National PTA or PTSA’s Reflections program allows students across the country to express their artistic creativity through dance choreography, film production, literature, music composition, photography, and visual arts. Each ‘program year’ is based on an open theme, allowing artists to incorporate their interpretations to express the said theme. For the 2020-2021 program year, the theme is “I Matter Because…”
Arcadia High School PSTA allows students to participate in this program, recognizing their creative talents. This year, the AHS PTSA Reflection winners in music composition are two of our very own orchestra members: Ashlee Sung (1st place) and Janice Wang (2nd place)!
We interviewed them on their musical journey, interpretations of this year’s PTSA Reflections theme, and future musical endeavors.
Expressing her creativity through composition for 6 years, Ashlee Sung, a freshman violinist in Concert Orchestra, demonstrated her talent through this program and ultimately won first place in the music composition category.
In a recent interview, Ashlee reveals that her interest in musical composition stems from listening to classical music and her ability to express herself and deliver her intended meaning to an audience. After participating in various categories of the program, such as photography and visual arts, Ashlee developed her way of artistically expressing “thoughts and feelings” through various media, incorporating her perception of the prompt for this program. A highlight in her art journey comes with a notable win 9 years ago, when she came to an important realization that “art [has] meaning… [containing] the values and emotions of the artist themselves.”
Ashlee Sung performing
Image provided by Ashlee Sung
With the motivation “to express… different emotions to touch people’s hearts,” Ashlee once again uniquely conveys her artistic gift through this year’s theme––she reflects on finding her value in caring for others to allow them to “feel like they matter too” through her melodies. She emphasizes how she strives to make people smile.
Furthermore, she kindly shares her method of composing as a source of inspiration for those who are interested in writing their own music; she initiates her process by “chords based on the melodies and then [writes] harmonies that sound nice.” For her future outlook, Ashlee hopes “to study more music theory so that [she can] learn new chords and/or compose more complex piano pieces” and aims “to compose symphonies and violin concertos in the future.”
In my composition, there is a recurring theme (a sweet melody) which is repeated and echoed throughout the piece. This represents that when you smile, you are spreading positivity, and making other people smile too.
The semi-dissonant chord (B diminished) at the end of each phrase in the melody represents bittersweetness, and that life may approach you with many reasons to give up. When the semi-dissonant chord leads into the tonic triad (A major), it represents that every challenge is followed by a reward. It also means that no matter how hard things get, you will always have a reason to smile and spread positivity wherever you go.
The key change towards the end of the piece (A major -> Bb Major) represents the change in people’s perspective of the world after I make them smile. The melodies and accompaniment are the same as before, but in a different key, meaning that people’s surroundings may not change after experiencing happiness, but their character changes. Also, the fact that the same melodies are transposed up a half step represents that making others smile is what makes people’s lives better, and it is another step to happiness.
Click to listen to Ashlee’s composition, “Your Smile.”
Janice Wang, currently a junior in Arcadia High School's Concert Orchestra, is also a violinist and pianist. From an early age, music intrigued her––with its “delicate and intricate nature” and the evolution of music throughout human history; to experiment with her musical knowledge, she began ‘random playing’ as a child, later realizing she had been regularly improvising. Janice marks her middle school composition project as a major turning point in her interest in musical composition. Additionally, she notes that her supportive friendships fueled her to continue her musical path.
This is her third year participating in PTSA’s Reflections program, after beginning this journey in her freshman year. Despite continuously placing in the music composition category for all years, she identified her own stumbling block––
Janice notes, “most of my pieces were pre-improvised, which made the notation process extremely difficult for me.” Nevertheless, encouraging friends and family gave her the confidence to participate. Thus, regardless of the results, she seized the opportunity to sharpen her skills in musical composition and notation.
Image provided by Janice Wang
With the 2020-2021 theme being ‘I Matter Because…,” she composed a piano solo from a duet composition with her friend, inspired by the “contributions and sacrifices” of frontline workers during COVID-19. Her composition honors the frontline workers who matter in our society––the “capeless heroes” who “deserve more recognition” for their work during this pandemic; to express a call to recognize such people, the piece is composed of “frequent key changes, exaggerated dynamics, and a fierce tone and melody.”
Her experience in this year’s program served as a catalyst for an important realization––it is important to pursue one’s passions, despite any challenges which may arise, as there holds great value in undergoing the process. With this mindset, she hopes to compose a symphony for Arcadia’s school orchestras, which can be played in future concerts. As musical composition is a “huge part of [her] life,” she plans to continue composing as a hobby.
I titled this piece “Recognition,” which, as mentioned above, was specifically dedicated to the frontline workers during COVID-19. The piece consists of multiple different components, each of which tells a different story about the value of recognition and acknowledgement of one’s sacrifices.
The beginning of the piece opens up with a calm, peaceful introduction, which draws the audience into an emotional and tranquil state.
The piece gradually shifts to a more dramatic tone, where there is a noticeable change in the dynamics and pitches. This was intended to represent the growing circumstances of the pandemic, as well as to prepare the audience for the climax of the piece.
I intentionally went wild with the climax, which can be classified with a deliberate change in the key and time signatures, as well as another exaggeration of the dynamics and chords. The climax was intended to be representative of the amount of sacrifices and trauma the healthcare workers face on a daily basis, especially with the increase in the amount of cases and deaths per day. Additionally, the fierce and dramatic tone of the climax serves as the audience’s “attention-grabber.”
Lastly, the piece concludes in a relatively peaceful manner, where it begins to revert to its original tempo and dynamics. The peaceful nature of the ending was meant to reiterate the beginning of the piece, where the emotional melody works to represent the importance of appreciation and recognition for the essential workers during the pandemic.
Click to listen to Janice playing her very own composition, “Recognition.”
Advice for Aspiring Composers
Ashlee and Janice emphasize the importance in inquiry and self-reflection during the initial thought process of composing; notably, the early stages of composition can be the time to record your unique feelings, and identify how to translate your thoughts into tangible melodies and storylines. The process can simply start with writing down chords, then ideas for melodies, then fitting harmonies. Although it can be difficult to plan, notate, and rehearse during the composition process, they highlight the significance in exploring your mind and utilizing your developed musicality as one composes.
Thank you to Ashlee and Janice for their time in the interviews. Again, congratulations on winning in Music Composition for this year’s PTSA Reflections Art Program!