Big Sky music students collaborate with world-renown composers

By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – In his role as a music educator, John Zirkle has found students are often deterred from playing and composing music because they’ve bought into the idea that they have to be flawless musicians before they can participate in its creation.

Zirkle believes that music can be taught and learned, just like any other subject or discipline. “It’s a craft that is kind of given to all of us,” he says.

The goal of HATCH Ostinato Project, an experimental music program developed this fall, is to empower students to create and enjoy music without the inhibitive barriers that can derail the creative process.

As participants of the pilot program, 29 Big Sky middle and high school music students are collaborating with composers and professional musicians to create a music production, which will be released – ideally to global reception – to generate funding for the school’s music program.

A 10-track album is almost complete and a spring concert is in the works just three months into the project.

Ostinato is an Italian word that means a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm. Russell Spurlock, one of the project’s founders, says this simple music concept helped him demonstrate to students how easy it is to create music on their own.

“What [Ostinato Project] ultimately does is it empowers young kids who aren’t necessarily skillful musicians … to feel like they have control over something beautiful,” Zirkle said.

The idea was developed at a four-day HATCH conference held in Big Sky in September. HATCH is an invite-only conference where creative types from around the world gather to network and “catalyze creativity to hatch a better world,” according to the organization’s website.

Project founders include HATCH director Yarrow Kraner; Philip Sheppard, a cellist, composer and producer who has worked with Grammy-nominated musicians like The Weeknd and Queens of the Stone Age; Spurlock, a television and film composer; and Zirkle, the artistic director of Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and Big Sky School District’s music teacher.

Sheppard recently played for the opening of the global climate change summit with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in attendance. And one of the tracks Spurlock developed with Big Sky’s music students is slated to appear in a reality television show in 2016.

“To have that type of exposure to those artists here in Big Sky is phenomenal,” said Ania Bulis, whose sixth-grade daughter is participating in the program.

In the first stage of the project, Zirkle gave his music students a time-restricted prompt, telling his students to, “turn the tones from the last four digits of your phone number into a melody,” for instance. They went to work creating a simple a music idea and voted on the most compelling melody. Zirkle then shared the melody online with Sheppard and Spurlock, who are based in London and Los Angeles, respectively.

In the next stage of the project, Sheppard and Spurlock built upon the melody, shaping the arrangement and adding layers. They sent a sound file back to Zirkle, who led his students in a critique of the track as they continued the collaboration – reshaping and refining it.

They repeated this process with nine more tracks and they’re on pace to release a full album on iTunes and Google Play in early 2016.

“We get to be the pilot project because we’re in a small school system with open-minded administration, and a bunch of kids and parents who are willing to do it,” Zirkle said, adding that generating money for BSSD’s music program is not the primary motivation behind Ostinato, but he’s impressed with the project’s success.

Zirkle said the Ostinato Project could have a powerful impact on other music programs around the U.S., particularly those that are isolated, underserved or in jeopardy of being cut.

“We’re working toward developing other relationships with schools in L.A.,” Kraner said of the program’s expansion, adding that the Ostinato model could work well with other creative applications like writing and film.

“The idea that there’s a self-funding mechanism for a creativity education platform is something that I’m extremely intrigued by,” he said. “I’m confident that once this platform is built out we’re going to be able to utilize it for other models.”

The engagement and ownership behind the project is evident – students’ parents have noticed how energized their children are by the project’s unconventional approach to music education.

“They’re not just experiencing music, they’re creating it,” Bulis said. “At home I see [my daughter Olivia] sitting on the floor listening to these various chords, trying to figure out what comes next in the creation of music.”

The composers have benefited from the collaboration, too.

“This is the first project I’ve ever worked on where the momentum just immediately built on its own very, very quickly,” Spurlock said.

The support of Soundtrap – an online collaborative music software company based in Sweden and an official partner of Ostinato Project – will help its founders build the platform to a global scale. This October, the premise, and promise, of Ostinato Project was presented to 1,000 educators at the EdTech Global Summit featuring Google for Education.

On Dec. 8, Zirkle received approval from the provost of Montana State University to start the “Last Chair Program.” In addition to other projects with BSSD and WMPAC, the funding made available by the Last Chair Program – nearly $85,000 – will enable BSSD’s music department to bring the Ostinato Project to life in a concert with MSU students, as well as professional musicians. The concert is slated for this spring.

Zirkle says the Ostinato Project has generated a deep shift in his understanding of music education.

“It’s more than learning about notes,” he said. “Music education is expressing ideas in musical ways.”