This week’s interview features Sonya Knussen, a music educator, singer, and composer, currently living in Maryland. Sonya also runs Go Compose North America, an organization that provides music composition workshops for students. Sonya comes from a musical family, and always knew she was going to be a musician. As a result, she’s found a variety of ways to share her music both as a performer and an educator.
Go Compose North America
Go Compose North America came about because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sonya was working with a music composition mentor in the United Kingdom who wanted to make sure students knew they could still create and compose, even though they weren’t in school. Free workshops were being offered in the UK, so Sonya offered to host workshops in North America. In no time, her workshops were oversubscribed! Workshops of this nature didn’t exist anywhere else, and being online, students could attend from anywhere in the world. Now the workshops are offered for a small fee, but financial assistance is available to students who need it.
There are up to 12 students in each workshop, ages 11-17. Throughout the workshop, students work with a composer and professional instrumentalists. The composer provides information about a specific topic or theme. For example, a recent workshop included information about color, going in depth on topics such as synesthesia, seeing colors in your head when you hear music, and how to create music based on a painting or piece of art. The instrumentalists then provide a full demonstration of their instruments, almost like a virtual petting zoo, for students to learn about some of the extended techniques the instruments can perform. Often, the workshops contain students with very wide ranges of abilities, but that doesn’t detract from anyone’s experience. Some students will choose to write using traditional western notation, while others learn about graphic and narrative scores. Students use what works for them and can experiment freely.
Throughout the workshop, students continue to meet with the composers, mentors, and instrumentalists during their composing time. Students can receive feedback and suggestions, and often the instrumentalists will play the piece, so students can get feedback from a musician who could play their work.
At the conclusion of the workshop, there is a concert where professional musicians perform the student compositions. Each performer gets a scheduled dress rehearsal, which the student composers can choose to attend if they would like. Mentors remind students that they are experiencing a workshop, and therefore some things may not be perfect, and that’s okay! The concert audience is comprised of the students, parents, friends, and others affiliated with Go Compose North America. Many compositions have also been added to the Go Compose North America YouTube channel.
You need a creative outlet and you need to find your own path…I really want to help people do that, because I feel like it needs to be more normal, that we all have our own path.
Benefits to the Students
Sonya has seen many benefits from the composition workshops. Some students discover they are actually skilled in writing music, and decide to make music composition their future career. Many students find “their people” – other students who they fit in with. Students learn that music composition can be something they do seriously, for a career, or something they do for fun. Composition can be done along with an instrument or by humming into a digital recorder. Sonya has found that music composition helps students find a creative outlet or multiple creative outlets, and find their own path.
Sonya’s Advice to Teachers
The first thing Sonya recommends is to start small. It could be one note, one fragment, or one line. Sonya suggests checking out the Lucy Nasa Soundscape for inspiration. This project involves creating a soundscape using a musical fragment called the Lucy Motif. Using a fragment, figure out all the different ways to play it. Begin by thinking about the elements of music, such as the dynamics, color, structure, or instrumentation. Then experiment with playing the fragment backwards, or slowly, or upside down. Sonya encourages musicians to just brainstorm, because by the end there will be tons of ideas that will just need to be organized.
Sonya has found there are three ways to compose music without writing notes on a page: technology, art (drawing pictures) and narrative. This empowers people with all different skills and interests to compose music! Music notation has evolved over time, and students (or adults!) shouldn’t limit themselves to what is most commonly used now.
To learn more about music composition and Go Compose North America, check out the full interview here: Creativity Through Music Composition (Part 1 of 3)
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