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A one-of-a-kind performance

Students used old tires and tape to create stand-ins for Japanese taiko drums for their premiere of Jodie Blackshaw’s Letters From Sado

When Rosemount Middle School’s eighth grade bands took the stage Monday night, it was the end of a months-long process unlike anything the students had been part of before.

The students presented the world premiere of a work by Australian composer Jodie Blackshaw, an unusual enough experience for an eighth grade band. But because of the way Blackshaw writes, allowing musicians room to interpret the notes on the page, students were active participants in the process from the beginning. So, while there were two performances of Blackshaw’s Letters From Sado Monday night, they were subtly different.

The process to get to Monday’s premiere was an adjustment for students. It started with a haiku and pictures of a stormy ocean. It was up to students to bring what they read and what they saw into the music they played.

Students built drums out of tires and tape, and found other creative ways to bring their own touch to the music.

That was an unusual and occasionally uncomfortable experience for the students, but they caught on quickly, director John Zschunke said.

“They kind of had to dig a little bit deeper,” he said. “You could tell they were taking pride in the fact they were starting to get it and understand it.”

Because of the way Blackshaw composes, there was something for every student to do.

“They can play a piece where maybe they’re a third clarinet and they don’t have a lot to play,” Zschunke said. “Jodie’s piece had something for everyone to play.”

A friendly competition developed between the bands as they put together their own interpretations of the music.

Blackshaw was at RMS last May to meet some of the band students who would play her music, and she corresponded regularly with the bands via Skype, email and recordings sent back and forth. She was back in Minnesota last week to do some final work before the premiere, and she was in the audience for Monday’s concert at the Rosemount High School Performing Arts Center.

Zschunke said the excitement about the piece was obvious. Parents have told him their kids are talking about band a lot more than they usually do.

The process has been a lot of fun for Zschunke as well.

“To watch them grow and enjoy that, you don’t test those types of things they got done,” he said. “They pride they felt and the creativity they used.

“Those are such important values that kids get, and they got a heavy dose of that. As a teacher, I’m glad I can provide that for them.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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