Decoda Ensemble, Saratoga Youth Team Up to Make Music

Dennis Moench, SPAC’s Director of Youth Communication, is leading several professional musicians from the Decoda Ensemble and a large group of very young Saratoga Independent School students through a series of vocal warmups in the school’s main hall. Moench’s professional credits are extensive and include Broadway roles in Les Misérables and Mary Poppins, but he has never worked on anything like this.

Moench sees me enter the space and shouts across a sea of kids: “It is going really well.” Then, motioning to the children he says, “They are terrific. Their music is wonderful!” The children and the musicians collaborated over a one-week period to create their own musical composition to perform for the public at Bethesda Church. The entire event was part of the SPAC Chamber Music and Composition Residence Program. Their stated goal is to “bring distinguished professional artists and arts educators into schools to immerse students in a performing art form.”

With that goal in mind, SPAC brought The Decoda Ensemble musicians to work with the students of the Saratoga Independent School for one week of interactive music composition classes and a study of the fundamentals of music making. Together they created a musical piece based on the school’s annual theme of “Relationships, Environment and Change.”

Change is a good thing. Yeah!
Change is like a swing.
Sometimes, you go fast.
Sometimes you go slowly.
Change helps us see how things move differently. Yeah!…Yeah!

Decoda Musicians lead a rehearsal. (Lawrence White)

The musicians of the Decoda Ensemble are not only extremely talented, but they are also budding activists. Each musician has a background of shared training and experience as a fellow in a two-year program by Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. Their professional objective is to bring classical chamber music to locations that are not on the general touring list. They perform and collaborate with people in locations such as community centers and schools, as well as maximum-security prisons and facilities in the juvenile justice system. In the process, they became the first-ever Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall and performed at the White House three times. They also established annual chamber music and leadership institutes at Skidmore College

Double bassist Kris Saebo worked with the children over the entire week. “This was a specially fun project, because it entailed working with 70 elementary school children. Creating and performing a composition with so many young students in one week was a daunting task,” Saebo tells me with a laugh and a smile. “However the game plan we came up with worked well. We divided into three different groups and brought those creative elements together through tempo and then eventually through the music.” He continued: “I really enjoyed working with the community at Saratoga Independent School. They are extremely loving, open and warm. The students are curious and smart. I was blown away by the level of their creativity. They made our job easy and fun.”

Dennis Moench, SPAC Director of Youth Education, leads an exercise. (Lawrence White)

Here is another sample of lyrics written by the students:

We should not pollute the air.
Don’t cut down our trees.
Stop using gases.
Pick up litter. Don’t litter at all.
And don’t hurt animals.

Elizabeth Sobol, CEO of SPAC, expressed great satisfaction with the results of the project. When I saw her after the performance she was elated. “The Decoda residency at Saratoga Independent School and the culminating event at Bethesda Church were a perfect manifestation of our new SPAC educational vision: immersive, participatory, creative and collaborative,” says Sobol. “What a joy to see the process come alive last Friday as the SIS students performed works that they had created—and the world class Decoda ensemble delighted us with a unique and entertaining performance.” Lisa Brown, Interim head of SIS echoed Ms. Sobol’s thoughts. “It was an amazing week! It was a wonderful experience for the kids. They had nothing but superlatives when they spoke about it in morning meeting today. And we have nothing but praise for all of the talented musicians and spot-on teachers, all with a great sense of humor.

Decoda Ensemble Executive Director Mi Rhyung tells me that every one of the musicians had a great experience. “The performance at Bethesda Church was just adorable and inspiring,” says Rhyung. “The lyrics that the children came up with were deep and moving. They fully embraced the theme and in their own words expressed what it means to them. The concert was a great way to showcase the hours of work they devoted to create the composition and to present the method they developed to fuse all of the elements together through the music.” After a short pause, Rhyung continues: “Our artistic goal is to break down walls and have a positive effect in communities and in people’s lives. This project clearly achieved both.“

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