Very Young Composers

Very Young Composers: A New York Philharmonic Program for Young Musicians Around the World
by Jon Deak, founder/director, VYC

Projeto Guri, São Paulo, Brazil: “Eu Sou Compositor!” (I am a composer!) photo credit: João Alvés

The  Very Young Composers (VYC)  program takes much of its inspiration from El Sistema. I initiated and piloted this program in Denver with the Colorado Symphony in 1995–97, with the blessing of Deborah Borda, who was then executive director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The VYC has been a part of the New York Philharmonic ever since.

Very Young Composers is founded on the belief that all children are creative, and that our youngest generation, starting from the age of 9 or 10, should be listened to and empowered to compose, and can affect and refresh the repertoire of the symphony orchestra and beyond.

The international implications of VYC became clearer to me upon my first contacts with the El Sistema community, encouraged by Gustavo Dudamel and by Sistema advocate Dani Bedoni. Through this interaction, I learned that kids anywhere could not only play great music, but also  create music for professional ensembles, unedited, with only notational help, creative play, and encouragement.

The key to the method is having a trained teaching (TA) artist acting as an intermediary, scribe, and cheerleader. The teaching artist doesn’t edit the children’s evolving works; rather, the T.A. curates their works—i.e., instead of saying “Why don’t you repeat that phrase an octave higher?” a T.A. might say, “Remember that the French horn isn’t able to play that note.” What is paramount in the VYC is that the child’s voice is heard, unedited, “untaught,” and unjudged. Only then can we hear what the child wants to say.

We have taken Very Young Composers to many countries across the world. In São Paulo, Brazil, for example, I found a local music teacher, João Alvés, who was willing to apply basic VYC techniques in working with several music students under his tutelage. One student, an 11-year-old flutist, was able to write a brief orchestral piece for flute, orchestrating it herself. Although obviously musical, she was not what one would call a prodigy; she was just willing to do the work. When I conducted her piece with the São Paulo Youth Orchestra in concert, she was so shy that she almost couldn’t bring herself to stand up in front of the orchestra. But in a concert that included such masterpieces as works by Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, her little piece, which featured a beautiful, melodic solo for flute and a blistering Brazilian percussion accompaniment, was the work that brought the house down.

Why? Because her music spoke clearly, and she was one of theirs.

Another example of the freshness of children and the flexibility of their creativity might be offered by these two wildly contrasting VYC affiliates in China and in Colorado, where I worked this past summer. The Chinese kids, rigorously selected and many with absolute pitch and high-level training, still benefitted from getting down on the floor, having fun, and getting away from academia’s “right” way of composing. Wow, the results!! Back in the U.S., in Eagle County, Colorado, the kids had little or no musical training—but they still came up with wonderful, inventive music. There were seven 8-year-olds in the class of 30 kids, and they were some of the least inhibited, most spectacularly creative of all.

Our home base is New York City, and the Philharmonic is our driving force and the site of most of our activities. It is here that we are able to nurture the development and witness the remarkable trajectory of our students as they start VYC in grade schools, graduate into the “Composers Bridge” (middle school programs), and sometimes even return to join the faculty. Of our 12 Teaching Artist interns this year, ten are graduates of the VYC program. We learned about this effect from Maestro Abreu, who called it “la cascada”–a veritable cascade of graduates returning to help the youngest ones.

Our impact is being felt both locally and worldwide. In the last two seasons, the Philharmonic’s annual Concerts in the Parks have featured works composed and orchestrated by 10- and 11-year-olds, which were heard by over 100,000 New Yorkers, cheered wildly, and celebrated in the media.

In the process of growing the VYC, we have learned some profound lessons: that all children are creative; that their creativity can meet the need for refreshment of the repertoire; and that audiences are always receptive and responsive to the work of very young composers. Our students, born in this century, will be carrying an unprecedented burden to become intelligent leaders; there is no more effective means of empowering young people to perform complex decision-making than through practicing the act of musical composition.

One of the first things I learned about  El Sistema was Maestro José Antonio Abreu’s love and ability to care for an entire generation of young people in his country, and eventually the world.   Inspired by his example, we aim to advocate for the idea that composing and performing go naturally hand in hand, benefitting each other, and that composing should be included in all school music programs across the United States and beyond.


Students, interns, and teaching artists in VYC program, Shanghai, China
photo credit: Charlie Shen


VYC class at PS 19, Queens, New York City, with teaching artist Laura Andél (on right)
photo credit: Jessica Mays

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