Playground Ensemble helps school kids find their inner composers

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Photo: Conrad Kehn in classroom
Conrad Kehn of the Playground Ensemble works with student composers at Edgewater Elementary School.

When a group of third graders start their first class with the Young Composers Playground, there’s usually just a handful of children in the room who know how to play an instrument.

Whether they know how to play music or not, the children learn about instruments. Weeks later, they've created their own compositions and heard the music performed by professional musicians in Denver’s Playground Ensemble.

Conrad Kehn, the ensemble’s founding director, helped dozens of students find their inner composer over the past five years. Click the audio above to hear Kehn talk with Colorado Matters' Elaine Grant about the project and to listen to clips from the students' compositions.

Playground Ensemble hosts a concert featuring music composed entirely by K-12 composers at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Wash Park Center for Arts and Music, 400 S. Williams St. in Denver.

Kehn had a busy year. In the spring, he worked with the Colorado Symphony to develop the orchestra’s own young composers project.

In November the Playground Ensemble ran a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to fund two classes of the Young Composers Playground at Edgewater Elementary School and Denver’s Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Kehn also works as a music theory and technology instructor at the University of Denver.

Interview highlights:

On creating music with non-musicians:

"This is creativity before craft. I’m not worried if the students know how to notate music. I’m not worried if they understand their scales or harmony. In fact, we’ve found that the students that have the most musical training often write the least imaginative pieces. It’s because they have this idea of how music is supposed to go. And the students that are just there to create uninhibited -- they do the most amazing things."

On how the program gives students a voice and a creative outlet:

"I’ve spent my entire life in music and in classical music. And I kind of have started to believe that maybe we’re teaching creativity out of the curriculum. That we spend too much time telling students to go play something by someone else. We want them to know that their ideas are valid, that the most important music is their music. They should be allowed to write for the instruments of the orchestra regardless of where they went to school, what they look, like, gender, trading -- any of those things."