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. Both draw American Indian students. “I don’t have any interest in teaching other kids,” Tate said. “I don’t mean that as any kind of a racist comment. I just love Indian kids like I love my family, and I want to focus on that.” Tate said music composition is rarely taught until college. “To be quite honest, it takes an enormous amount of brain work. It’s a brain fry to compose,” he said. Nevertheless, he believes children can, and should, start composing early. “People don’t expect children to sit down there and be brilliant, which they actually are,” he said. The trick with children is to start with a few instruments: “It’s not like you can go to an 80-piece orchestra” immediately, he said. At the two-week Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy, each student composed a three-minute piece, which a professional string quartet performed for them Thursday. Until then, the music existed only in the students’ heads. “They shock themselves with how well they did,” Tate said. Courtney Parchcorn, 16, titled her piece “Emo Childhood,” using the slang term for “emotional.” “It’s basically about my childhood,” Parchcorn said. “My first and second violin, I kind of just have a happy, mellow tune, while my cello and bass are kind of sad.” Parchcorn plays clarinet and piano and hopes to attend the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe when she graduates from Byng High School. Tate said not all his students are as talented, but all learn important lessons by composing music. “They get the essential life experience ... of having a vision of something you want to do, putting in the work to do it, and seeing it finalized. It’s start to finish,” Tate said. With the academy over, Tate will turn his attention to writing commissioned pieces, including one for the 2007 opening of the Chickasaw cultural center. “He’s really giving back a lot” to his tribe, said Lona Barrick, administrator of the Chickasaw Division of Arts and Humanities. That may come naturally to a man whose American Indian heritage fuels his creative work. “I’m an Indian composer. That’s it. End of story,” Tate said.
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Tate’s works Jerod Tate’s commissioned pieces include: “Iholba” for chamber orchestra, chorus and solo flute. Commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra. “Tracing Mississippi,” concerto for flute and orchestra. Commissioned by Christine Bailey, principal flute of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. “Worth of the Soul” for symphonic wind ensemble, chorus and narrator. Commissioned by Matthew Inkster of Mercyhurst College. “Itti’ Bo’li” for chorus and piano. Commissioned by The Dale Warland Singers. “Iyaaknasha” for double bass and orchestra. Commissioned by James VanDemark, double bass faculty, Eastman School of Music. “Diva Ojibway” operetta score. Commissioned by the Native Earth Performing Arts Society. Hear and see the National Symphony Orchestra perform Jerod Tate’s “Iholba” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.