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After a semester of preparation, the Chute Honors Band gave the world premiere performance of “Equity Suite,” an original five-movement musical composition by Musical Offering founder Rick Ferguson, on Feb. 6 at Chute Middle School. The piece and performance explore ideas surrounding social justice.
This is Mr. Ferguson’s second original piece that Chute students have performed; last year he composed a piece of music for the Honors Orchestra based on a student-written short story. This year, he embarked on the “Equity Suite” project with similar multidisciplinary goals in mind. The project was funded by Foundation 65, and the Honors Band was directed by Chute Band Teacher Margaret Philbrick.
“Last year was primarily for the orchestra, so my sense was that the band kids were thinking ‘Well do we get to do something?’ So I think there has been some anticipation around that. And I personally feel that the more newly commissioned art that can be created in public school environments the better… I would like to see that type of thing happen much more,” Mr. Ferguson said.
Each movement in “Equity Suite” is based on a different cultural music tradition. Mr. Ferguson has included, in this order, a Fanfare, Mambo, Kalimba and Twirling Dervish (Hommage to Bela Bartok.) The suite concludes with his “Chorale for Peace.” The tune of “We Shall Overcome” serves as the unifying theme among the pieces.
Explaining this composition choice, Mr. Ferguson said, “I was thinking of the various elements that we might want to be working with, and I was also thinking about the diversity of the student body at Chute. I wanted to make sure that I really drew from some of the different traditions that are represented in the student body, and try to use those different traditions, to try to draw them together musically.”
Not only does “Equity Suite” include a number of cultural traditions, it also includes students from a number of different disciplines. Chute social studies students and members of Chute’s advanced art class contributed to the performance. The piece provided a platform for teachers to expand on the social justice subjects they were already teaching.
“The idea is to create a structure through a newly composed piece of music that then allows the kids to explore different subject matter,” said Mr. Ferguson.
“I really like the idea of not stopping at subject matter but then translating that subject matter into some type of performance art. A lot of these kids don’t necessarily have the opportunity to do that kind of thing. … I think that project-oriented learning like this is really great to get the kids collaborating. They’re sort of all collaborating around a central theme but there’s a lot of leeway because you’re having to make choices… and you’re not just making them alone you have to make them as a class or as a team,” he said.
Social Studies teacher Michael McDermott said, “The students appreciate that the subject is important enough to encompass multiple disciplines.” His said his eighth-graders “Brainstormed different ideas to reflect on the idea of equity. The study of equity has been a part of our overall study of current events this year.” The students created poems, posters and a short dance routine to accompany the musical element of “Equity Suite.”
Band Director Margaret Philbrick said, “Two of the movements are written in 6/8 and 7/8 time, which are considered to be ternary rhythms. Most of the rhythms that elementary and middle-school children play are considered to be duple meters. (2/4 time, 4/4 time) This has been especially challenging and rewarding for the kids. They are counting, feeling, and playing the special rhythms and time signatures well.
“The rewarding aspects of the Equity Suite include learning to play and learning about a composition written especially for your own group, your own personal instrument. Having this close of an attachment to a piece of music is a unique experience for a middle school age student. They have truly enjoyed playing the music and hearing it become a finished product.”
This multidisciplinary element makes “Equity Suite” special. Mr. Ferguson said, “What really disturbs me is this need to separate our various disciplines… this is a much more effective teaching platform.”
Mr. Ferguson said he believed this sort of project, or perhaps even this very piece, could be performed or replicated at other schools, and that the subject matter lends itself to a multidisciplinary approach.
“I would love to do this project with other schools around here,” he said.