Little Opera blog

Composing in the kiddie pool

How does one go about writing music?

The more I consider the question, the more clueless I realize I am. There are so many factors that come into play, from the macrocosmic (What am I writing about? How will the end result be performed? By whom?) to the microscopic (What note should this be? What was the note before it? Do I need to re-write all the other notes in order for this one note work?) — to make matters worse, there is almost no consistent order in which these decisions are made. Every piece of music requires a different order of operations, a different flow of creation all its own.

So how does one even begin to introduce a complex, multifaceted process like composing to a group of 2nd and 3rd graders? My teaching partner Eva and I were discussing this the other day as I was preparing to compose an insane amount of recitatives with our youngest group, the Humperdincks. Each recitative involved a good page of text. No meter, no overt rhyme scheme – just lots and lots of dialogue. We asked ourselves: Is it really reasonable to throw these poor kids off the high dive and compose all these pieces from the ground up?

A year or two ago, I would have answered “yes! Why shouldn’t kids experience how messy and non-linear the composition process can be?” – but now, I’m not so sure. Why can’t composing be broken down and simplified? Why shouldn’t composing be less of a chore and more like a game?

It occurred to us that this activity could be split into pieces that are in themselves simpler worlds of discovery. Perhaps it’s a little like the kiddie pool. Sure, swimming in shallow water is not the most rigorous workout – but it introduces your muscles to the motions and gestures of moving in the water, and prepares you as you move into incrementally deeper waters. With writing music, we can tackle a piece by addressing one layer of it – one “muscle,” if you will – at a time. Working with the Humperdincks that day, we approached our recitatives it this way:

humperdinck recits

    1. We read the text out loud. Every time we paused to take a breath, we’d mark a line in the text (/). Each slash/breath would indicate a new piano chord.
    2. For each line, we marked whether the piano chords we would sing over would be major or minor (color-coded) based on what the text seemed to convey.
    3. We sang the text over the piano chords, improvising on notes that felt right with that particular chord.

(we repeated #3 over and over until we arrived at something we liked.)

The results were not only beautiful, but the process was a blast for everyone involved – certainly less confusing than unstructured composing time can often be. Even if our next piece requires us to start in a different way, it is my hope that those young composers will at least have a set of tools that they can use to begin working on it.

I’ve always rolled my eyes at the thought of an artistic “kiddie pool,” but I’m starting to feel that maybe it’s a place worth spending a little bit of time. Within even the simplest tasks / challenges / games / experiments, there are these little universes of beauty and wisdom, and it seems that artists of all ages could benefit from taking a dip there now and again.

– Danny Clay, Little Opera Teaching Artist

Leaving the “I dunno” reflex behind

When put on the creative spot, many kids respond with a shrug, a shuffle and an “I dunno!” What do you think we could put on this poster? What kind of card would you like to make? What would you like to write about, draw or create? “I DUNNO!”— the response of someone reluctant or unfamiliar with the creative process.

before LO

From our very first Little Opera class every year, we ask for many creative opinions. The kids make everything up, and we start right away asking about settings and characters. There are always the shufflers or the shy ones, and kids who lack confidence or experience in the creative process. Children don’t start life afraid to make things — that creative spark atrophies with lack of use. The adult who says, “I am not creative at all” was conditioned to be that way.

If I ran the schools instead of just taught in them, I would guarantee every child from day one got daily access to toilet paper tubes, assorted junk, instruments, recorders, spaces to dance, and many opportunities to make up “stuff,” whatever that stuff might be.  I believe the core of what we do as teaching artists is give our students the experience of making stuff up. Lots of stuff. 

Little Opera is the ultimate creative experience because it starts in a plain old room with a tool box of raw materials, a computer loaded with examples of creative pieces, a few adults and a room of kids — some of whom are more eager than others,. There are always a few very creative students who will be the temporary leaders, and a few who have no idea where to begin. We bring in master teachers, we share the dilemmas and challenges, and we get excited when a melody or a phrase or a costume idea or a movement is created from scratch. And then more stuff is created and discussed and tinkered with until a rough idea becomes something more. At that point, the line between the creative kid leaders and the “I dunno” kids blurs. Yippee! The formerly shy shufflers are declaring their preferences for specific creative processes and going off into corners to tackle some particular piece of the project, sometimes without any adult supervision.

After LO

A notable 3rd grader from last year, whose mantra at first was the classic “I dunno,” has returned as a 4th grader, and she is a changed little human. She was changed by the creative process into someone who never says “I dunno,” anymore, although she might say “This is hard,” “Oh, lets come back to this,” or “I am not as interested in composition, so I want to work on the movement section instead.” She  has proudly declared several times this year, “I am really into making movement and writing libretto,” or “What if we sing that part like this?”

Voila! One less “I dunno” person in the world. That’s why I love Little Opera.

– Suzanne Vradelis, Little Opera Teaching Artist

Student Perspective: Ryan’s Interviews



Ryan blog post drawing

Hi, I’m Ryan, a student at Little Opera. I love it there! It’s fantastic. We compose, create props and sets and anything related to opera. At Little Opera, I feel like myself. I get to share my thoughts without being embarrassed. I call it “A Forest of Melodies & Rhythms.”

p.s. I’m also the class blogger.

Ryan interviewed two of his fellow Tchaikovsky classmates (our middle school group) about their experience at Little Opera. Below are the results of his short interviews.


Ivy blog post drawing

Ivy is a fabulous singer! She is also a wonderful composer. She says she barely knew a thing about composing, but after coming to Little Opera and learning from the staff of Little Opera, she composed amazing songs. She says she went from “nothing to something.” After composing, she feels happy and accomplished.



Ana blog post drawing

Ana calls Little Opera “A rainbow of personality.” She is an awesome person and is very enthusiastic! I asked her to rate Little Opera on a scale from 1-10 and she rated it 8. “Why?” I asked her. “Because it’s awesome like me,” she said. Ana loves it when she’s making costumes.

Mood + Setting = Music

My favorite moments at Little Opera are almost always the ones I didn’t plan. They’re moments when someone has an idea we all say yes to, and the teachers and students spend the next part of class totally engaged, having a blast, and doing something new.

For this past week’s greatest moment, we have one of our oldest students, Yaidra, to thank. During break, she and Alex Stein (Little Opera composition teaching artist) were playing around at the piano. In a 2-word composition challenge, Yaidra gave Alex two ingredients (a mood, and a setting), and he improvised something to fit it. They were five or six little pieces in before I realized what was going on, and walked over to listen. “Can we play this with everyone when they get back from break?” Yaidra asked. Of course we could.

After Alex flawlessly interpreted a full round of moods and settings (busy downtown; stormy jungle), the game changed: It was time for students vs. adults. Here’s how we played:

– Each group gave the other group a mood and setting

– Each group had three minutes to create a vocal sound-scape to musically illustrate that setting and mood

– Then, we would perform

The students gave the adults a Lively Concert, and we adults challenged the students to create Lonely Bottom-of-the-sea.

kelp forest


The students asked to not have their soundscape recorded (it wasn’t yet publishable, by their standards), but when I heard what they created in three quick minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, here is what I was struck by:

– All 7 of our Tchaikovsky students jumped into the work of creating the soundscape together. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the collaboration take place. Everyone added an idea. Everyone said yes. And every idea added something important.

– Every single student looked like a comfortable, confident performer. For 7 middle-schoolers to put something complex together in 3 minutes and perform it giggle-free for a whole 66 seconds is a serious accomplishment.

– What they made was a practically perfect representation of the prompt we gave them. It was lonely. It sounded like the bottom of the sea. There were 7 distinct parts that all played against each other — some melodic, some rhythmic, some environmental. And it sounded really, really good.

– Erin Bregman

Singing Like a Ballerina

Gertrude Stookey, a 6th grader in her third year at Little Opera, recently won 2nd place in her middle school science fair for making an intriguing comparison: Do singers talk like ballerinas walk? Can you recognize the characteristics in a singer’s voice that distinguishes him or her as a professional in that field the way you can tell a ballerina by her physical posture and poise?

Using a spectrogram application on her iPad to record the speaking voices of 9 female singers and 9 female non-singers, Gertrude was able to measure and “photograph” the differences between them. She learned that there are unique overtones present in the voice of a person who uses it as an instrument versus someone who doesn’t. Essentially, singers occupy a fuller aural spectrum and reach higher “partials,” or regions of their normal speaking voice, than non-singers.

It’s a beautiful phenomenon, and certainly one that makes sense. When you develop a part of yourself — physical attribute, talent or craft — you are strengthening a tangible thing, something others can perceive in you. I’d like to think our students walk around with a little something extra, too, because of their experiences at Little Opera. An added spring to their step, a melody on their lips, and a mind that makes connections.

Singers and Ballerinas

Lesson Learned

There’s one foolproof test a teaching artist can do to assess just how engaged his or her students are on any given day, and it’s totally counterintuitive to what you think of when you imagine great teaching. The test is this: Get up, and leave the room.* We put this test into action last week, entirely by accident.

Due to a student behavior issue, three of the four instructors working with small groups in one of our classes were forced to step outside the classroom for about ten minutes. That left one instructor inside the room leading a music rehearsal with 2 students. When we left the room, we also had:

– 1 student working on puppetry design

– 3 students staging a scene, with one of them acting as director

– 4 students staging a different scene, with one of them acting as a director

Etta & Fiorella

At the end of the 10 minutes — more than enough time for any classroom to devolve into complete and total chaos — we re-entered the room to find it not only devoid of chaos but full of students who were, if anything, more engaged in what they were doing than when we had left. In fact, they were working together so seamlessly and so enthusiastically that I resisted the urge to fully re-insert myself into the small group I was working with shortly before, and instead took a seat and watched them work.

For the remaining 20 minutes or so of class, I did very little. When one student asked for help working with her actors, my “Listen to your director” reminder was enough to get them going again. Other than that, I sat back and took it all in.

It is a wonderful thing, as a teacher, to make yourself partially obsolete. In class last week, I got to witness such full ownership of the rehearsal process that students were pushing their own boundaries, challenging each other to think deeper, and having a blast while they were at it. Their total dedication to the task at hand turned them into their own leaders and teachers.

If one of our goals at Little Opera is to help create the next generation of creative, collaborative and resourceful do-ers, I think we are headed in the right direction.

* assuming, of course, that you are able to do it in a way that still ensures student safety.

A Different Kind of Conversation

I have been a classroom teacher for about 26 years, mostly teaching seven to nine-year-old children in public school. This is my third year as a Teaching Artist for Little Opera. Before Little Opera, I worked with my regular classroom students making mini-operas as in partnership with San Francisco Opera’s ARIA program.  I have been thinking about the differences between working with children in a small after-school program and during a regular school day, trying to accomplish essentially the same thing. And it is so very different!

At Little Opera, I work with around 12 students after school, with at least one other teacher, so we are able to have a new kind of creative relationship than any I’ve been able to experience in the past. Conversation. It’s the conversations that make such an impact on the process of creating something, especially something so complicated as opera with the many facets and pieces that all need to work together. We are creating and collaborating on many levels across many disciplines simultaneously, which makes it a heady and rich experience. What feeds student and teacher alike are the opportunities to contemplate, puzzle over, question and explore with each other.

Danny Shows Wagners Finale

We made some awesome mini-operas when I worked with a whole classroom of students during the school day, but looking back I can see that the adults and the children that had the leadership, ready creativity and skills already drove the process, and others came along and learned from it. With our intimate after-school group, everyone is ruminating, exploring, succeeding, failing, reflecting and refining. And we aren’t doing it in a vacuum because we have time for creative conversation — little ones and big ones, personal ones and group ones, musical conversations that we sing and silent conversations that we dance.

I retired from full-time classroom teaching three years ago, but I still teach two days a week at the same school. I started working for Little Opera the following year.  I loved my full-time teaching job but felt compelled to truly immerse myself in the creative conversations of children (and other teaching artists), and that is what drove my decision. It’s not like it was impossible to have that experience in a classroom of 22-plus kids, but my, oh my, there are so many more of those rich conversations after school in Little Opera.


Creative Chaos

When we are young, we are encouraged (one hopes) to learn a little about everything, to experiment with an array of art forms and disciplines to see if any of those languages resonates particularly strongly with who we are and who we are becoming. All those things we are introduced to as young people are potential pathways for our expression, and we are excited by the seeming limitlessness of perspectives on the world.

When I think of Little Opera, as often I do, I see a group of sensitive, intelligent, funny kids with opinions and talents and a blossoming artistic consciousness. I also see a group of kids that is happily still on the side of the threshold where the process of discovery and questioning (and rebellion, naturally) is the guiding force.

Little Opera students express almost equal excitement for all the activities we plan for them, whether it involves singing or improvising a skit, making costumes on paper or writing a poem about their character. When was the last time you had the opportunity to express yourself in all those ways – and realize how adept you can be at whatever you tried? I love teaching these kids; they remind me how important it is for educators to keep those doors — and their own minds — open to the different ways proficiency can manifest. I am lucky to be a guide for their unbounded curiosity, or what we like to call the creative chaos of figuring stuff out.

Little Opera does not promote a conservatory approach, and I love that. It is the multiplicity of influences and opportunities that the Little Opera curriculum provides that keeps the channel open to all kinds of connection.

-By Eva Langman, Teaching Artist 2014-2015

Zeke's spider

“I’m Nervous…and Excited!”

Oh, the audition. An entirely artificial situation in which someone who wants the part has to put their money where their mouth is and do it…without the luxury of props, costumes, or anyone else to collaborate with. And as simple as it might sound in theory, anyone who’s watched old “I Love Lucy” reruns can tell you just how much can go wrong.

Right before the holiday break, all three classes held auditions for the various roles in our operas. In the Humperdincks’ workspace, our students had spent several weeks mulling over which roles they thought might suit them. We asked them to consider if they would prefer to sing, act or dance, and which parts would be the most fun.

Now, let’s be clear: Auditioning is difficult when you’re fully grown and trained and prepared. Even when it goes swimmingly and you get the role, gig, job or part, it’s still an extremely stressful situation!

And up against nerves and hopes, our students were fantastic.  Some sang, some danced, some simply showed us their interpretation of a specific character with silent acting. All were dynamic and hilarious, all knew exactly what they wanted, and then they went and got it. And I think they did so well because they’ve been invested in a process of creation and exploration. They’ve spent so much time concentrated on these characters that they developed themselves that their nerves did not get the best of them. They were too busy creating something cool to be nervous!

It’s also important to point out that the students were entirely supportive of each other. Auditions were held during class, and the kids watched each other perform. A sense of understanding permeated through the classroom, and they applauded each other’s efforts enthusiastically.

I couldn’t be more proud of our Humperdincks for their great work so far this year. They continue to blow my mind and surprise me all the time.  Next comes rehearsing, choreographing, singing and costume-making!  And I, for one, cannot wait.

-By Ariana Strahl, Partner Teaching Artist 2014-2015

A Year-End Wrap in Plus/Delta/Challenges

At the end of every Little Opera class, we do two things: Ask kids to share their plus/delta/challenges for the day, and sing a song. In the spirit of closing off 2014 on a similar note, here are my own top 10 plus/delta/challenges from the last year at the helm of Little Opera.

Queens spying


(the hands-down highlights)
      1. Watching Little Opera students watch the opera they wrote being performed by professional opera singers at our first ever Little Gala.
      2. Building sets, props, and costumes in the beautiful theater and courtyard space at Urban High School.
      3. Successfully projecting live supertitles at the packed, sold-out Season 3 finale performances at the Community Music Center in May.
      4. Listening to one of our students tell me that she would never get too old for Little Opera, not even when she went to college, because afterwards she planned to come back and teach it to the little kids.
      5. Spending a day with 9 adults in San Francisco, creating an opera-in-a day about God (on the moon) and an asteroid named Astro.
      6. Slowly but surely beginning to master quickbooks and the world of small business accounting.
      7. Claire & I going to our first ever Foundation meeting, and being awarded our first major grant ($15,000 matching grant from the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation!).
      8. The parent of a child on a needs-based scholarship handing me a donation of $50 because, she said, her son loves Little Opera so much.
      9. Sitting at a planning meeting in West Portal, and realizing that I get to work with some of the best teaching artists and people I know.
      10. Receiving a text message at 7:30am from a 6th grade Little Opera student telling me how excited she is for class that afternoon.


(what I would change for next time)
      1. Student recruitment. It inevitably happens all in a rush at the start of the school year – there’s got to be a better way.
      2. Documenting the opera-making process. There are so many great things that happen during class and I often forget to do simple things like take a picture, record quick video, or ask students to write down what just happened.
      3. We didn’t have a proper cast party last year, since our last performance was the last meeting of the year. This season, that’s going to change.
      4. Parent involvement. How can we get the parents actively participating in some parts of the opera creation process?
      5. Utilizing our advisory board in the best way possible. And asking more people to join it.
      6. Write more grants. Write more grants. Write more grants.
      7. Try more new things, go out on longer limbs, and make bigger mistakes. 
      8. Ask for help more often. On things I’m both comfortable and uncomfortable doing.
      9. Run a summer camp. 
      10. Focus more intensely on building an earned income stream. This will probably be on my delta list until the end of time.


(what was just plain hard, but got done anyway)
      1. Running a non-profit. Everyone says it’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard.
      2. Growing the program, and expanding into middle school. There’s a whole list of sub-challenges for this one, which I won’t expand on here.
      3. Building and maintaining the Little Opera website with little to no design experience to speak of.
      4. Being in charge of a team of 7 teaching artists, and getting used to the idea of being the one in charge.
      5. Unexpected and still unexplained health issues that sometimes make it difficult to focus, write, or teach.
      6. Asking for money. Every single time.
      7. Working to maintain at least one other job at all times, because Little Opera isn’t yet sustainable enough to pay its own way.
      8. Getting used to the fact that my to-do list will never get any smaller, and that it’s okay to not do things on it that don’t absolutely have to get done.
      9. Claire’s transition into a full-time job at the Symphony. She’s still an integral part of Little Opera, but I miss seeing her every day.
      10. Keeping my toes warm. This office is freezing!


– by Erin Bregman
Founder & Artistic Director