Tomorrow's Voices: A Composer In the Classroom

Thanks to a residency program, one composer spends time with three high school choirs, creating new music, new singers, and audiences for the future.

Four choruses. Three high schools. Two nationally respected arts organizations. One composer-in-residence. Add a measure of creative intent, large doses of hard work, and a dash of idealism and you have a program that changes lives.

For several years, composer Cary John Franklin worked with the Minneapolis-based choral organization VocalEssence as composer-in-residence, funded by a New Residencies grant from Meet The Composer in New York. Three very different Minnesota high schools—Red Wing (rural), Minnetonka (suburban), and St. Paul Como Park (urban)—participated as partners in the program, chosen for the excellence of their choral music programs.

During the residency, Franklin visited the schools frequently, writing music specifically for the needs of each chorus, often working from texts selected by the students. The project came to a grand conclusion with the world premiere performance of his setting of the Gloria at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Under the baton of Philip Brunelle, the three partner school choruses and VocalEssence joined a full professional orchestra in the critically acclaimed premiere—an experience each of those students will long remember.

According to Adam Erdmann, a senior at Minnetonka High School, "Having Cary John Franklin working right here with us made the music come alive. Without this experience, we would be going about the year interpreting the works of composers long dead or distant from us."

"It feels like we have a stronger connection with the composers," says Mikkel Gardner, Red Wing choral director.

"Most choral singers talk about a piece of music using the title, not the composer's name," says Franklin, who was excited to be chosen for Meet the Composer's residency program. "The whole point of this residency was to introduce students to a composer and make them part of the creative process in the hope that it has a lifelong impact on how they view and participate in the arts."

A Three-Year Investment

Cary John Franklin, an Iowa native, studied at Macalester College with Dale Warland and at the University of Minnesota with Dominick Argento. He ably composes across the entire musical palette, from a cappella choral motets to opera to symphonic works for full orchestra.

Since the residency stretched over three years, Franklin spent the first year getting to know each chorus. He observed rehearsals, reacquainting himself with the high school milieu and assessing their abilities. "My expectation was that I would have to write simpler music than I was accustomed to, but after getting to know the schools and the singers, I realized that I could write whatever I wanted to write and the young people could handle it."

The student choristers thrived under his watchful eye as they learned music Franklin had already composed. "It made us feel better when we would see him smile, sitting there in the corner," said Inga Carlson-Clark, a Como Park student. "His input was always positive; he always gave us constructive criticism." Her classmate Elizabeth Wright added, "I liked it when Cary would come in and explain why he did what he did."

"Cary wrote a piece that spoke directly to the hearts of my kids about things that were happening in their lives."  -Paula Holmberg, choir director, Minnetonka High School

In the second year, Franklin began writing music specifically tailored for each chorus. For Red Wing, a small town southeast of the Twin Cities on the Mississippi River, he set the Mary Oliver poem "Wild Geese," with its images of the natural environment: prairies, trees, and "the clean blue air." For Como Park, located in a Saint Paul working-class neighborhood, he wrote four inspirational pieces, which were all premiered at a February concert celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

But a tragic situation occurred in Minnetonka, a western suburb of Minneapolis bordering Lake Minnetonka, location of the third chorus. During the winter of 2003, two high school students lost their lives in a car accident when their vehicle fell through the ice on a frozen lake. Franklin was scheduled to meet with the school's Treble Choir the day after the accident and called choir director Paula Holmberg to see if he should cancel his visit to the school. She urged him to come to the class.

"At first, they had a difficult time even talking about selecting a text for a piece in the context of this terrible tragedy that had just occurred," said Franklin. "But then we talked about how music can honor a person and suddenly they wanted to discuss how they could use this piece to honor their friends' memory." Based on one student's suggestion, he set the closing poem from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Our revels now are ended...We are such stuff/ As dreams are made of, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep."

"Cary wrote a piece that spoke directly to the hearts of my kids about things that were happening in their lives," recalls Holmberg. "They got to discuss what they were thinking and feeling at that time." His beautiful setting of "Our Revels Now Are Ended" became part of the healing process in the Minnetonka community. The engraved edition bears a dedication to the young students who lost their lives.

A Finale with Lasting Impact

During the third year of the residency, Franklin was hard at work on his large-scale setting of the Gloria. Since it was to be paired with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms in the final concert of the VocalEssence 2004-2005 season, he opted to employ the same orchestral forces. Beginning in November, he delivered hand-written scores, movement by movement, to each school.

"I really liked that we were getting hand-written music nobody else had ever seen before," said Dan Herman, a Como Park senior. "It was photocopied just for us. We were making music from scratch. I play guitar and do cover tunes, but this was original music."

As the day of the premiere approached, rehearsals intensified. Franklin patiently explained how different the Gloria would sound on stage at Orchestra Hall with all of the orchestral effects. VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle visited each school to run through the score, giving the choruses a chance to become familiar with his conducting style.

The students also became accustomed to the attention of reporters and photographers as the composer-in-residence project was featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a number of community papers, and on Minnesota Public Radio.

The concert, titled "Tomorrow's Voices," was structured to give both Franklin's music and each chorus a chance to shine. In separate sets, Como Park, Red Wing, and Minnetonka each took the stage to showcase Franklin's music and other works, earning both the enthusiastic response of the audience and the praise of professional critics: "Festival quality performances from all involved..." (Star Tribune); "The choirs of the three high schools showed what wondrous things their voices can do." (Pioneer Press)

For both students and choral directors, working so closely with a composer in the classroom provided dramatic proof that music is much more than notes on paper.

For many students, singing Gloria with all three high school groups and VocalEssence—a total of 270 voices—at Orchestra Hall was the pinnacle of the experience. "My favorite part was when we actually got up there and started singing with the orchestra. It's a great facility and it was great to be singing at that high of a level," said Paul Rutledge, a senior from Red Wing. "A few of the people in our chorus will sing in college, and fewer still will sing professionally, but we had the huge honor of getting to sing in Orchestra Hall."

"My favorite memory was right after the last chord in Gloria," said Adam Erdmann. "Hearing it resound in the hall—what a moment!"

"It has been a special experience," remarked Como Park choral director . "I just felt really lucky, like we had gotten the goose that laid the golden egg."

Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence took advantage of having a composer-in-residence on staff as well. Franklin served as host for the half-hour Concert Conversations held before most VocalEssence performances and screened scores for composer development programs. And, of course, he wrote music for VocalEssence, notably a setting of "How Excellent is Thy Name," which was premiered by St. Paul's Cathedral Choir (London) during a VocalEssence concert in Minnesota in 2003. In all, Franklin crafted 14 new choral works during his residency.

In school environments where resources are often stretched thin, projects such as these can make a substantial impact. "Let's go to the whole picture of schools suffering with finances," said Red Wing Schools superintendent Stan Slessor. "The backlash can be that we keep the core subject areas and put arts in the ditch. These very special programs elevate the arts in the eye of the public, which helps in how we allocate resources."

For both students and choral directors, working so closely with a composer in the classroom provided dramatic proof that music is much more than notes on paper. The students describe having an elevated sense of the work a composer does before the performers ever see a score. They also discovered the true meaning of work-in-progress as Franklin changed music on the spot after hearing it rehearsed by the students.

"His music is a living, breathing thing, not just a piece of paper," says Minnetonka student Bethany Cline. And the students played a significant role in the creative process. "Cary needed somebody to make his dream, his vision, come alive—he wrote the music, but he needed us to bring it to life," one student proudly proclaimed.

All of the works composed through the VocalEssence/Meet The Composer residency are published by Cary John Franklin Publications. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2005.