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Calhoun's New Composition Initiative Addresses Inequities in Student Music

Calhoun’s music program is unique—both in size and scope. With its larger ensembles and emphasis on chamber music, the program’s needs differ from those of traditional school bands. As Ben Baron, Director of Winds and Brass, notes, the limited repertoire that has been available for them to use “does not often represent the diversity of our students.” During the year of remote learning, Ben and other members of the music department set out to find new types of music for students to play—works that aligned with Calhoun’s values of diversity, social justice, inclusion and community engagement. But as Ben describes, “Chamber music is an area that contains the least available diverse repertoire.” After struggling to find pieces by BIPOC and women composers, they realized the only solution was to create the music they were seeking. With the support of former Director of Music David Alpert, Ben developed the Composition Initiative and commissioned three composers—Katie Kresek, Xinyan Li and Jeffrey Scott—to put together pieces for Calhoun’s student musicians.

When identifying composers, the music department was guided by the Composition Initiative’s mission “to address race and gender-related inequities in student music while elevating the artistic quality of new works for students.” The composers, all of whom have collaborated with members of Calhoun’s music department in some capacity, come from different professional and personal backgrounds. They each bring a distinctive perspective to their arrangements; Jeffrey Scott describes his composition style as “unapologetically influenced by the cultural experiences of my diverse, urban environment upbringing.” He wrote a large ensemble piece, A Passista Mais Linda (The Most Beautiful Dancer), “specifically designed” for Calhoun’s students and instrumentation that premiered at the spring 2022 Winds and Brass concert. Katie and Xinyan each wrote a set of three chamber music pieces of varying levels, which allows all student musicians to be a part of the initiative; the arrangements are also flexible, meaning the pieces can be used even as instrumentation changes over the years.

At the core of Calhoun’s Composition Initiative is the belief that “each student needs to see themselves reflected in the music we play.” As students rehearse and perform the composers’ works, they are able to connect and engage with different musical voices, ones that are often underrepresented in chamber music. The pieces, though very challenging, have “motivated substantial growth within each student.” From flutists to trumpeters, the student musicians all play a role in bringing the piece to life, which helps them feel a stronger connection to the material. “It has been rewarding to watch it happen in real time,” writes Ben. As for next steps, he plans to collaborate with additional composers and expand the initiative to the entire music program at Calhoun—building a library for all future students to use. The intended reach of the program doesn’t end there; the music department envisions formally publishing the pieces and sharing with other schools. Through the power of music, Ben believes Calhoun’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion can “continue to positively impact the world around us.”