Chickasaw composer helps kids hear own music

By Judy Gibbs Robinson Published: June 19, 2006
ADA - Classical composer Jerod Tate was 23 when he wrote his first note of music, but he is making sure other American Indian children get started earlier.

The Norman native, whose work has been performed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, set aside his commissions and spent the last two weeks helping children as young as 12 compose music for string quartet.

“One of the best things that’s happened in my life is teaching Indian kids,” Tate said between classes at the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy at East Central University.

Tate, who is Chickasaw, makes no apologies for the American Indian feel he brings to his music with haunting flutes and rhythmic drumbeats, and he encourages students to do the same.

“I’m an Indian, and that’s it. I have no interest in creating music that sounds like a Russian or that sounds like a South American,” Tate said.

Some students follow his lead, adding drums and shakers to their compositions for string quartet.

“I put it out on the table and some grab it and some don’t,” he said.

Tate was a graduate student studying piano composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music when he stumbled into composing and found himself.

His Chickasaw father - Carter County Special Judge Charles Tate - is a classical pianist, and Tate was headed down the same path.

“Growing up, my Indianness and my classicalness were completely separate. I never had any vision whatsoever that they had anything to do with each other,” Tate said.

His non-Indian mother, then a dance professor at the University of Wyoming, asked him to write a ballet that told stories from the Northern Plains tribes of the region. At first, Tate refused.

“I was just a pianist playing Beethoven. I didn’t know I could compose,” he said. A year later, a professional dance company was touring with his ballet, “Winter Moons,” and two years later, a Philip Morris grant allowed Tate to professionally record it.

“Who gets an actual ballet that’s performed with a ballet company for their first? That was a pretty significant event,” he said.

Now, he juggles commissions with private piano lessons from his home in Longmont, Colo. He teaches composition four weeks each summer at the Grand Canyon Music Festival in Arizona and the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy. has disabled the comments for this article.

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