UH Composers, Elementary Students Putting Poetry in Musical Motion

Project Partners UH Moores School of Music, HGOCo, Area Students

Words can be powerful tools for communicating feelings and dreams. When one’s words are set to music, those messages often become even stronger and can take on new meanings. Soon, several Houston elementary school students will discover this firsthand.

Thanks to collaboration between the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, Writers in the Schools (WITS) and Houston Grand Opera Community Outreach (HGOCo), student poets will hear their words transformed into compositions.

Throughout the semester, students at Kashmere Gardens Elementary School and Spring Branch Elementary School participated in the “My Voice” project. Working with WITS teachers, they developed poems focused on different themes. After putting their words to paper, they submitted them to students and Rob Smith, a professor in UH’s Composition Program. These musicians then worked diligently to set these poems to the right music.

On April 30 and May 19, these students and their families will hear these poems performed by singers from Houston Grand Opera and professional musicians.

“I believe this type of collaboration helps writers truly see how their work is being interpreted by others,” said Kyle Rivera, a freshman composition major at UH. “It is often hard to clearly communicate ideas to others because we can assume they have the same thoughts and knowledge as ourselves. This project is a good way to see how well a writer's intended message was communicated by the way the composer wrote the music for the text.”

Rivera composed the music for the poem “I Shall” by Kashmere student Alani Skinner. Rivera admitted that working without direct input from the poet was somewhat of a challenge. Still, he was able to focus on the words to realize his own meanings within them and ultimately compose a piece that best reflected the text.

“I was always worried that there may be certain words or phrase I was understating or in a few cases overstating,” he said. “At the same time though, the absence of the writer became liberating. I was able to find my own personal meaning and significance in the words of the poem. I feel like this allowed me to convey both the poet’s message and my own feelings at the same time which ended up being a rather intimate experience.”

The collaboration between Rivera and Skinner will be performed at 4 p.m., April 30 at McCrane-Kashmere Gardens Library (5411 Pardee St.). Other compositions to be shared include “Like You” (music by Rob Smith, text by Shannon Skinner), “Secrets” (music by Madeline Styskal, text by Kania Rainey) and “Amazed” (music by Joshua Zinn, text by Free Green). HGO mezzo-soprano Teresa Procter will perform these songs with piano accompaniment by UH doctoral composition student Mark Buller.

On May 19, Spring Branch Elementary students’ poems will be showcased through a single composition by UH student Joshua Zinn. The student composer combined several students’ texts into a single song titled “Yo Tengo Un Bello Sueño.” This performance will begin at 8:30 a.m. at Spring Branch Library (1700 Campbell Rd.). HGO tenor Juan Polanco will perform with the Spring Branch Elementary choir. Buller will again provide piano accompaniment.

This is the third collaboration between UH, WITS, HGOCo, Kashmere Gardens and Spring Branch. The experience is beneficial for participating elementary students, but it’s also particularly rewarding for UH’s composers, said Rob Smith, associate professor of composition.

“First and foremost, an experience like this gets them involved in the community. Most importantly, they’re doing that through their music,” he said. “They also can realize their roles as composers and collaborators. Often times, composers will be asked to work on music for a specific event or for a specific ensemble. They have to be flexible and adapt their talents to different situations. This project requires them to do exactly that. At the same time, they also are able to help younger artists begin to realize their talents.

The Moores School of Music is one of the premier music schools in America. Offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, it serves approximately 600 students annually. Areas of study include composition, conducting, performance, theory and musicology. Its faculty consists of internationally recognized performers, composers and scholars. Among its ensembles are the Moores School Symphony Orchestra, Moores Jazz Ensemble, Moores Opera Center, Concert Chorale, Concert Women’s Chorus, Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band, Wind Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble. A majority of the school’s concerts are performed in the 800-seat Moores Opera House. For more details on the Moores School of Music, visit http://www.music.uh.edu/.