Very Young Composers celebrating 10 years of growing music in the Vail Valley |

Very Young Composers celebrating 10 years of growing music in the Vail Valley

Baeden Marott listens to his piece, "Hide and Go Score," conducted by composer Jon Deak and performed by members of the New York Philharmonic.
Chris Dillmann | |

If You Go

What: Very Young Composers concert

Where: Vail Public Library

When: 1 p.m. Friday, today

Cost: Free

Information: Very Young Composers is children composing music that’s performed by members of the New York Philharmonic and regional musicians.

VAIL — Jon Deak is one of the world’s most accomplished musicians and composers. He’s tall, which was handy during his 40-year career as principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic. Still, he has never stood as tall as when he bends to help children compose music.

Deak founded Very Young Composers 20 years ago and brought it to Vail 10 years ago with the New York Philharmonic’s summer residency. It’s presented by the Vail Valley Foundation’s YouthPower365. The program is now in scores of cities and a dozen countries. Deak travels to them all, paying attention to each child.

Mark Twain explained it succinctly: “The truly great make you believe that you too can become great.” Deak has that to his very marrow, and he passes it along to thousands of kids all over the globe. The past couple weeks he has been in the valley.

“We make a big effort to make the point that all children are basically creative. As Picasso said, ‘All children are born artists. The problem is remaining one,’” Deak said. “We’re not necessarily looking for the next Mozart. We are looking for the average bright kid that most kids are.”

Really young composers

The Very Young Composers really are very young. The program begins in third grade.

Every kid composes a piece. The compositions tend to be short, like the composers.

They start with a story. Kids don’t have to know how play an instrument or read music. They just have to have a story they want to tell.

“They can sing it, hum it, play it on their smart phone. … It doesn’t matter,” said Conrad Kehn, with Denver’s Playground Ensemble.

An instrument demonstration gives them an idea what instrument sounds like which part of their story. Along the way Deak, Kehn, Jessica Mays from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a handful of musicians from the New York Philharmonic, a couple musicians from the region and a heavenly host of others help the kids turn their stories into music.

“It’s a little labor intensive, but then what isn’t?” Deak said.

Musical self portrait

In traveling the world doing this, Deak has learned that music relates to the language kids speak and the culture from which they come. Girls tend to evoke emotions. Boys tend toward action.

“It’s like a self portrait of the child, what they think of themselves,” Deak explains.

He thought for a second and decided that, like most generalities this one was a little too general. A couple weeks ago a 12 year old boy in Shanghai, China, wrote a deeply emotional piece about family that made even Deak shed a tear, and he’s heard thousands of compositions in the 20 years he has been doing this.

Jeanelle Chavez, 13, wrote “Exposed,” about teenagers and others who are ready to take their place in the spotlight and show what they can do.

She got the idea from observing one of her family members who came from Mexico, who didn’t have the chance to go to high school. Now he owns his own construction company. Alex Chavez, her dad, own A.C. Construction, she said proudly.

“He has done really well,” she said.

“When I came in I was pretty nervous because I’d had input from a lot of my friends, and I wanted that to come out in the music,” Chavez said.

“Does it sound like what you had flying around in your head when you started?” she was asked.

“Surprisingly, yes,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly what it was going to sound like, but when I heard it I liked it a lot.”

Ulises Loera wears cochlear implants. He knows all about Beethoven. He worked with Jared Casas to write an outstanding piece depicting Bilbo Baggins slaying an orc.

The sound of music

During Wednesday afternoon’s dress rehearsal, this summer’s Very Young Composers heard their music performed for the first time as they stood before Elizabeth Sadilek-Labenski, a Vail Valley resident playing flute; Jason Rodon, a percussionist from Breckenridge; Peter Kenote, who plays viola with the New York Philharmonic; and Howard Wall, who plays French horn with the New York Philharmonic,.

It’s remarkable to watch a 10 year old kid stop some of the world’s most accomplished musicians and say something along lines of, “You’re doing it wrong.”

“In terms of composing, the kid is the boss. It doesn’t matter if you know 100 times more about music, and you do. This is the child’s moment. All they need is empowerment,” Deak said.

The kids, bless their hearts, don’t realize who Deak is or who these musicians are.

“The people we bring in to play the kids’ pieces are champions of kids music. The players do whatever they’re asked to do,” Kehn said. “They have rehearsals all morning and concerts at night, and they’re still coming here to help us.”

“Composers in the late 20th century got too far removed from the audience. I wanted to refresh the repertoire. Kids have no notion of impressing anyone. They just want to have fun and express their inner thoughts. We spend a lot of time talking about what you feel,” Deak said.

He’ll occasionally play a diminished chord and ask, “How does that make you feel?” To a kid, a two-chord progression might sound like buzzing bees, or like his sister when she’s mad at him.

“As a child with a paint brush, what comes out, comes out,” Deak said.

Occasionally frustration comes out when a kid says, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t care.”

“Then we won’t write anything there,” they’ll tell the kid.

“OH NO NO! It’s the flute. The flute needs to sound like a fuzzy cat!”

And it does.

Born in Colorado

Deak launched Very Young Composers with a few kids in a single classroom when he was in Denver as Composer in Residence with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. He was trying to answer the question, “What is children’s music?” He decided to ask children.

“We know what children’s art is, what children’s dance is, children paying the violin, but what is children’s music? Deak said. “That was a question none of us knew. It was not ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm.’ That was written by adults for kids.”

Multiple motivations came together, he said.

“As a member of the New York Philharmonic for 40 years, and a composer for the Philharmonic on many occasions, I felt such gratitude to be able to spend my career with such an orchestra that I knew it was time to pay back. As a composer I was always looking for the new music.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

Support Local Journalism