Piano Composers' Project: Interview with Dana Dalton

Posted by Sara Schwindt, Assistant Director

Throughout this school year, students from the WCMS Piano Department have been taking part in our very first Piano Composers' Project. Plans for this program were just getting underway when the COVID-19 pandemic forced WCMS to pivot to remote learning—but thanks to their creativity and dedication, Piano Department chair Dr. Yun Lee and teaching artists Dana Dalton, Kaeza Fearn, and Jorge Ibáñez found a way to still offer a high-quality artistic experience in a safe remote format. Along with the participants' studio instructors, these faculty members have been working with the students to help them learn how to harness their creativity and take their musical ideas to fruition. On April 10, the students will present their compositions in "Pianists Unbound: Piano Composers' Project in Concert." This virtual recital, which will take place over Zoom and is open to the community, will give each young composer a chance to share their work as well as to reflect on their process, what they've learned, and how they've grown over the course of the project.

We asked teaching artist Dana Dalton to describe the project and its process.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about how the Piano Composers' Project came to be? What are some of the project's goals?

A: The Piano Composers' Project sprang from a discussion in the faculty/staff kitchen at the school. We noticed that many of us had students who came to their lessons eager to show pieces they had composed on their own, and we wanted to capture and build on that excitement. Students are always learning new theoretical concepts in their lessons. One creative and engaging way to fully understand how these concepts work is to write music using the techniques they've learned. Composing brings music theory lessons to life! From there came the idea to form a group of faculty mentors to help students develop and polish their compositions.

In addition, our goal was to foster an appreciation of form, and the idea of how traditional music has a definite beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion. We wanted to teach the students to stay within that form while using their active imagination and the range of sounds that the piano offers.

Q: What has been the most gratifying aspect of the project so far?

A: The most gratifying aspect is seeing what the students bring to workshops and how quickly they absorb suggestions given by the mentors. And by suggestions, I truly mean gentle suggestions. We propose ideas, and the students comprehend and develop their own ideas from that point forward. It is encouraging to see the enthusiasm and dedicated work of these aspiring composers!

Q: When the piano department first started planning the project, no one could have predicted that its inaugural year would take place remotely during a pandemic. What are some of the challenges that you and the project faculty have faced?

A: Of course, the pandemic has posed several challenges as we have carried out the project remotely. We would love to be in a room with the students with a large whiteboard, PowerPoint, or projector, where everyone can see clearly, hear each other, and sit at a piano side-by-side. But a benefit to working remotely is that we must use our ears. The students can't always see the teacher's piano keyboard, so we have to listen carefully when we are discussing possible chord changes, improvising melodies, and so on.

Q: Have there been any unexpected or particularly gratifying surprises during the first year of the Piano Composers' Project? Where are you excited to see the project go in the future?

A: This year is going very well, so I look forward to the future with much excitement. As with every project, we will strive to make each year more rewarding. I anticipate great work coming from our WCMS composing community, from both the younger composers and our adult learners. Composing—as an exercise in theory, form, listening, and imagination—can be a part of every student's musical education.

Many thanks to Dana, Kaeza, Jorge, Yun, and all of the teaching artists and parents whose support made it possible to offer this special program during such an unusual year. We hope you'll join us on Zoom at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 10 to hear "Pianists Unbound: Piano Composers' Project in Concert." To receive the Zoom link for the recital, please email us.