Composing music

Lindsay Armstrong and Talea Shupe create original musical suites (2017 senior projects, part 4)

This six-part series highlights academic projects completed by Walla Walla University students during their senior year.

On a cool afternoon on Feb. 12, 2017, original musical suites composed by Walla Walla University students Lindsay Armstrong and Talea Shupe were performed at Chism Recital Hall on the Whitman College campus. The performances were part of Whitman’s Winter Composers Concert, which featured students of John David Earnest, professor of music composition at Whitman.

Armstrong and Shupe had both taken a composition class from Earnest during fall semester. They were able to take the class for transfer credit at WWU as a result of the two schools’ reciprocal agreement, which gives students at either school the opportunity to take classes at the other university if those classes are not offered on their campus or if there is a scheduling conflict.

During the class, both students met weekly with Earnest for private composition lessons where they received suggestions for improvement of their work. The entire class also gathered weekly to present their progress, share ideas, and give each other feedback.

"A Suite of Toys"
When asked to describe the development of her composition, “A Suite of Toys: I. Soldiers, II. Teddy Bear, III. Spinning Top,” Armstrong, a 2017 graduate with a bachelor of music degree, major in music performance, says it is a difficult process to describe since it is so dynamic. She began by choosing a subject—toys—which she selected because she wanted to compose a fun and lighthearted suite. Next, she brainstormed her instrumentation (cello and piano) and titles for each movement.

“The goal of this piece,” Armstrong says, “[was] to remind the listener of their childhood playtime, as each movement is designed to create a sound picture of the respective toy as if it were coming to life in a child’s imagination. The first movement (Soldiers) is a light and bouncy march, as I think the drumbeat for a small army of toy soldiers would be. The second movement (Teddy Bear) is lazy and silky to mimic the clumsy movements of a teddy bear as he drifts in and out of sleep. The third movement (Spinning Top) is ominous and mysterious as the top wobbles back and forth and finally crashes in a dramatic flourish at the end.”

Once she had these ideas on paper, Armstrong worked with a music notation program on a computer to compose her melodies, fill in harmonies, and tweak until she liked the sound. After that, she worked with her performers—Justin Chung, a senior, major in business administration, and Alisha Paulson, a 2017 graduate with a bachelor of science degree, major in elementary education—to ensure the pieces were “playable and still sounded good on live instruments.”

"Aviary Suite"
Shupe, a senior, major in music education, describes a similar composition process. However, she says one unique approach she took was to analyze the form of Dvorak’s melody from the second movement of his “New World Symphony” for inspiration in crafting her own melodies. In composing her piece for two flutes, entitled “Aviary Suite: I. Hunt of the Hawk, II. Morning Swans, III. Hummingbirds,” Shupe followed in the footsteps of other great composers, such as Saint-Saens, Vivaldi, and Prokofiev, who each scored flute music to depict birds.

The first movement, which portrays a hawk hunting for its prey, begins with low eerie notes that rise, accelerate, and intensify when the hawk spots its prey and ends with urgent chromatic scales as the hawk swoops downward. The second movement, which depicts swans gliding across a pond in the early morning hours, is a much slower and more melodic movement that varies the main theme—presented in an initial flute solo—through different articulations, rhythms, and styles. The final movement, which depicts hummingbirds, passes the “motive” from one flute to the other to represent the “rapid, distracted movements and flight patterns of hummingbirds.” Shupe describes the movement as “short, busy and entertaining—fitting for hummingbirds and also a nice contrast from the first two movements of my composition to conclude this work.”

When her piece was performed in February by WWU students Giovanna Girotto, a junior, major in mathematics, and Lori James, a 2017 graduate with a bachelor of science degree, major in industrial design, Shupe says she felt both exhilarated and extremely nervous about how her piece would be received. Ultimately, she says the experience of hearing her music actually performed and treated like a real piece of music was very special. “Seeing all my hard work culminate in those 10 minutes was extremely rewarding and definitely worth all the work,” says Shupe. Armstrong describes similar feelings of nervousness and exhilaration when hearing her work performed at the concert. “I couldn’t calm down until about an hour after the concert was over,” Armstrong says, “yet I was so proud of my musicians and myself for working so hard to pull it together.”

Both Shupe and Armstrong have plans to continue studying music. Shupe, who will graduate in 2018, would like to continue composing (she took Earnest’s composition class again during spring semester) and wants to share her passion for music in the lives of others as a music teacher. Armstrong will assist with choir conducting at WWU while Kraig Scott, WWU professor of music, is on sabbatical during the 2017-18 school year. The following year, she plans to pursue voice performance and pedagogy at graduate school working toward her ultimate goal of teaching voice and choir at the collegiate level.

Posted Aug. 14, 2017

Professional portrait of Lindsay Armstrong.
Lindsay Armstrong, 2017 graduate with a bachelor of music degree, major in music performance, composed “A Suite of Toys: I. Soldiers, II. Teddy Bear, III. Spinning Top.”
Professional portrait of Talea Shupe.
Talea Shupe, a senior, major in music education, composed “Aviary Suite: I. Hunt of the Hawk, II. Morning Swans, III. Hummingbirds.”