music is good; they know when it is bad. They know when they are being condescended to," he says.
Yasinitsky familiarizes himself with the students' capabilities and then writes a piece that will push them to the next level. "Everybody wants to play music that pushes them a little bit," he says.
And it is amazing what Covill's students can do, especially since many of them picked up an instrument for the first time just a year or two ago. Ask about their favorite jazz compositions, and Yasinitsky's are at the top of the list. "We get the background when he comes in and composes something for us," says Lauren Erickson, who has been inspired to do some composing of her own. Among her favorite songs of Yasinitsky's is "Chant Noir," a piece in which she had a featured solo.
Her classmate, Alex Kale, had no idea how unusual it was for a middle school to have its own composer until he went to a summer jazz camp. When several older, more accomplished trumpet players saw Kale's music, "They were like, 'Oh man, this is so awesome! I can't believe you guys have this!'" he says. "At that point I . . . realized how important it was and how special it was that he [composes] for us."
"In a sense I'm this person who comes in who shows that I care about them and what they are interested in," says Yasinitsky. "Not only that, I'm going to make something that's special that is really just theirs and nobody else's."
Like many of Yasinitsky's other compositions, the songs he writes for this teen jazz band will be published and played around the world.
"But, it'll always have their name on it," says the composer. "It'll always say at the top, "This was written for the Lincoln Middle School Band in Pullman, Washington."
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