The great value of musical composition |

The great value of musical composition

Julie Becker
Special to The Union


WHO: InConcert Sierra

WHAT: “Poetry in Song” a concert of Composers Project with Mark Vance student works

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2

WHERE: Peace Lutheran Church, 828 W. Main St. Grass Valley

TICKETS: $15 for general admission, youth 17 and under free with an adult, available online at, by phone at 530-273-3990, at BriarPatch Market and at the door the day of the performance

The origins of song are often mysterious—wafting from many sources or threads. Could be a sound, an emotion, a memory or a line of poetry. Add to this mystery, there are infinite ways to weave and expand these threads into melodies and harmonies to give a piece structure. The creative process cannot be boxed or neatly packaged.

But what if the composers of these pieces are relatively young? How does the creative process affect them personally? Possibly affect the direction of their lives? These are thoughts Mark Vance, education director for InConcert Sierra, has pondered for close to 20 years.

During that time, Vance has taken a fledging composers program for teens and grown it into an intensive 10-month course of study that has become a gem in our musical community. After starting the program through the Nevada County Composers Cooperative, Vance moved it to Music in the Mountains for a number of years. When he parted ways with MIM last summer, he brought the gem along with him to InConcert Sierra.

Now known as the Composers Project with Mark Vance, the program features an increased enrollment this year—with 13 students and expanded opportunities to link Vance’s expertise with that of the world-class musicians and composers who perform in InConcert’s 2019-2020 Third Sunday Series.

As always, the curriculum for the Composers Project is ambitious—a healthy blend of music theory, music history, harmony, conducting, notation and more. And as the students compose their pieces; as the threads are woven into musical tapestry, something grand takes place beyond the penning of flagged notes on a staff—a growth and transformation best described by the composers themselves.

Lydia Fuller-Hall is currently a senior at Bear River High School where she plays flute in the Symphonic Band, piano with the Jazz Band, and sings with the Starlite Express. She was in 8th grade when she learned about the composers program and begged her mom to let her join.

One of the glowing features of the program is collaboration with nonprofits. In 2017, students volunteered with Hospitality House, a local shelter for the homeless, which Lydia described as “an eye-opening experience”—breaking down stereotypes and creating strong emotional connections. In spring, she wrote a piece for string quartet entitled “Lost and Found.” In contemplating her choice of instruments, she explained, “Usually I get an idea for a tone. With Hospitality House, I was looking for a somber tone and the strings gave me the kind of resonance I wanted to convey.”

For as long as she can remember, Lydia has embraced both music and science. She recalls taking piano lessons before she went to kindergarten. Not long afterwards, her dad gave her a science kit and she amused herself by conducting experiments in petri dishes.

When the composers collaborated with SYRCL (South Yuba River Citizens League) in 2018, she relished the chance to learn about the watershed: to see micro-organisms in the river, and to delve into the controversy swirling around the proposed Centennial Dam. “I’ve always been captivated by the environment,” she said. “Always felt passionate about it.” And this passion led her to write a piece for flute, French horn and harp entitled “The Decision”—the decision being “whether we would potentially destroy the ecosystem or preserve it.”

When Lydia heads to college in the fall, she plans to major in biology with an emphasis on genetics—eventually applying her studies to conservation use. She believes music and science blend together quite naturally, feeling that her musical background will help her be more creative with problem solving and scientific research.

Love of the environment has also played a significant role in the musical life of Jesse Haennelt. Now a student at CSU-Northridge, Jesse is working towards a Bachelor of Music degree in composition, with a focus on commercial and media writing. With Northridge so close to Hollywood, he’s had the opportunity to meet composers, filmmakers and musicians of all sorts, continually broadening his perspective.

Jesse enrolled in Vance’s composers program back in 2011 when he was a senior at Bear River. While he had “tons of fun” his first two years, his third year was a game-changer. In 2014, the class collaborated with the Sierra Streams Institute, writing music after exploring the Yuba River and studying the life cycles of salmon. Jesse liked being given subject matter for inspiration rather than having to dream it up. “Now that I’m writing for film,” he said, “I can’t wait for inspiration to come to me. The new world I’m in is much faster-paced.”

The experience with Sierra Streams gave Jesse more than musical inspiration. Rafting the river, climbing boulders and exploring the riparian zone along the banks gave him a zest for the outdoor world he’d never felt before—leading him to become an avid mountain biker, hiker and rock climber. And he believes that the combination of music and rugged physical activity woke him up. “I used to be the person in the corner with my phone,” he joked. “I’ve become a lot more comfortable socially.”

In 2016, Jesse spent a semester at the National Outdoor Leadership School up in Washington, immersing himself in mountaineering, sailing, rock climbing and more. When he returned, he got on track studying music at Sierra College, then transferred to Northridge in the fall of 2018. The confidence he gained through the composition class and his outdoor activities have been put into good practice at Northridge, where he now arranges music for studio ensembles, rehearsing with as many as 40 musicians at a session.

While Jesse has now returned to Northridge, vocal music written by the current crop of composers (including Lydia) will be unveiled this Sunday afternoon. Poetry in Song features music for voice and one instrument, with all pieces performed by accomplished singers and professional musicians who live in the area. The concert will take place at 2 p.m. at Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley.

Julie Becker lives in Nevada City and is a longtime supporter of Mark Vance’s composition program for young musicians.

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