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The Native American Composer Apprentice Project

The Grand Canyon Music Festival, under the artistic direction of Clare Hoffman, held its 25th year season at the Shrine of the Ages, South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, from Sept. 5 – 21 last year.

For the eighth year, the festival hosted the Native American Composers Apprentice Project. This project brings high school students from Hopi and Navajo schools to participate in a three-week composition tutorial. During this time, students are coached by a Native American composer. They learned how to develop music for a string quartet; how to notate it; and finally, how to work with a live string quartet as their music is transferred from their minds to live instruments and professional musicians.

Since 2004, the composer-in-residence has been Raven Chacon, himself a Navajo from Chinle, Ariz. He is one of the few American Indian composers working in the world today. Chacon has recorded many works for classical and electronic instruments and ensembles and has had many performances and exhibits of his work across the country. He is a member of the First Nations Composers Initiative, a collective of composers and musicians working to progress the education and works of Native composers.

Chacon assisted each of the 25 high school students to realize their musical ideas to a final composition of two minutes each. He asked that each participant be able to read music. One of his earlier participants, Michael Begay, helped him this year as composer assistant.

The string quartet, ETHEL, worked with the student composers to refine their musical ideas. The quartet consists of four Juilliard trained classical musicians including, Cornelius Dufallo, violin; Ralph Farris, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello and Mary Rowell, violin. Its repertory includes rock, blues, classical, jazz and other popular genres to create a sound that defies categorization.

After the pieces had been heard in workshop performance, ETHEL performed the students’ works at a number of schools; performances that are important for peer review.

The world premiere performance of the students’ works happened Sept. 14 at the Grand Canyon Community Building, in Grand Canyon, Ariz.

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After the performance, each participant received a portfolio of their work, including a professionally copied score and professionally recorded CD.

“I see the students work with their creativity; they discover in the process an ability to use their talents,” Rowell said.

Chacon said the parents are enthusiastic to see their children’s works performed. Right now, many of the students are avid guitar players and fans of heavy metal. This experience helped them work out their musical ideas for four-part instrumental voices. He also said the Navajo Nation has a rich musical tradition which can be expressed in non-traditional instruments.

Farris has participated with the project for four years. He noticed that the composition this year showed more complexity, more depth. He sees the students building a community for themselves as musicians. Some of them anticipate majoring in music in college. He noted that ETHEL has performed some of the students’ compositions in Holland and Germany. He wished each one of them could hear the applause from those performances.

Eric Swanson, music teacher from Chinle High School, asked the students to keep journals of their progress. At first, many students had apprehensions about whether their piece would make sense to any one else. Little by little, they found ways to notate their musical ideas.

Several students participated in a hike in the Grand Canyon conducted by Tom Riggenbach, executive director of the Navajo Y.E.S. Program. This organization provides outdoor and culturally-enriching activities through all seasons across the reservation.

Claire Hoffman, artistic director of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, secured grants from many sources for this program including the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music of America, Arizona Commission on the Arts, and the Utah Arts Council, among others. If other tribal areas are interested in developing a program for their youth, they may contact Hoffman at