Tim Woos Shows How Making Music can be Fun with the “Composing Game”

This spring, 17 year-old composer/bassoonist Tim Woos, a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist, held composition workshops at two different schools in Vermont – the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington and the North Branch School in Ripton. For each school, he created  a “composing game”: a program that engaged the students as composers using visual aids and noisemakers. It was a big hit!

Tim at the Integrated Arts Academy

Tim wanted to show the students how composing music is by no means linear, and that the possibilities are endless. Tim shares more:

Young students get bored easily. If they have to sit and listen, things go downhill fast. I think that if they’re involved with the composing game, it will give them the opportunity to get excited about concert music.”

We asked Tim to share more about his “composing game” and the overall experience:

FTT: How did you come up with your project idea?

Tim: I knew from the start that I wanted to go into schools and talk about being a composer. Not many kids really know what a composer does. My teacher, David Ludwig, has done a lot of presentations in schools. He advised me to involve the students as much as I could, so I decided on the composing game.

FTT: What was the experience like for you? How did the two schools compare?

Tim: It was an incredible experience. The students were as engaged and excited about what we were doing as they possibly could have been.

At the first performance (North Branch), it was very clear that the group performing was embarrassed and uncomfortable. They were laughing while they were playing and not taking it seriously. After they were done, I asked the other students for their comments. Most of the students said they wanted to hear the piece again because the performers were very distracting.

This made the performers realize that the other students actually wanted to hear their piece. They performed it again and it was much better. We then heard the other groups’ pieces. They were all very different and extremely creative. I was so impressed with all of the students and the work they had done.

As for the Integrated Arts Academy, I was very impressed with the school and the work they are doing. When the kids learned that I was going to school just for music one of them asked, “so, all you’re going to do is write music all day? I want to go to music school!”

The school is the only arts magnet school in the state. It’s located in a part of Burlington called the Old North End. This is the poorest area of the city and many of the kids are refugees from other countries and don’t speak English very well.

FTT: Can you give us an example of how the “composing game” works?

Tim: (At the North Branch School) I gave them the following instructions:

  1. Fold your piece of paper in half.
  2. Draw an enclosed shape anywhere on the paper.
  3. Draw a line, wavy or straight, that connects any one side of the paper to any other side.
  4. Unfold the piece of paper and draw another wavy or straight line from anywhere to anywhere.
  5. Draw one thing, anything you want, wherever you want.

After they drew their “scores”, the class split into three groups of 9. Tal (Birdsey – the class teacher) went with one group, Rose Messner, the math teacher, went with another, and I went with the last. Each group picked one of the drawings to use as a score. They all went into different places after that. One group went outside. Two students grabbed their acoustic guitars and one grabbed an electric bass. I made them put the instruments away.

The pieces they came up with were very creative. One group used a piece of Sonotube, two PVC pipes, a wheelbarrow, a hand-pushed lawnmower, the top of a garbage can filled with sand, and a handful of marbles. All of the groups were very tied to rhythm and always wanted a clear beat. While they were still working on the pieces, I encouraged all of the groups to use both clear rhythm and very free rhythm as two “compositional devices” to express the score more effectively. They did a great job of this.

FTT: What do you think the students took away from the event?

Tim: That composing is not a strange thing to do. All of the students went through the process of creating a piece of music.

The game is interesting because it separates composing from performing. They were not writing a piece for a violin, they were writing it for a salad bowl and a plastic cup. For some of them, it will be a cool thing that they did once. For others, they could have been hooked and want to start writing music or playing an instrument.

I wanted them to see that no matter what it is they create, whether it’s a poem, a drawing, or a piece of music, the process of creating that thing is very engaging and feels really good to do.

It was a really great project. I know I got a lot out of it, and I know the students did as well.

Reed Messner, a student at the North Branch School, wrote an article that was published on his teacher’s (Tal Birdsey’s) blog, A Room for Learning. Click here to read Reed’s article on Tim’s visit.