The Paterson Effect – No Powdered Wigs Allowed

Rob speaking at VYO January concert

It is difficult to put in words how much fun I’ve had during my amazing first year as the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with VYOA! I am thrilled that the Vermont Youth Orchestra gave such a wonderful performance of my orchestral work Enlightened City on January 24th at the Flynn Center, but the best part of my residency—by far—has been meeting and working with such enthusiastic, talented and interesting musicians, including the staff—and luckily, I have two more years of coming to the Elley-Long Music Center to work with the VYOA! How awesome is that? This is what I live for.

A major part of my residency consists of outreach, whether visiting schools such as the Edmunds Middle School or organizations like the Colchester Rotary Club, or working with young composers through the Vermont MIDI Project. One interesting comment I received came from someone at the Rotary Club, who said, “Well, I have to admit, before hearing you speak, I thought to myself, oh great—a composer. This will be so boring. But you were really interesting! Nothing like what I thought you would be.”

Josh Morris, Nick Bonaccio, Rob Paterson, Tim Woos

This made me wonder: what did he think I would be like? That I would have a powdered, white wig, like in typical paintings of Mozart? Maybe he thought I would talk about “combinatorial hexachords”? I guess I can’t blame him. The thought of writing notes on a page seems so cerebral, doesn’t it? And I always joke that I should set up a composer cam, just so people can see how boring the act of composing looks. I think my mentioning that I do what everyone else does—go food shopping, mop the floor, change diapers, and so on—helped reenforce that composers are basically just like everyone else, except that they write music for a living.

This leads me to my main mission as a Composer-in-Residence, which is two-fold: First, talk to people about what it is like being a composer, and answer questions about what I do daily, how I survive, and so on. Second, and perhaps much more importantly—at least to me—is talking up the VYOA, and getting people to come to the concerts. Just like people who attend Little League games or school plays, everyone should attend VYOA concerts! Here is a perfect example of what mean: a few of my in-laws live in Vermont, and of course, I invited them to the concert. I also asked my sister-in-law Juliana and her husband Kevin to invite two friends. Keep in mind that their friends had never been to a VYOA concert, and aren’t musicians, relatives or have any affiliation with VYOA. For them, it was a first-time experience. Guess what? They loved it! They were blown away by how wonderful the performance was and how talented the kids are, and I have a feeling they might start regularly attending the concerts, just for the fun of it. So, what can we learn from this? Half the challenge is getting people in the door. If that happens, it is a LOT easier getting people to attend the second and third time, and make it a regular part of their lives.

This falls directly in line with some of my goals for the coming two years as the VYOA’s resident composer. I want to get to know everyone even more, and find out what they like, and their experiences. (I probably learn more from them than they learn from me!) I did get to know the very talented Nick Bonaccio, but he is a percussionist, and so am I, so that’s not fair! I want to get to know everyone, whether wind or brass players, violists, singers in the choral groups. In turn, I hope they will feel free to ask me anything they want. If nothing else, hopefully their experience of working with me will encourage them to work with other composers in the future.

Tim Woos performing at the Flynn Center in January

Next, I want to make it a goal to make sure all of the VYOA concerts are packed. Really packed! Every seat in the house! The energy at the last Flynn concert in January was amazing—especially the standing ovation for Tim Woos – who played the first movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto – it was very much deserved. The house was actually quite full, but I want it to be a standing room only crowd, with every single seat filled. How cool would that be? I want to help make that happen.

Finally, I want to write the best music possible for these musicians, whether I’m writing for the Vermont Youth Orchestra or the VYO Chorus. I want the students to feel excited about working with a composer. It is fun—and comforting—to play cherished classics by long dead masters, but to me, nothing is more exciting than performing music by living, breathing composers, whether the work was written by me, Erik Nielsen, Joshua Morris (a cellist in the orchestra who also composes) or your next door neighbor. I especially like premieres of new compositions: it takes a lot of courage to play a new work, but it’s not a sure thing, It could be great… or not! To me, that’s super exciting.

To everyone, it’s been a wonderful first year! I can’t wait until the Reveille! Music Festival this summer.

Rob Paterson, VYOA Music Alive Composer-in-Residence

Photos: Lisamarie Charlesworth, Cheryl Wiloughby & Jody Woos

Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.

The Paterson Effect – Did You Say Taser?

This is my third week in residence with the VYOA, and like everyone else, I am very much looking forward to the announcement of who will be named the Music Director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association. These next few years will be an exciting time for VYOA and I am so glad to be a part of it.

This weekend, the VYO will present the world premiere of a newer version of my orchestral work Enlightened City, conducted by Andrew Massey at the Dibden Center for the Arts at Johnson State College, and at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. The piece is a “new version” because I heard that the VYO harp and oboe players are really good, and since I always heard these instruments in my piece (at least inside my head), I decided to add them into my original score.

One of my first activities this week was visiting the third and fifth grade classes at the Wheeler Integrated Arts Academy. (Everyone remembered me! That  made me happy.) It is amazing to see such diversity in one classroom, even by New York City standards, where I am living now. There are kids from all over the world, some with truly tragic backgrounds or even orphaned. Many were relocated to Vermont, and I cannot think of a nicer and more supportive community. They all seem like great kids, a few very shy, others extremely vocal, but all very enthusiastic about learning music. After constructing a simple composition using only rhythm and dynamics and having them play it using percussion instruments, there was a question and answer session. The oddest question I received, by far, was, “As a composer, have you ever been tased?” I didn’t even know how to respond to that! Perhaps the person thought I said I was a conductor? (Just kidding!)

I was also asked, multiple times, how much money I make. I thought this was interesting, particularly since we are in the middle of a recession. Most composers are not driven by thoughts of becoming rich unless they write commercial or pop music, but this was a valid question nevertheless, and I answered it as best I could. For those who are curious, I address this further on my personal blog.

Yesterday I did a radio interview with VPR Classical host Walter Parker. I was also interviewed with student soloist Tim Woos for a piece that appeared in today’s Burlington Free Press, and I was interviewed by the Plattsburgh Press Republican for a piece that also appeared in today’s issue. Perhaps the most interesting comment of the two interviews came from Tim, who said that he doesn’t really get nervous when his music is premiered. I wish I could say the same! As a composer, I always want my music represented accurately and played as musically as possible, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then, the audience thinks that is the way the music should sound—wrong notes and all. It will be interesting to see if Tim feels the same way if he ever receives any not-so-perfect interpretations down the road, but I certainly hope he receives only excellent performances.

Finally, yesterday I met with Sandi MacLeod, the director of the Vermont MIDI Project, to discuss making keyboard percussion videos next summer. She knows I am a percussionist as well as a composer and since I am bringing my five-octave marimba to VT next summer, it seemed like the perfect time to do this project. The videos will be instructional, meant to help high school and grade school students write for a variety of instruments, including xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, orchestral bells and chimes. If all goes well, these videos will be available for free and online next fall.

My week is not over yet…I will report back after Enlightened City is premiered this weekend. Stay tuned!

Rob Paterson, VYOA Music Alive Composer-in-Residence

Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.

Concert Information:

Friday, January 22 at 8:00 pm
Dibden Center for the Arts, Johnson State College
Tickets: Adults/Seniors $10; students 12 and under $5;
JSC faculty & students FREE
802-635-1476 or

Sunday, January 24 at 3:00 pm
Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: Adults/Seniors: $15, $12, $10; Students: $12, $10, $6
802-86-Flynn or

Photo: Kyle Martel – Courtesy Barre-Montpelier Times Argus

The Paterson Effect – LOUD!

I just finished the second week in residence with the VYOA. So much happened that it is difficult to know where to begin. I continued to get to know the VYOA musicians, taught 3rd and 5th grade music classes at the H. O. Wheeler Integrated Arts Academy and an advanced theory class at Johnson State College, attended rehearsals and meetings, and coached the Vermont Youth Orchestra on Enlightened City, my piece they will re-premiere in January, but more on that in a moment.

As well as writing for orchestra, I love writing choral music, so it was a special treat to finally have a chance to meet VYOA choral conductor Jeff Buettner and watch him rehearse the VT Youth Concert Chorale and VYO Chorus. One of the pieces the chorus sang was a gospel-inspired work by Kirke Mechem, a composer I met this year in California during a premiere of one of my choral works. Jeff is meticulous and his comments were spot on. I grew up singing in student choirs that sang many gospel or spiritual-inspired pieces, so I asked the singers if they had ever heard a real live gospel choir. Being immersed in that all encompassing, communal gospel choir sound is definitely an experience one never forgets, and I hope they will have a chance to see what that is all about if they have not already done so. I was so impressed with Jeff that the next day I drove to Middlebury to check out his Middlebury College Choir dress rehearsal, which was just as enjoyable. I look forward to working with Jeff and the singers as my residency continues.

Later in the week, I heard Asiat (“Ace”) Ali conduct Presto – the VYOA’s beginning string ensemble. What he is able to accomplish with kids this young (3rd – 6th grade) is simply amazing. I know from watching my wife Victoria teach kids that age that even if it looks easy, it definitely is not, and Ace is doing a great job. My favorite moment was when he said, “Well everyone, now that we are having so much fun, it is almost time to end.” All of the pieces are so short, and the concert was probably around twenty minutes at most. I also had a moment to listen to David Gusakov conduct the Vermont Youth Strings. The students in this group are older and not quite ready for the Vermont Youth Orchestra, but you can tell that many of them will be in the near future. It is important to remember that these young musicians are the future of the VYO, and even the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

During the week, I also mentored young composers via the Vermont MIDI Project. Some students are more developed than others, but it is just awesome that any of these students are even composing at all. To think that students from places like Barnet, South Royalton and Norwich, VT are able to easily share their work and have online discussions with someone like me from New York City is amazing. These are not just high school aged students, but some students are even in third and fourth grade. I am able to see their music, hear it played online via MIDI sounds, and offer comments that appear with all of the other mentors’. In many ways, I think that coupled with meeting the students in person when possible, this is an ideal way to teach. My only hope is that I have a chance to eventually meet all of the students who are creating these interesting pieces!

I also heard a Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble (VCME) concert, which was quite interesting. I re-connected with musicians I haven’t seen in a long time, like Steve Klimowski and Michael Arnowitt, and also met some Vermont-based composers for the first time.

On my final residency day, I had a chance to conduct the orchestra for the second rehearsal of Enlightened City. That was a lot of fun, particularly when I told the brass and percussion to play louder! Nick, Josh, Penuel and Brian in the percussion section took this to heart, playing like there’s no tomorrow! It was great to connect with everyone from the podium, and show them that every note matters, and that the solos really do need to shine when they occur. Sometimes, orchestral players forget that every part is audible, and when one person plays excellently, everyone sounds better. I also coached the percussionists and brass players with my piece, and even coached the percussion section with the Percussion Concerto by Joseph Schwantner, a piece they are about to play at their First Night concert. Since I studied with Joe (he was actually one of my first composition teachers), I hope I gave them some insight into his sound world.

I am having the time of my life working with the VYOA and the Vermont musicians I come into contact with – I’m really looking forward to being back in January for the premiere of Enlightened City on the VYO’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts concert.

Rob Paterson, VYOA Music Alive Composer-in-Residence

Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.

The Paterson Effect – VYOA Residency Continues

R.Paterson  - Daniel DottavioThis has been a busy and exciting week, my second with VYOA, and my first opportunity to hear the VYO play one of my pieces. This past Sunday I heard them rehearse Enlightened City for the first time. I am amazed at how much progress they made – they’ve only had the music for one week! There are a few parts that need work, but I have no doubt that everything will come together by January 24 for their Winter Concert at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

This week I am also visiting a few schools and being interviewed for a few different newspaper articles and television shows. What I really hope is that through all of this outreach, more people will come to the concerts to see what an amazing organization the VYOA is, and to hear great music being performed by kids from their own communities.

One of my favorite experiences this week has been peeking in on the sectionals at the Elley-Long Music Center with conductor Andrew Massey. In particular, I spent some time with wind players who were coached by Rachael Elliott and brass and percussion players coached by Jason Whitcomb. Jason let me rehearse my piece with the players, which I really enjoyed. It was great to tell Mitchel Logan in the trombone section to play louder (what trombonist doesn’t want to play louder?), and to encourage all the percussionists to hold their instruments up high so they can be seen (and, what percussion player doesn’t want to be seen and heard?). Percussion is such a spectacle, and it’s always more fun when the audience can actually see what instruments are producing those interesting sounds in the back of the orchestra.

Sally Bruce is doing a wonderful job with the violin solo, as are the principal players, most of whom have exposed solos throughout the entire piece. In a way, this piece is like a mini concerto for orchestra with a moment for every principal player to shine. My role in being here is to encourage the soloists to come out more when they are in the spotlight, and to help the rest of the players to really listen, so they know when they should be in a foreground, middle or background.

Luckily for me, Maestro Massey is doing an excellent job helping the players learn the music. It is always more difficult working on a new piece with an orchestra – meaning, not a work by the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler – but you would not know it with Massey, who is treating my piece with the same care and passion that he treats the war horses on the upcoming programs. I keep reminding him to pretend I am one of the dead composers, and we laugh about that! Even the best conductors sometimes defer to composers more than they need to, but Mr. Massy is so seasoned that I really trust him to take the reins and really go for it.

Likewise for the players, sometimes having the composer looking over your shoulder can be a little intimidating, but I hope everyone is starting to feel free to have fun and make music (after they learn the notes, of course!), and feel the same kind of passion they would with a piece by someone who is long gone. Not that I want them to forget I am there. In fact, I want them to feel free to talk to me anytime but it’s so much more fun when I hear their personalities shine through.

All of this leads me to one of my favorite parts of working with VYO: there is an electric energy that younger players bring to a piece of music that older players sometimes lack. To see how excited the VYO members are to be together, playing music, having fun with their friends and learning something new; this is what I live for.

Rob Paterson, VYOA Music Alive Composer-in-Residence

Photo: Daniel Dottavio

Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.

Knocking It Out Of The Park

A concert.
The focus of all our efforts.
So long prepared, so swiftly passed.

We, the members of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, just performed our first major concert of the season, and Sally was the star. Sally Bruce, our Sally & Andrew at receptionconcertmaster, played the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ third Violin Concerto, and knocked it out of the park. She achieved that wonderful air we all aspire to: making it look easy. And, I suppose, in an odd way, it was easy. It’s just that playing something like that is only easy so long as you spend many   hours, for many years, not just practicing, but thinking about music, too. It isn’t just an athletic training, but the result of emotional and intellectual immersion as well. In fact, a musical immersion. And even then, when the actual time comes, the intensity of concentration must not lapse. Playing in public sounds tough and daunting, and it is. But when the concert finally comes – well, “easy” might not be the right word, but the experience is one of ease and of freedom.

The orchestra was working very hard during that concerto too, though in a different way. We were functioning somewhat like the negative to Sally’s positive. Over and over, in rehearsal, the orchestra players had been striving to be ever quieter, yet always perfectly synchronized, so that we could be the rocky landscape behind the face of the Mona Lisa – context, scale, and atmosphere, without distracting from the central offering. When we do all concentrate and do our part, it is indeed a sense of ease that floats up, much as an athlete will speak of entering ‘the zone.’ Although we practice hard, we do not turn into automata. The concert is not an exact replica of rehearsals. Things always ‘happen,’ either challenges or inspirations. Sally was able to float with the moment, and we were able to sail by her breeze. And that meant that the audience could relax too, confident that everything was reliable, yet at the same time unprecedented.

Sally's flowersAnd how the audience responded! So many cheers! If florists around Burlington are out of stock this week, our concert could be the reason.

Of course there were lots more pieces in the concert, all very different from one another. The difference between a concerto and a purely orchestral piece is obvious – the presence or absence of a spotlight on one central soloist. But on the inside, amongst the community on the stage, the difference is not so great, since someone is always playing the tune, and the rest of the orchestra accompanies that tune. Maybe the first violins now, maybe the violas. Perhaps the oboe, then two trumpets, then the second violin section…

Just as our eyes scan the scene, but always, even for the shortest moment, pick a focal point, so are our ears led from sound to sound, and, as musicians, our own contributions constantly flit between foreground and background. So here, now, after many weeks of training to be ready, we go before the public, not like trained seals, but as companions with newly honed freedoms. Finally we have the last crucial ingredient that makes it all come alive and become real; the audience. Now at last we can all, together, take a thrilling ride in the briefly real world of music.

That first concert may be over, the scores back on the shelf, a new list of pieces to practice. But nothing ended. It was all part of the preparation for the next concert, and the next. Bravo to the players of the VYO! We have even wilder regions to explore this year.

Andrew Massey, VYO Interim Conductor

(Photos: Berta Frank & Lisamarie Charlesworth)