Connecting through composition: Students receive musical guidance from living composer


Meg Byrne

Pleasant Valley chamber choir students gather around composer, Dr. Eric Barnum, to ask questions regarding his career and to gain perspective on the meaning behind his choral piece, “The Sounding Sea.”

Anna Thorne, Arts & Entertainment Editor

The Pleasant Valley choral department has always been an esteemed program, and choral director Meg Byrne has led in fostering an environment for success and development. As a result of her desire to provide immense opportunities, she reached out to an experienced composer to provide guidance. 

Byrne is the director of chamber choir, which is the top choir in the high school. Often the selections of music for this choir are of a challenging genre, and many require significant preparation and collaboration.

Chamber choir prepared countless pieces and performed them in the state large group festival on May 8. At this festival, each choir was evaluated by experienced judges on their technique, tonal quality, delivery of the material and more.

One of the pieces prepared by chamber choir, “The Sounding Sea,” was composed by Dr. Eric Barnum. He is the Director of Choral Activities at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and is highly respected in the world of choral music. 

Byrne reached out to Barnum with hopes that chamber choir could develop a sound which allowed them to perform to their highest potential at the state large group festival. 

“I’ve been programming Eric’s music for around 10-15 years. When he came to Drake University in 2019, I knew I wanted to bring him to Pleasant Valley as a clinician,” Byrne explained. “Also, if I programmed something by him, it would create a cool ‘Meet the Composer’ opportunity for our students.”

Byrne’s intention for this interaction was to allow her students to gain knowledge, discover a new sound from Barnum’s perspective and inevitably learn to dive deeper into music. 

When Barnum agreed to visit PV in order to provide insight into the meaning of “The Sounding Sea,” Byrne was excited to see these hopes come to life. 

The opportunity to sing a choral piece for its composer was a unique experience for many of the chamber choir members, and the takeaway was one of great impact. Barnum’s extensive knowledge and confidence within the field helped to provide guidance in areas where students were unfamiliar.

Junior Alyse Zuiderveen has been a part of chamber choir since her sophomore year, and she felt particularly grateful for the chance to receive feedback from Barnum. 

“I have had the opportunity to take part in various camps and activities over the years with choirs, but I haven’t had the opportunity to have a living composer come in and help my group work on a song that that composer wrote,” Zuiderveen relfected. “This is incredibly special, as it allows for us to adapt in the moment to how a composer thinks their song should be done.”

Zuiderveen reflected on the significance of this experience, and although she has been involved in choir for a majority of her life, she found uniqueness within Barnum’s approach to composition and teaching. 

Barnum emphasized his writing process for “The Sounding Sea,” and when explaining his inspiration behind it, he took each student through the creative folds of his mind. He explained its significance to the ocean, the rise and fall of the waves, the serenity of the calm and the connection to his wife.

Discovering the meaning behind a piece of music can often allow for a deeper understanding, therefore fostering the possibility for emotional connections. Zuiderveen appreciated this conversation and felt it had a great deal of impact on her takeaway of the meeting with Barnum as a whole. 

“His story behind why he made the musical choices he did truly allowed for us to start visualizing what was going on in our song. Our piece focuses on aspects of the sea, and being able to picture our voices as the waves or as the person pulling their loved ones close as they watch the beauty of the sea has truly helped,” Zuiderveen explained. “It allowed us to be more intentional with our stylistic choices and it helped us with our overall sound.” 

This experience was beneficial for many students. Byrne had hoped this day would expand the knowledge of her students and was pleased with the impact it had.

“Our singers gained a lot of his perspective through that meeting. Many of the students also commented that they thought meeting the composer would be intimidating, but he was very approachable and down-to-earth, which made the connection even stronger,” Byrne explained.

“All musicians started out as student musicians, and hearing Eric talk about musical influences in video games, movies, and the nature around him, showed the students that the inspiration to create is everywhere and part of their everyday lives,” she continued. 

Students such as Zuiderveen felt Barnum was very mindful of the things chamber choir needed to improve, and they felt his critiques were very helpful in encouraging growth for their final performance. 

“As a result of Barnum coming in to help us, I believe we were able to make impactful changes to our work. These changes, in my opinion, helped us achieve the unanimous division one superior ratings that we got at the large group festival,” Zuiderveen explained. “Chamber choir was super grateful to receive these ratings and we are so thankful that Dr. Barnum provided guidance to us as we worked towards our performances.”

For Byrne and her students, Barnum created an atmosphere around music which emphasized expression and emotion. Because of this, Barnum’s intent behind “The Sounding Sea” was successfully portrayed through chamber choirs interpretation of his work.