Music nonprofit wins arts grant

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Mark LaRocca, Executive Director of Music-COMP, sits in New Moon Cafe in Burlington. LaRocca also teaches music theory and composition at St. Michael’s college and is an Artistic Curator for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Sam Heller)

Music-COMP, a music-education-based nonprofit operating out of Essex Jct., received a $3,000 Arts Impact grant from the Vermont Arts Council last month.

The award was one of 71 grants, totaling just over $438,400, awarded by the council to artistic institutions and endeavors around the state.

Fifteen grants were awarded to artists and organizations in Chittenden County. Eleven will support Burlington artists and organizations like the Vermont Independent Film Festival and the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

The remaining four Chittenden County grants were divvied between Huntington, Shelburne, Colchester and Music-COMP in Essex.

Music-COMP provides online music composition classes to students and music teachers around the state.

The program pairs students with professional composers and musicians who serve as mentors and provides an online messaging platform through which student-mentor pairs can view, listen to and discuss students’ work.

Music-COMP’s executive director Matt LaRocca said the program attracts upward of 120 third-12th grade students a year. It also attracts a deep talent-pool of nationally recognized composers who serve as mentors.

“We have a professor in Ohio who works as a mentor for us, a woman in Maryland, a composer from Brooklyn. We’ve got the ability to reach out to lots of different people,” LaRocca said. “And they enjoy it, too, because it’s fun and rewarding for them.”

The grant money from the council helps pay the mentors a modest stipend.

“We should be paying them more,” LaRocca said. “It’s not enough, because they’re worth more than that.”

Fortunately, Music-COMP’s limited funds seem to impact LaRocca’s conscience rather than mentors’ ability to serve. All are professional composers and musicians who set aside a few hours a week for their young protégés in between composing, conducting or performing work of their own.

“No one’s using this money to keep the lights on,” LaRocca said. “They’re doing it because they really like doing it.”

LaRocca would know. He first got involved with the program about 10 years ago when his former professor at Middlebury College suggested he check it out. He worked as a Music-COMP mentor for the next decade – first from Montana, where he served as faculty composer in-residence for the Montana State University Symphony, then from Boston, where he got his doctorate in music from Boston University.

LaRocca moved to Burlington three years ago to work as artistic curator for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. He also teaches theory and composition at St. Michael’s College and directs the South Burlington Choir and Champlain Philharmonic Orchestra.

When Sandi MacLeod, Music-COMP’s first executive director, retired this June, LaRocca filled the absence. Even after assuming the executive director position, LaRocca still enjoys working as a mentor.

“You can see progression. There’s been students I’ve worked with you know on and off for three or four years now, and I can remember the first piece, and then I can remember their middle piece and then what they’re writing now,” he said. “It’s amazing to see the growth that they have.”

LaRocca is working with Essex High School senior Izzy Patterson, a young hotshot composer who blasts through lessons quicker than Music-COMP can churn them out, he said.

“Last year and the year before I took full credits, maybe 10 classes at a time,” Patterson explained. “So I would have all the homework for that every day, plus flute performance that I’d have to practice for, plus watching my little brother, plus Music-COMP, so I generally try to start super early and compose super fast,” he said with a laugh. “I kind of get chastised a little bit for going so quickly.”

“He’s kind of unusual,” said Heather Finlayson, Patterson’s music teacher at EHS. “Music-COMP actually contacted me, and they were like, ‘Patterson just uploaded an entire piece. Like, where did that come from?’”

Prior to teaching at EHS, Finlayson used Music-COMP to foster creativity in her students at Hunt Middle School in Burlington.

When Patterson needed an outlet for his compositional proclivities, Finlayson set him up with Music-COMP as an independent study.

Before that, Patterson said, he used to play around with composition software, churning out piano scores for fun.

Because he knew those early pieces would never be performed, he didn’t bother to perfect them. He wrote what he described as impossible music – a piano melody playable only by a pianist with eight fingers on each hand, for example.

“When you’re doing things on your own, it’s rare that you have chances for things to get played unless you know people or unless you win things,” Patterson said.

Now, through Music-COMP, he and LaRocca are working on a piece to be performed by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra at the end of the year.

“I’ve learned a lot in terms of orchestration that I didn’t know before, and I’ve learned a lot in terms of playability,” Patterson said. “You hear a lot of really cool stuff, and it broadens your horizons. You get to learn how it really works.”