I have a short story about the music of Michael Colgrass, who we lost today, and about teaching middle school students. I don't believe I've shared this before.

2009 Dallas Festival of Modern Musicd

2009 Dallas Festival of Modern Musicd

10 years ago this fall, I had the privilege of leading the J.L. Long Middle School Buccaneer Band in a very special piece, Old Churches, composed by Michael Colgrass, at the inaugural Dallas Festival of Modern Music. It was one of the most special performances of my early career and the first time I took the stage with an organization that I helped found and lead.

I'll never forget one of our last rehearsals before the performance. My students just... inhabited the music, like at no other point that year. Frankly, I don't know if I ever made it back to that particular summit again in my four-year run as a full-time teacher. There was an undeniable electricity in that rehearsal that just crackled between the students. You could feel it, and they certainly felt it too. In fact, they all broke into spontaneous applause afterwards for themselves, for the work, and for that run-through.

Here is a brief program note offered on the American Composers Forum website:

Gregorian chant is one of the earliest forms of notated music using free flowing rhythms and simple melodies. When Michael Colgrass worked on this piece in his residency, he explored graphic notation with students. He asked individuals to create their own unique notations on a blackboard and then invited the whole class to play what they thought it should sound like. In Old Churches, Colgrass uses the elements of Gregorian chant and graphic notation to create an aura of voices echoing in a monastery. This piece is a great introduction to graphic notation, and performers have a fun and creative way to explore sound production along with the compositional process.

My copy of  Old Churches  by Michael Colgrass.

My copy of Old Churches by Michael Colgrass.

Michael Colgrass, more than many others, is one of the composers who helped make me a big believer in introducing the youngest kids to contemporary music. It's the adults you have to work to win over. Kids are 100% on board with working through the most challenging music and summoning the passion, and frankly the professionalism required to do justice to contemporary scores.

I will forever treasure my Old Churches score, those memories, and my chance to perform it with my students. Rest in Peace, Michael Colgrass.


Listen to this essay spoken aloud.


Jordan Randall Smith is the Music Director of Symphony Number One.