Posted Date: 02/21/2019
A side benefit for teachers at the annual Kansas Music Educators Conference is they get to listen to a selection of notable Kansas choirs and bands and their performance techniques.
Royster Middle School’s Vocal Plus ensemble is among the choirs invited to perform this week for teachers attending the KMEA conference at Wichita.
“I am super excited and a bit nervous too,” said Lance Burnett, the middle school vocal teacher who directs Vocal Plus. “They’ll be performing in front of people who know about choral music. They will know if we make a mistake or if we do a good job,” Burnett said. “That just makes it so exciting.”
The students prepared and recorded three songs of various styles for a panel of judges last spring. Burnett was notified in August that his choir had been chosen to sing.
“It was obviously a very exciting moment to be chosen to sing at the state level,” he said. “For a junior high group to be selected for that is something very special.”
With this being a special event, Burnett wanted a special piece of music for the group to sing.
“Wouldn’t it be neat to have a graduate of the CHS vocal program compose a piece that would be heard by Kansas music teachers?” Burnett said to himself. He contacted Alex Thomen, who was an eighth grader when he first taught at Royster, graduated from CHS in 2012 and went on to college to study music composition.
Thomen now writes music part-time while working as a multimedia specialist at the Music Library at the University of Miami. He oversees acquisition and implementation of various music software in the “Creative Studio” lab, consults with students who need help with audio/music editing and mixing and leads workshops on campus to teach them how to record and edit audio.
Thomen said he agreed,” then immediately thought, “Okay now I have to learn how to do this.”
Not to worry, that’s his routine.
“That's how I learn to write in different styles or for different ensembles - I force myself to do it,” he explained.
He has self-produced an EP called “Matter of Time” on all the streaming platforms and does some freelance work for a music licensing library. “I primarily compose fantasy orchestral pieces for them.”
Writing for middle schoolers offers new challenges.
Burnett and Thomen talked and settled on a type of music and subject matter - Martin and Osa Johnson and the courage they had, their adventuresome spirit.
Thomen decided to make the piece about adventuring, rather than Martin and Osa Johnson's specific experiences.
“I'm sure most middle schoolers can empathize with lyrics that speak about longing for adventure - seeing mountains, trekking through forests. After all, The Hobbit was written for kids, and adventure is the central theme of that book,” he said.
With adventuring as a central theme, Thomen added a “spirit of Kansas pride” to the lyrics.
“The chorus ends with the line, ‘I will always be a Kansas child when I'm far from home.’
With that addition, the song is about going on adventures, but remembering where your home is,” Thomen said. “I thought that would be an appropriate message at KMEA.”
Thomen also wanted to capture the spirit of adventure with the music itself, through the melody, harmony and rhythm.
“There are a few musical tricks to make a piece of music sound adventurous, such as triplet meter, ascending perfect fifths, and modal mixture,” he said. “I use all of these” in the piece I Married Adventure.
Triplet meter gives the music a strong sense of movement and energy, he explained. Examples of that are heard in the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean (He's a Pirate) and The Legend of Zelda theme. In I Married Adventure, the piano accompaniment gives the piece its momentum - even when the choir sings long, sustained notes, the piano is propelling the music forward with triplet rhythms.
With receipt of the music and lyrics, Burnett’s Vocal Plus choir began rehearsing.
Burnett asked CHS vocal instructor Natalie Hamilton to hold a mini clinic for his students and offer her critique and advice. Then, there was a Skype session with Thomen that he described as “awesome.”
“It was an easy job for me because they sounded fantastic,” Thomen said. “I didn't really have to do anything except sit back and enjoy the song. I think the most memorable question I was asked was, ‘Did Mr. Burnett have hair when you were in his class?’"
Thomen is planning to attend the choir’s performance at KMEA, scheduled for 8:55 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Hyatt Ballroom A-D, adjacent to Century II, Wichita.
“As Americans, the Johnsons did a lot of firsts - visiting cannibals, living among elephants for four years,” Burnett said. “This choir is the first one from Chanute to sing at the state convention. It’s going to be an adventure.”