From Phoenix, Az., to Mount Vernon High School: The Performance of a Lifetime for Orchestra Students
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Last summer shortly before the start of the school year, Mount Vernon High School orchestra teacher Alberto Rodriguez began to brainstorm ways to introduce his diverse group of students to music that would perhaps have more meaning to their lives. And so he reached for a familiar source.
Scrolling through a music teacher Facebook group comments section, he thought he may have a lead. An up-and-coming composer from Arizona who was also a woman of color, Selena Ryan was looking for her next gig.
With nothing to lose, Rodriguez reached out to the 24-year-old band director and struck up a conversation. He told her about the Mount Vernon community, the impact that the pandemic had on his school, and the struggles his students continue to face as they attempt to bounce back to normal life.
He asked Ryan whether she would be interested in creating a new composition tailor-made for his students? What they could afford to pay, he warned, would not make her rich.
But her answer came resolutely and she said she would be thrilled to be involved.
So came “Free Fall,” a five-minute original score tailor-made for Mount Vernon students of multiple abilities. The program notes read, “What would happen if just for a moment, you didn’t worry? What if we could jump and free fall without caring where we land?”
Months later and tucked away in the corner of the school in Alexandria, Rodriguez’s advanced orchestra group is getting to grips with the unfamiliar melody that in just over a month will receive its global premiere.
Students of Violin I, II, Viola, Double Bass, and Cello sections were all focusing on “Free Fall” written just for them more than 2,000 miles away in Ryan’s home in Phoenix, Az.
During 90 minutes, some make notes, some ask questions and all seem excited about the prospect of premiering Ryan’s work.
Inspired by electronic dance music and rock, Ryan wanted the music to be “catchy” but also resonate with that age group, only a handful of years younger than herself.
“At first we learned that we had a custom commission, then we learned the title and then the first draft and finally we heard the whole piece,” said David Runkle who plays Double Bass.
“It’s cool to be the first to do something and be trusted to bring a piece of music to life.”
Viola player Godwin Mensah, added,” I love that Mr. Rodriguez got this opportunity for us.”
Rodriguez says “Free Fall” has become a wonderful collaboration between composer, teacher, and students with differentiated sections for multiple ability levels to allow for all his students to perform.
Over the weeks and months since he first reached out to her, the excitement about the project has grown and grown.
“As a female composer of color and member of the LGBTQ community, Ms. Ryan represents a diverse population not widely represented in the orchestral repertoire,” said Rodriguez.
“Like many groups across the county, the MVHS Orchestra is incredibly diverse and represents so many walks of life found across our country and world. Having this piece composed for us means that our students in the Mount Vernon Orchestra program get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to diversify the educational music space by performing an exciting and thrilling new work that looks and sounds like them: diverse and vibrant.”
In April, Ryan Zoomed into class to see the progress being made and to virtually meet the students and answer their questions.
For her, the opportunity to help raise the profile of female composers while diversifying the traditional repertoire of high school orchestras was a key motivator for her involvement.
“I remember the moment that I sent the final finished version and of course, I worried about what he would think of it. Would he like it? What was I going to do if he didn’t? “she recalled.
Thankfully, “Free Fall” impressed and on hearing her work had the seal of approval, she cried with relief.
“I always hoped for an opportunity like this but never thought it would happen for many years to come, much later in my career. I’m beyond excited to work with the students and the staff at Mount Vernon.”
Ryan has no connection to Northern Virginia and has never visited the area but will now travel to Alexandria to see the premiere and meet the students and Rodriguez in person, thanks to an anonymous school donor.
“Free Fall” will be performed in the Andrew Lee Pauley Theater on May 25, 2022, at 7 p.m. Concert attendees are invited to arrive early to walk through the “Free Fall” immersive art exhibit created by their IB (International Baccalaureate) Art students and facilitated by their teacher Sally Gilliam. Admission is free to the public.