Pep Tunes, Fight Songs, and Original Compositions: How a Student Composer from Southridge High School Won the OMEA Composition Award

Southridge Senior Michael McCann talks about what went into his award-winning composition “Delta” and why he started composing and arranging music in the first place.

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Pep Tunes, Fight Songs, and Original Compositions: How a Student Composer from Southridge High School Won the OMEA Composition Award

Kyle Pinnell

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Senior Michael McCann has been playing music ever since he was four years old. He started with the piano and now plays four instruments ranging from the French horn to the trumpet. However, in eighth grade McCann was bored of just playing music; he wanted to compose it.

In the middle of December, McCann was recognized state-wide as one of the co-winners of the Oregon Music Education Association composition award for his piece “Delta: Fantasia for Wind Ensemble.” The sixteen-minute, five-movement piece is a culmination of what he has been working on for the past couple of years on the piano. McCann describes the piece as a “compilation of sketches and love songs.”

And McCann doesn’t just compose long, serious pieces of music. He’s worked on music for marching band and has spent the last few years creating pep-band tunes for many of the school’s different bands. So, whenever you hear those catchy tunes –like the theme from Caillou or the Fortnite Default Dance– at assemblies or basketball games, you are listening to a piece of work arranged by McCann.

From Musician to Composer

McCann is a special student. It didn’t take those around him long to discover that he has perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a certain pitch or note being played and immediately tell what that particular note is without any reference. According to recent university studies, just one in ten thousand people have perfect pitch.

Southridge Band Director Jarod Sorum, who jokingly calls McCann the “nerd” of the band program, cited McCann’s perfect pitch and work ethic as some of the driving factors in what has made him stand out

“Any chance he gets he’s practicing,” Sorum said. “He has that special thing that great students have which is a comfort in practicing properly: the ability to be okay with sounding terrible at something because you’re working at something and chipping away at it.”

“He is observant and notices strengths and weaknesses in other people and is always eager to assist,” Sorum added.

In eighth grade, McCann wanted to test his composing “chops.” When McCann’s middle school band went to local elementary schools to promote the program, his band director wanted to showcase each instrument. McCann’s group, the trumpets, were supposed to play “For the First Time in Forever” from Disney’s “Frozen.” Instead, McCann asked his director if he could arrange his own piece for his section. After she gave her permission, McCann went right to work at arranging an alternative piece for the trumpets. That tune was the theme from The Legend of Zelda, the first piece that McCann had ever arranged.

“With a full score window open and me not having any clue about what I’m doing, I start playing notes on my keyboard and it starts importing notes on the [music] staff,” McCann said. “I tweaked a little bit of it, but I had a lot of fun doing that. That was my gateway into writing.”

It only took Sorum a month after arriving at Southridge last fall to discover McCann’s talent and ask him for some help on bigger projects such as the annual marching band show and some pep band music. For the past two years, McCann has written a lot of the principal material for the marching show and was credited as one of the main writers for his work on this year’s show, “Serpentine.”

“Within time I picked up on his perfect pitch which is a blessing and a curse,” Sorum said. “ Having a keen ear, fast writing skills, adept computer skills, he just seemed like an obvious candidate to [help compose and arrange different pieces of music] because I knew that he would get the job done.”

How is an Award-Winning Piece like “Delta” Composed?

The writing and composition of “Delta: Fantasia for Wind Ensemble” started in earnest during McCann’s freshman year, but it really got going in December 2017 when his friend Spencer Wymetalek won an honorable mention for one of his music compositions.

“After Spencer got the honorable mention I kinda wanted to, not one-up him, but push him,” McCann said. “And that’s what I really like about being friends with him. We push each other.”

Added Wymetalek: “We try to one-up each other in kind of friendly competitiveness and I usually like to win. At first, I was really impressed [with Delta] because it’s something that I never thought he would write and it had so much emotion that I just wasn’t aware of. When he told me the story of it and I was blown away by how much there is behind it leading up to what it is.”

It took McCann around one full year to complete all five movements of “Delta.” The sixteen-minute piece is meant to be listened to in one continuous setting.

After sketching out some ideas, McCann decided to shelve the piece for a little bit. However, unlike many of his previous sketches, he could not leave this specific piece alone for long.

“I started seeing how can I manipulate this, how can I create some impact here,” he said. “I listened back to it for the first time and I was like ‘woah, this is cool,’ and that’s when I realized that I needed to do something with this piece.”

The first two movements of the piece did not take McCann that long to develop. The first movement involved some of the early sketches that he shelved away. The second movement was used as the interlude to connect the first and third movements.

Movement Three took a little longer to develop; McCann describes it as the “emotional core” of the entire piece. The movement is based on a love song that he wrote in the summer of 2016. He took the concepts he wrote from that summer, expanded them out, and constructed it to complete the third movement. By this point in the composition process, McCann had an idea of the overall structure and the story that he wanted to tell.

In mid-April, McCann began to work on the fourth movement. It was this segment of the song that caused him the most overall problems. He fought writer’s block and also emotion as he described that specific movement as one that goes through a lot for him.

“It’s the weird, disjointed turn in the piece where it turns from the super-happy, exuberant joy and exhale of life to this super twisted, demented, and ultimately resentful angry piece that still uses some of the beginning stuff,” he said.

To help with his writer’s block, he turned to Wymetalek for help on one section of the piece that he just couldn’t think of any ideas for.

“He was talking about the fourth movement and how for that it has that chaotic, dissident, almost dark vibe which shadows in his head the dark thoughts,” Wymetalek said. “He thought that I would be the perfect person to come to as most of my music is edgy music.”

He added: “It was an interesting experience because it’s one thing to write your own music with your own original ideas and it’s another to take what someone else is working on and being able to mess with it the way you want to.”

With the additional help that McCann described as a “halo shining down on him,” he was able to break through and in September –just five months later– he moved on to the fifth and final movement.

McCann describes the fifth movement as the culmination of the past twelve minutes of music where everything in the piece is brought back and restated. The movement is more somber and deals with the consequences of “hell and fire” experienced earlier in the composition.

“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t write that part to make people cry,” McCann said.

After going back and making small revisions to the song, McCann submitted it to be judged. Composing judges grade on categories such as how well it achieves the composer using rhythm, different motifs, and whether or not it actually “sounds good.”

Just a month after submitting the piece, Southridge’s former band director and current Mountainside band director, Jeremy Zander, called McCann to let him know that he was one of the co-winners. On February 17th McCann will be presented with his award at the Northwest National Association for Music Education Conference.

“It’s a very very mature work for a young composer,” Sorum said about “Delta.” “However, it’s still the work of a young composer and I shared that with him a number of times.”

He added: “He has a really good sense in the piece of how to develop a musical idea instead of just presenting it. You start with the presentation of the material and then you transform it in different ways. That’s something that goes beyond just a young composer imitating other composers. I think that’s one of the things that awarded him what he did.”

Looking Towards the Future

When Sorum first arrived at Southridge, he was really disappointed in the selection of pep band music; that was where McCann stepped in. He wanted to work his “arranging chops” so he took the list of desired songs from Sorum and went to work on the first volume of “McStands Tunes.”

McCann put together more serious pieces, but also made sure to sprinkle in some humor to mix up the selection during game days or assemblies. Some of his more unorthodox arrangements  include the theme from Seinfeld, Rick Roll, and Smash Mouth’s “All-Star.”

In addition to what McCann has done for Southridge, he composed the tune for Mountainside High School’s fight song. Zander reached out to ask McCann for some help on the tune as well as for some of his “McStands Tunes” to use with the Mountainside pep band.

Next year McCann will attend the University of Oregon where he will study Music Composition. However, before he leaves Sorum requested that he and Wymetalek work on an Alma Mater to commemorate Southridge High School’s 20th anniversary.

For now, the OMEA Composition Award for “Delta: Fantasia for Wind Ensemble” is just a stepping stone. As McCann heads to the University of Oregon next fall, he is excited for what his future in music might bring him; where he can work on compositions that are far better than “Delta.”

“I do believe that ten years from now [“Delta”] won’t feel as special to him as much anymore because he’ll be a much better composer,” Sorum said. “However, it is good enough material that it would be worth revisiting years down the road.”

Link to Delta