Q & A with Published Musical Composer and Fuller Elementary Music Teacher Erik Whitehill
Adventures in the Air is an original biographical fourth-grade musical written and directed by Fuller Elementary Music Teacher Erik Whitehill, and was performed at Fuller Elementary School in November. This performance even included a live pit orchestra – an extremely rare thing to find at an elementary musical performance!
Whitehill doesn’t just write performances for his own students at Fuller, as many of his performances are performed across the country! Get to know more about him, the performance, and what projects we can expect from him in the future in the conversation below.
From the choir, the soloists and vocalists, to the actors and the kids helping with running sound, the students all did a great job. Tell us about the work that went into getting to performance night, and how you felt afterward.
We started rehearsing the fourth-grade musical on the first day of school. The entire grade level was in the show, making the cast over 100 people in the chorus. Seventy-five students auditioned for the 26 speaking and acting roles. I had fifth-grade helpers running the PowerPoint projected set and an iTunes playlist of sound effects. There were also 16 adults who helped...including my colleague and friend Kate Klimut, the whole fourth-grade team, Ms. Faeh (our principal), and an excellent pit orchestra of adult volunteers.
It was a great day and night! It is immensely gratifying to see something that once only lived in my head come to fruition. I am so very proud of the students and the adult team that made this happen! Everyone came together and made art. What could be better? I went out for a celebratory dinner after and then slept that night a very peaceful, satisfied sleep.
What is the process like to becoming a published composer?
It is one that requires a lot of patience. I began sending choral work to publishers in 1996. My first piece was published in 2007. There were a lot of rejection letters! I just kept at it. It is so much a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right submission. I was commissioned to write a work for the Phoenix Children's Chorus that was selected for publication and the piece was my foot in the door. Since then, I have 17 choral pieces, 2 handbell pieces, 1 flute suite, and 4 musicals (two school shows and two church shows) nationally published. I now have great relationships with editors at three major publishing companies. My two published school musicals have been performed in about 400 schools nationwide.
Do the students understand the significance of the whole performance being written by you?
Composing and writing are important parts of my teaching vocation. I write musicals beginning with a blank screen on my laptop...until they are fully realized musicals. I write the script, lyrics, music, and orchestrations. We certainly talk about writing and why things are the way they are. I also change a lot of things as we work through a show for the first time. I find that students really like being a part of the workshop process.
Having a full pit orchestra was a wonderful addition to the show. Where were they from, and what is their connection to our school?
Most of the adult volunteers in the orchestra are music teachers in the Valley. They are my friends and have become a regular fixture for our shows. If I paid them the going rate for the time they are needed, it would be many thousands of dollars. They volunteer to support the program and make it extra special. As far as I know, there are no other general music programs in the country that have original musical theater with a full pit orchestra for their fourth-graders.
Are there any more original musicals/plays we can look forward to in the future?
I put on two shows a year...one for fourth grade and one for kindergarten. These represent my oldest and youngest general music students. The next show (published in 2015) is 'Panda and the Moon' on February 7. This is our kindergarten musical (and it will also have a live pit orchestra). I have written 14 shows and am currently working on two shows, one about Thomas Edison and another about hamsters.
Is there anything else you would like to share about the musical?
The support for the musicals at Fuller Elementary has been amazing. We have giant audiences, the most wonderful staff and administrative support, and the energy, talent, and focus of our students amazes me! These shows are the highlight of my year!
Thank you Erik for the passion and excellence you put into everything you do at TD3. We are grateful for all that you do for our students!