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North Neighborhoods
Chamber orchestra performs pupil's composition

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

By ErinMarie McKinney

When the City Music Center Chamber Orchestra came to Shaler Area Intermediate School Dec. 7, it elected to feature a new musical piece.

Last year, at age 12, Sarah Patnesky wrote a piece for three saxophones as a class project. She got to hear it in a public performance earlier this month. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Pittsburgh composer R. James Whipple called the piece "fresh," "contemporary," "confident" and "delightful."

But the music wasn't Whipple's -- it was written by Sarah Patnesky, a pupil at the school.

"I was really surprised," Patnesky said of the honor. "I didn't expect my piece to be picked."

But it was, giving her a unique opportunity to hear it performed in public by the orchestra, a select group of young musicians from the region. Duquesne University's City Music Center offers instruction to all interested local musicians.

Patnesky, 13, wrote the three-part melodic piece for the saxophone when she was 12.

Patnesky and other Shaler Area pupils took part in something called the New Residency program, which brought local composers, including Whipple, to the school to work with musically gifted youngsters. The program is run by Meet the Composer, a national service organization based in New York.

The Pittsburgh New Residency is one of 15 such programs working in communities nationwide, funded by the Heinz Endowments, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Pittsburgh New Residency is supporting the work of Whipple and fellow Pittsburgh composer Efrain Amaya with four organizations: Gateway to the Arts, Renaissance City Winds, WQED and the Shaler Area School District.

Whipple and Amaya write music, coach professional performers and suggest contemporary repertoire, and create music and interview segments for classical station WQED-FM.

They also teach students basic composition and guide them in writing melodies and musical works.

Whipple, 52, guided Patnesky in writing her piece, which was her final project in the program in the spring. He finalized the orchestration and post-production of her composition.

"The flow of the piece was entirely hers," said Whipple, who also plays the bassoon with the Renaissance City Winds. "I only added a two-measure introduction and a tag at the end."

He described Patnesky's composition as "very 20th century." "It was delightful," he said. "It was very fresh and contemporary. You would never have guessed it was written by a 12-year-old," which was her age when she wrote it. "The piece is very confident. It makes a definite statement and it has character," he added.

Patnesky said she enjoyed composing and working with Whipple.

"He understood that we were new at this," she said. "He made it fun. I liked working on the saxophone and trying different things."

Music runs in Patnesky's family. Her father, Jim Patnesky, has a degree in music education from West Virginia University. He taught his daughter the piano when she was in the first grade and introduced her to the saxophone when she was 10.

"It's my favorite instrument," Sarah Patnesky said. "It's a woodwind, but it's made of brass and I love to play it."

Her mother, Roberta Patnesky, described herself as nonmusical, but her 10-year-old son Jimmy began piano in kindergarten and began playing trumpet this year.

The Patneskys were surprised when they heard of their daughter's honor. "We're very proud of her," Roberta Patnesky said. "I still don't think she fully realizes what a great honor she has been given."

Her daughter agreed. "I guess I'm still pretty young," she said. "I don't really understand what this means but I've been told it will be great for getting into a college and for my future."

Next year, Patnesky, who will be a freshman, will get the chance to join the Shaler Area High School marching band. "I've heard it's a lot of fun," she said. "I think it will be something really good for me to do."

After high school, Patnesky plans to go to college and study to become a teacher. "I'd like to teach fourth grade," she said. "Hopefully, they'll be at an age where they will listen. My brother is in fourth grade, and he's fun."

Whipple said working with Patnesky and the other students was a wonderful experience.

"I hadn't worked with kids that young before," he said. "It was great to work with them, and it was interesting to see their ideas.

"A lot of students don't know how interesting their ideas can be. That's why we have professional musicians play them so the students can see how they will really sound. It's exciting for them."

Whipple said the New Residency program helps students realize that anyone can become a composer.

"A composer is not just someone who lived 300 years ago and wrote beautiful music," he said. "It might be someone behind you in the grocery store or your neighbor.

"This program makes the idea of composing a little more visible and meaningful for the students."


ErinMarie McKinney is a free-lance writer.

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