Composer strikes right note with kids

Bill Covert’s students don’t hum just any old tune.

The Wilkes fourth graders are creating their own song for a world premier.

“Making up music is fun. I like it,” student Grace Campbell says. “I hope I get to hear them sing our song – but it’s up to my parents.”

Campbell and her classmates have been working with noted Seattle composer David Paul Mesler to craft a three-minute song as part of the year-long Bainbridge Island Arts Education Consortium.

The three-minute tune will be debuted by the 200-voice Bainbridge Chorale in at their upcoming spring concert.

Covert’s class is meeting Mesler for the second of four sessions in the music classroom, but the song is already taking shape.

“We could make our song a major key or a minor key,” Mesler tells the students. “Do you want to be happy, be celebrating something, or do you want to be melancholy and downtrodden?”

Mesler demonstrates the difference, playing tunes on a piano and testing students at the end of his demonstration with a sneaky version of “Happy Birthday to You” – played off-kilter in a minor key.

When he is satisfied they know the difference, he asks for a show of hands.

Emphatically waving hands denote that the song will be happy music in a medium-fast tempo.

Mesler refers all decisions about the song construction to the 29 fourth graders arranged before him in a large horseshoe.

“This is all about their ownership of the piece,” Mesler says. “It’s about their creativity.”

In the first session, Mesler generated musical phrases from the the letters in each child’s name that corresponded to the letters denoting the musical scale.

Now, he moves the children through the dizzying array of choices.

They select a subject and a setting – horses running on a beach.

Mesler demonstrates possible musical motifs, from the grand mode of choral music and the complexity of counterpoint, to the standard-issue melody-and-accompaniment.

Mesler is happy that the students decide not to stick to the familiar pop formula.

“You are a very sophisticated class,” he tells them. “So, is this getting you closer to what the subject of the song is?”

All Mesler’s gentle direction nudges students to more specific choices that focus the creative process.

The only sticking point is “Sparky the Fire Rescue Dog” – an image that a vocal contingent wants to include in the song, and which Mesler clearly wants to excise.

He asks pointed questions about the choice until support for Sparky wanes, as students realize that more generic images will work better.

“So if there’s horses running on the beach, what do you see?” Mesler asks.

Students eagerly put forward suggestions. After about 10 minutes, “Horses running on the beach” is “wild horses running at sunset on the beach with waves crashing, and getting lost in the woods.”

As the second session wraps, Mesler asks students to bring in phrases that will become lyrics for session three.

“We’ve done a lot today,” Mesler says. “We’ve selected tempo, mood, motif and subject matter. We have a real sense of where this song is going.”

Almost ready for the Bainbridge Chorale.

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