On Saturday, March 9 at the Elemental Music Spring Strings concert, Elemental Strings will present the world premiere of a brand new piece by prolific composer Richard Meyer called A Musical Passport.
The new work was commissioned by Elemental Music to celebrate the 15th season of Elemental Strings. Elemental Strings is the original Elemental Music ensemble, first launched in 2004. Our young musicians are so excited that one of their favorite composers has written a piece just for them!
Mr. Meyer was kind enough to speak with us about his history in music education, his composition process, and more!
Elemental Music (EM): Our Elemental Strings students are in grades 3–5. Did you play an instrument or sing as an elementary school student?
Richard Meyer (RM): I started playing clarinet in 4th grade. I played in band and orchestra in elementary school, middle school, high school and college. I met my wife in the clarinet section at Pasadena City College!
EM: You're a big celebrity with both our students and teachers! How did you first get interested in composing and writing for youth ensembles?
RM: I started writing for youth ensembles as a student teacher in Pasadena, at Eliot Middle School. I did a few arrangements there, then some original pieces for Bellis Music Camp, a Pasadena area summer orchestra & band camp. When I became a teacher with my own music program (first in Pasadena and then in Temple City) I wrote for my own students. I was encouraged by a colleague to send a piece in for publication. It was published and that got the ball rolling. More and more, my pieces started being featured at teachers’ conventions and “reading sessions” and soon I was getting eight or nine pieces published per year. To date, I have over 190 pieces published for both orchestra and band.
EM: Can you talk a little bit about the commission process and how you came up with the theme for your new piece for Elemental Strings? How much collaboration is involved between you and the organization that commissions a piece?
RM: [Elemental Music’s Executive and Artistic Director] Josephine Moerschel first contacted me with a request to write a piece in celebration of Elemental Strings’ 15th anniversary. We discussed the level of the group that would be performing the new piece, the cost of the piece, and how my writing schedule fit with the date she wanted for the premiere.
Then we moved on to the type of piece. In an email, she requested “some sort of musical passport that would take our students and listeners on a journey to different countries to highlight different styles and/or cultures.” Josephine’s guidelines were great, the perfect thing to get me started on the project. Her request even gave me the title of the piece!
EM: A Musical Passport weaves together melodies from all over the world. How did you pick which tunes to feature in the piece?
RM: Some of the tunes were obvious “no-brainers”, like “Waltzing Matilda”, “Frere Jacques” and “O Canada!” Others took some research, like the tunes from Africa and Russia. I tried to include melodies that the students either already know, or will be likely to encounter later in their musical careers. If they hear a tune five years from now and think, “Wait, I know that song- we played it in our Elemental Strings group” that will be awesome! When doing a medley of popular songs, I also have to make sure that all the pieces I’m using are “in the public domain” and can legally be used without infringing on a copyright that might be held by someone else. For example, the “Kookaburra” song from Australia could not be included.
EM: What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while conducting?
RM: Just as we were taking the stage to perform at Disneyland, one of my string bass players ran up to me in a panic and said “Mr. Meyer, the black thing is falling off my instrument!” Needless to say, my mind was in a flurry as I went through a mental inventory of all the possible “black things” on a string bass. Turns out she was talking about the fingerboard. It was coming loose. A quick repair with masking tape and she was ready to perform. The very next day at school we had a test on the names of all the parts of the instrument!
EM: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
RM: I’d like to thank all the staff and students of Elemental Music for the opportunity to compose this piece. I learned a lot writing it and had a great time in the process. I am very pleased with the result. The piece will be published next year, making it available for orchestras all over the country to enjoy.