Sparking Creativity: ACO’s 2020-21 Education Programs

By Lyndsay Werking, ACO Development Director

What a school year this has been! Remote learning, in-person classes with masks and social distancing, and hybrid learning models all became part of student’s everyday lives. Every student and family had a different experience based on their school district – and had to be prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice. 

In partnership with students, families, and schools, ACO and our teaching artists have adjusted nimbly to the ever-changing landscape, continuing to provide educational opportunities for creative expression at a time when they were needed most. When New York City schools closed in March 2020, we adjusted our in-person classes to continue via remote learning on Zoom, a practice we continued for the following year and beyond.  

In the 2020-21 season, ACO teaching artists engaged 250 students through three programs. Sonic Spark Ensembles, which provides instrumental and voice instruction for middle and high school students, placed eight teaching artists in three New York City public schools. Our two creativity-based programs, Compose Yourself! and Sonic Spark Lab, engaged students at five public schools, and others pursuing independent study in our tuition-based programs, to create original musical works. 

Compose Yourself! classes, taught by ACO’s Education Director Kevin James, teach composition to high school and college-age students who are interested in pursuing composition as an ongoing creative pursuit and professionally.  

Students like Abby Harris return to the program year after year to continue honing their skills.  

Abby came to ACO as a 13-year-old who couldn’t wait to get dive deeper into writing music. Following her first Summer Composers Intensive in 2018, she has returned to ACO’s Compose Yourself! class again and again. Abby’s recent piece, “Nature Trail” for viola and piano, has led to awards including Northeast Regional Winner and National Finalist at the National Federation of Music Clubs Composition Competition. 

Nature Trail by Abby Harris. Recorded January 2021 in ACO’s Compose Yourself! class

“I have been a student in Kevin’s class for the past four years,” says Abby. “It’s been so much fun to explore different aspects of music and composition in such an open and supportive environment. We explore all kinds of music without judgement, and Kevin leads my musical curiosity to places I would never have otherwise found.” 

Younger middle school students explore creativity in Sonic Spark Lab. Over 12 weeks, teaching artists guide students to use their curiosity to grow their imagination and to build an idea from just a spark to artistic realization.  

Halfway through the semester, students create mini projects. In Spring 2021, they were given the following prompt: create your own entrance music. Envisioning themselves being introduced at an event, they each created 30-60 second musical snippets that could accompany their walk onto a stage. Twelve-year-old Savannah Savas, interested in musical theater, created a song with piano and her own voice. 

Song by Savannah Savas. Created March 2021 in ACO’s Sonic Spark Lab class

Feedback is a core part of the creative process. As students share their projects, the teaching artist asks every student to complete the following sentence: This would be even cooler if ….  

Students each answer for their own project, and for their classmates’ mini projects. They are encouraged to let their minds wander and take suggestions to extreme and absurdist places. For example, “This would be even cooler if we were playing instruments on Mars for aliens.” 

For the final five weeks of the semester, students work on collaborative projects in teams of two or three. Team members decide on the concept of project.  Their project doesn’t have to be music or a song. It can be fashion design, website design, or anything else that catches their interest. 

In May 2021, Kendall Hollmon, age 12, and Liam O’Brien, age 10, jointly created a work using BandLab, a free online software that enables students to select sounds, manipulate them, and record their own melodies. Kendall and Liam created a “Lo Fi” project; a style of music in which elements often marked as imperfections of a recording or performance are intentionally used as an aesthetic choice. The piano music heard in their collaborative project is Kendall’s mini project from earlier in the semester.  

“Lo Fi” Project by Kendall Hollmon and Liam O’Brien. Created May 2021 in ACO’s Sonic Spark Lab class

ACO opens enrollment for Compose Yourself and Sonic Spark Lab three times per year. Do you know a middle or high school student who is bursting with ideas? Check out our classes now. 

If you would like to bring ACO’s classes to your New York City public school, music organization, or community center, please email us

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