Wind ensemble amplifies compositions of women and people of color

Connecting composers to women and minority students

Aaliyah Gholamipour, Staff Reporter

a man stands and holds large cymbals
Jenna Rasmussen
Sophomore, Eric Peterson takes control of the drum section in the back of concert during the winter wind ensemble music concert.

As the lights began to dim, the audience settled into silence, and the band shuffled to ready their instruments as they took the spotlight on the stage. The performers laughed among themselves as their conductor cracked jokes with them to ease the tension. Then, he raised his baton and the smiling band played. 

The Seattle Pacific University wind ensemble concert Friday, Feb. 21 began smoothly, the band in sync with their conductor. That night, each student strived to play in concord, leaving the audience cheering in awe by the end.

Two of the songs performed were commissioned by a female composer and a black composer. These songs provided a way to reflect SPU’s own wind ensemble, representing the student musicians who identify as women and/or as ethnic minorities. It also encouraged the performers to refine their skills and take risks, such as fifth-year senior Daniel Nollan who  guest conducted for his first time at the concert.

“I have a desire to empower my students by featuring music that is written by people that are similar to them,” Helseth said. 

The concert, directed and conducted by Seattle Pacific University’s band director, Danny Helseth, involved the premiering of the two songs, a three-piece “Folk Song Suite” and an additional two songs. 

The two commissioned songs, “strength in all things” by Megan DeJarnett and “Shimmering Sunshine” by Kevin Day, were selected to highlight the accomplishments and musical successes of women and minority students. By featuring music composed by a woman and a man of color, the program better reflects the students rather than focusing on music composed by white men.

For the student performers, these songs provided a connection and a voice that, for them, is not commonly experienced. 

a man stands and conducts musicians
Jenna Rasmussen
Director of Bands, Danny Helsworth leads the winter wind ensemble through composer Megan DeJarnett’s piece “Strength Through All Things.”

Freshman mathematics major Mackenzi Mehlberg described playing these songs as an inspiration to work harder as a musician to better convey the message the music is trying to speak.

“I feel like now there’s an importance to what I’m doing, and there’s an importance to the music that I’m playing. I get to give a voice to the composers who didn’t have a voice before, and now we can bring their voices back to life again,” Mehlberg said.

This sense of importance drives students to accomplish more than what is expected. Helseth hopes that by using his privilege to empower those unheard through commissioning and premiering their works, he can heighten student interest in pursuing music.

“It’s important to me, and the position of power I’m in, to empower those whose voices are not as well heard,” Helseth said. “I get to feature women and minorities and bring them in to talk with us and work with us, and show [students] that it’s not just a white-guy art form.”

In commissioning and performing pieces from under-represented composers, Helseth described how it gives the ensemble the chance to learn new music every quarter. He believes this creates an environment for constant growth and learning for everyone involved. 

This emphasis on growth has shown itself in the work of fifth-year senior and music education major Daniel Nollan. At the concert, with trembling hands but confident swings of the baton, he played as a guest conductor for Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep.”

Under his conducting, the band’s performance sounded confident. For him, this was an exciting success as a music education student.

“The stress of performance created more energy than when I had rehearsed, and it brought out more energy from the band,” Nollan said.

a conductor stands and motions while directing a band
Jenna Rasmussen
Guest conductor and student alumni, Daniel Nolan makes his debut conducting by moving through the piece “Shimmering Sun,” by composer Kevin Day in the winter wind ensemble concert.

Nollan confirmed this experience as an accomplishment, conducting a new ensemble. He also acknowledged how this concert, and working with college level students, will aid him in the future.

Helseth believes Nollan’s conducting in this concert is a stepping stone for his future and moments like these are a part of a student’s life-long journey through music.

“[The concert] is a marker along our way. My goal for the students is that during their four years here, they develop such a passion and love for music that they can’t help but continue that when they graduate,” Helseth said. 

Helseth brings meaningfulness to his students’ work through representation and teamwork. He connects them to their work and helps them along their way through music, but he believes the performance and the work is the student’s accomplishment. 

“This is all about the students,” Helseth said. “At the end of the day, I have a baton made of wood and, now matter how hard I swing that thing, it doesn’t make a sound. Everything is coming from the students.”