Vernon Center Middle School students visit with composer

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Fri., Dec. 6, 2013
Composer David Shaffer conducts the Vernon Center Middle School band on Dec. 4, as they perform a song he had written. Photos by Steve Smith.
Composer David Shaffer conducts the Vernon Center Middle School band on Dec. 4, as they perform a song he had written. Photos by Steve Smith.

Student musicians at Vernon Center Middle School got an in-depth lesson on some of the pieces they'd been working on, as composer David Shaffer visited the school and took over their instruction for the afternoon.

VCMS music teacher Janice Cook said she had worked the Shaffer-composed “Fire Dance” and “Flutopia” before and had incorporated them in her lesson plan this semester.

“We programmed several of Mr. Shaffer's pieces by accident, and we saw that as a pattern,” she said, adding that classes often chat with composers via Skype. She had asked Shaffer to do the same, but he said that since he lives in Boston, why not just make the trip to Vernon.

Shaffer spent the day at the school, and conducted the band after school in a performance of “Fire Dance,” offering suggestions for improvement along the way, even offering individual lessons for some parts.

Shaffer has been the director of the University of Miami (Ohio) marching band, and does a lot of drum corps and marching band judging in the summer, and spends a lot of time visiting schools and guest conducting with community bands. Shaffer has more than 250 compositions and arrangements in print, which have been used at clinics and music festivals around the world. Some have been placed on contest required-performance lists in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia.

Students asked Shaffer questions, including why he wanted to write music.

“I always enjoyed writing music,” he said. “When I was a teenager, I loved to sit at the piano and just doodle. I really love to take a bunch of dots on a piece of paper, and put them in order so they sound nice.”

Shaffer said he was impressed with the VCMS musicians. “They're good,” he said. “They're nice kids. They're very attentive and interested in what they are doing. The fact that they can come in and sit for an hour after school is a testament to their behavior, and to the leadership and instruction at the school.”

Shaffer said he enjoys working with young musicians, because it teaches them about coming together as a team. “In some ways, I think it's more of a team than athletics are,” he said, adding that many studies have shown how students who play instruments are better students academically.

“They're learning to pick something off of a piece of paper and turn it into movement and breathing and watching,” he said.

Cook said she spent time with her students studying Shaffer, formulating questions to ask him and working on his pieces before his visit. She said that it was apparent to her that they got a good deal out of the experience because they asked insightful questions that showed they were very interested.

“We really thought about what the process is,” she said, adding that while students routinely practice music for concerts, for this experience they had to think about how the music got onto the page.

The VCMS bands will perform "Fire Dance" at their concerts on Dec. 10 and 12.

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