TCF Bank Stadium's rehearsal hall swelled with the usual sounds of trumpets and flutes as conductor Dennis A. Hawkins, Jr. led the University of Minnesota's North Star Campus Band through "Hail! Minnesota." Then they started on a totally new piece, and the usual sounds mixed with some unexpected ones. The brass and woodwinds gave way to four-part harmonies, piano and guitar as Minneapolis folk group the Paper Days joined them in the piece.
Maycomb: Suite for Folk Band and Wind Ensemble is no ordinary suite, as the titles suggests. It tells the story of To Kill a Mockingbird using both classical and contemporary techniques. Its creators hope to use it to teach teens about symphonic band music through the lens of folk, which the younger ones might be more used to hearing.
The Paper Days and the North Star Campus Band will perform Maycomb at Ted Mann Concert Hall this Tuesday, April 18. The two groups will alternate playing, with North Star doing R&B, pop, and jazz tunes outside of their classical repertoire (including an arrangement of "My Shot" from the musical Hamilton). The Paper Days will share songs from their album Falling is Easy. This is all meant to give people a sense of the groups' separate strengths and see what happens when they combine.
"The North Star Campus Band has 12 notes at its disposal," said Hawkins. "The Paper Days have the same 12 notes. Why do our genres have to exist exclusive of one another? Let's see how we can come together and create something new." Rather than compose the piece himself, he wanted to observe a contemporary group taking on the task.
Paper Days guitarist, vocalist and manager Scott Schmitz said it was incredible when Hawkins approached them, but also daunting because the band had never composed for a large ensemble. "We're songwriters primarily, not composers," he said.
This is the point of the whole project, which Hawkins launched for his doctoral research. He said these days, more and more arts organizations are combining classical music with newer styles and concert formats — but in the classroom, he observed, the music students listen to on their devices is being underused. With Maycomb, the groups are trying to make that music a bigger part of teaching.
After the concert, the Paper Days plan to tour Maycomb to local middle and high schools. They wrote lyrics based on Harper Lee's book so it could fit with English classes, Schmitz said. Playing the suite with school bands would open discussions on the book's themes while giving students a window into classical music they might not have had before. They will also talk with students about life as a musician.
Maycomb has already changed these musicians' way of working. The shift from writing songs in a room together to the multi-month process of arranging pieces for 116 musicians was a big one, Schmitz said. Having music school graduates who grew up playing wind instruments in the Paper Days helped out, but so did sticking with the songwriting processes they developed as a folk group. Still, Schmitz was not sure how much of the band's style they should take onstage on the 18th.
"We're normally at bars and restaurants and we banter with each other and we make fun of each other onstage," he said. "I'm not quite sure if that's appropriate or encouraged at Ted Mann Concert Hall. So we'll find out."
Hailey Colwell is a St. Paul-based writer who covers music and theater. You can find her stories on MinnesotaPlaylist.com and on her personal blog, desmotsdumonde.com. Mike Wang is a freelance photographer in Minneapolis.