Creating a SUPERSTAR!

Superstar orchestra piece cover art with unicorn and rainbow handdrawn
This was a unique project for me. Usually I begin a composition with some kind of a musical idea – this was more of a concept.

When I was teaching elementary orchestra, children would often ask, “why don’t we play (insert name of popular tune)”? I am not a fan of commercial music in general so my internal reaction to this was “the music we play is SO MUCH BETTER!” But, not wanting to crush the spirits of my young charges, I would say something like, “well, we’re not ready to play that yet, but maybe in the future you’ll be able to play something like that (like when I am not your teacher anymore).” But I could not deny the motivation that pop music represented for these youngsters.

In my defense, most kids in their second year of playing really aren’t ready for the rhythmic complexity of pop music, but this was not my main reason for not wanting to work on it with them. There is a whole copyright issue where if I make an arrangement of someone else’s work for my own ensemble, that’s illegal. Not to mention that I don’t want to spend my own time arranging someone else’s work.

So I figure I am a composer, so I will compose my way out of this problem. I can write a tune that sounds like a pop tune, something catchy and upbeat, and include a level of rhythmic complexity and melodic interest that is appropriate for my students’ ability level and my sanity.

Of course a pop song has to be about something. I conversed with children on the topic over the course of several weeks, noting cultural and fashion trends, and together we came up with the title: Happy Sparkle Unicorn.

Starting with the title, I wrote a piece that is first and foremost designed to be a piece that is an appropriate challenge for 2nd year orchestra students, while pretty much constraining myself to the conventions of a pop song. Technically within reach and fun to play (for all the sections).

The element that’s missing from this, of course is the “popular” part of pop music – part of the reason it’s fun is because you are playing a song that everyone knows (and probably that your parents don’t like). I needed a solution for this as well.

I wrote words to my freshly-minted pop song and made a recording of it using typical pop music instrumentation. I even made it sufficiently annoying so that parents would hold it in a certain disdain. The kids helped me make a music video by creating illustrations, we slapped it up on YouTube and then they began sharing the song with their friends. For the better part of the school year, we worked as an orchestra to get the word out about our Happy Sparkle Unicorn video, and became YouTube famous.

At the concert, we had one of those moments that you have at a concert when your favorite band, starts their favorite song. After a few measures of the intro, the crowd recognizes the song and gives a little roar of acknowledgement and excitement. We know this song! We love this song! It was a thrill for the performers and audience alike.

So how come the piece is called SUPERSTAR! now? Funny you should ask…

Well, my publisher loved the piece but was afraid the title would be off-putting to young boys. In fairness, there was one boy in my orchestra who was quite vocal in his dislike of the piece, primarily because of its subject matter. “Sometimes we have to play music we don’t like,” I told him. “Little kids love this stuff. Do if for the kids,” I told him. He was ok. But by and large, this piece was loved by boys and girls in both of my orchestras. At the end of the day, however, I had to change the name for publication.

So when you receive your copy of Happy Sparkle Unicorn, under the marketing code name, SUPERSTAR!, do me a favor. Take your sharpie, cross out the title and write the original one in its place. Just like a a real unicorn – difficult to find but it’s there if you know where to look 😉

Here’s a link to my YouTube video on the topic:

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