Harding High School choir part of Mexican composer residency
Students helped compose new song to be premiered at Ordway
On a recent Wednesday, the Chamber Choir at Harding High School began class with a series of warm ups before getting to work for the day, practicing an original song they helped compose.
The 20-student choir is participating in a program called ¡Cantaré!, It’s a Mexican composer residency program organized by the choral group VocalEssence.
The program pairs a Mexican composer with students and they work together to compose and sing a new work, with the composer writing the piece specifically for the choir.
The program culminates with a concert at the Ordway in May.
The creative process
The choir at Harding has been working with composer Pablo Mendoza Halliday, a doctoral student studying musicology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Halliday brings not only a Mexican influence but also touches from his South American origins to his work.
The composition process began in October when Halliday visited the choir, teaching them some traditional Colombian songs and brainstorming themes with the students, while figuring out their skill levels. After that, he returned to Mexico and wrote the new music for the choir.
Halliday’s composition is called “Canción ligera.” Its lyrics come from a poem of the same name written by Colombian poet Porfirio Barba Jacob.
The poem talks about how some experiences and feelings can only be expressed through poetry, and how poetry is an important part of the human experience.
He composed five other new works for various school choirs in the metro area.
Halliday said it’s been great working with the Harding students because not only are they able to learn new, unperformed music, but they are excited to learn and work with him through the creative process.
“For me to share the experience of creating new music with them is also great,” he said.
Practice makes perfect
The students have been practicing the song since early February, working line by line to perfect the melody before tackling the lyrics, which are in Spanish.
The piece is a unique challenge for the students because there’s no recording of it for them to listen to — it’s an original work. The new language and rhythm of the song are a challenge too, but the students are up for it.
“It’s a very challenging song but I am very confident they can do it very good,” Halliday said.
Harding High School choir director Natalia Romero said that despite the challenge, the students have been great.
“They’re treating it like professionals and I think it’s just a really good growing experience for them to do that,” she said, adding that it’s not just the song that’s an important part of the experience, but also the multicultural aspect.
Romero is Colombian, so she and Halliday often greet each other in typical Colombian fashion — dos besos and a greeting in Spanish. She said for such a diverse class filled with many languages and many different backgrounds, it’s important for students to see her being multilingual like them.
“It’s been really interesting,” said Romero. “I think it’s been empowering for students to get a voice in what they’re saying.”
Melanie Viniegra, one of the choir members, said she was really excited about the project, explaining the song “feels really personal” and she loves that the class is working on something they can call their own.
John Nguyen, an 11th-grader in the choir, said it’s been fun to learn a new language through the song and to interact with Halliday. He said he’s also enjoyed learning more about being a musician and a composer.
Many of the students said the choir group feels like a second family to them, so to work through this unique experience has been extra meaningful as they encourage each other and practice together.
“It’s an amazing experience,” said Phillip Thao, a senior in the choir.
The students’ hard work will be on display May 21 at the Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul. All of the works created during this year’s ¡Cantaré! program will be performed during the free concert. Tickets for the event can be found at the Mexican Consulate, Neighborhood House and at the Ordway.
-Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at email@example.com.