5 Questions to Michael Begay (Host, Original Score podcast)

In 2000, the Grand Canyon Music Festival (GCMF) began the Native American Composers Apprentice Project (NACAP) to provide musical training to young Native American composers. Each year, NACAP provides students from the Navajo, Hopi, and Salt-Water Pima reservations with training and mentorship from Native American composers. This experience culminates with workshops and a recorded premiere performance with the GCMF string quartet in residence. The 2011 documentary Strings on the Rez presented NACAP’s early work and was re-released in June 2020 as part of a campaign to raise funds for Navajo and Hopi families impacted by COVID-19

Released in early September, the Original Score podcast shares the music and perspectives of recent NACAP apprentice composers in a more intimate setting. The podcast is hosted by Michael Begay, a multi-talented Diné composer and alumnus of NACAP who serves as a mentor composer for the project. In each episode, the apprentice composers share recordings of their pieces, converse with Begay about their compositional process, and discuss what music means to them. We asked Michael to reflect on these conversations, as well as NACAP’s impact on the apprentice composers and the local Native American communities.

In addition to its long history with the Grand Canyon Music Festival, NACAP has partnered with a growing number of schools and local organizations. What needs or niches does NACAP fill in these local and regional communities?

Yes, the Native American Composer’s Apprenticeship Project (NACAP) has partnered with a number of schools and organizations over the years, but actually the NACAP project is a Grand Canyon Music Festival (GCMF) program; developed by the GCMF. NACAP grew out of already existing GCMF projects, which included Native artists like R. Carlos Nakai and Brent Michael Davids. One day, R. Carlos Nakai was on the stage at the ‘Shrine of the Ages’ (Grand Canyon) and pointed to Brent Michael Davids, who was in the audience, and said, “We need more of you.” Two years later, NACAP was started, that’s when I met Brent Michael Davids.

I believe that NACAP finds its place in these communities by providing what most if not all of these communities need, and that is commitment, access and opportunity/visibility.

Last year, I worked with NACAP student composer Arika Morningstar, who on the night of the premiere at the Grand Canyon explained to the audience the inspiration of her piece titled, “The Great Flud,” which was named after a favorite teacher, Mr. Flud (who was the subject of a few compositions that night), who left the school after teaching for only two years. Arika said, “He left…like they all do…” in regard to how not many teachers and instructors stay very long on the reservations, such a moving statement from a student composer that noticed the lack of commitment to the schools, students, and communities. NACAP has had a steady presence for these young Native student composers for twenty years now.

What this project does for these young Native people is nothing less than amazing. NACAP goes out there, into the communities, giving these young students access to a whole new world, one that is often thought to be out of reach or unattainable by someone from a rural and underserved community, much like those on Native lands. Not too many people know what it is like to live on the reservation and how projects like this help our young people see a broader world and understand that everything is accessible to them.

Lastly, NACAP provides an opportunity for these students to move on to greater things, and it opens doorways. It sparks or lights a fire inside them, and hopefully after their experience with NACAP, if they choose to pursue music or further study at a university, they have the confidence to apply themselves and to be visible in a world that rarely sees or hears from a Native person.

Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP)--Photo courtesy of NACAP

Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP)–Photo courtesy of NACAP

On Original Score, you talk with apprentice composers about using music to find their voice and express their emotions. What do you find compelling about the voices these young composers are developing and what they express through their music?

There are some students that have had previous music training, whether it be from a school or a family member, and there are those who have never really experienced working with music at all. But every student composer has a story to tell or an emotion to express. What I find encouraging is that most of these student composers have a lot on their mind. These are very thoughtful and receptive individuals, and we get to see what their world looks like through their eyes. A lot of the time, the student compositions reflect the land and the people, be it friends and family or someone that they admired. Also, there is tragedy and true pain that some of these young people have experienced, and it takes a lot of courage to express yourself to complete strangers; meaning the first time they meet the teaching composers, and the string quartet, and the night of the premiere! Every year is different in NACAP–with each new year, there’s new stories and new adventures that these young composers have lived through.

The apprentice composers also speak enthusiastically the process of workshopping their pieces with Native American composers and Grand Canyon Music Festival String Quartet in Residence. What long term impact does this experience have on these apprentice composers?

I could tell you firsthand–I was one of them! Seeing the process, the amount of teamwork between the composers and players; hearing new terminology is very interesting to people/students; and also learning these new musical jargons and names of special effects is very rewarding. I think working with professional musicians is very important. The student gets to see and hear what it is like to workshop a piece and discuss the finer aspects of a composition with a group of individuals (string quartet) who take the student’s compositions very seriously, with their complete and undivided attention. All of this helps in the long run, I think. You learn how to communicate with others and get your ideas across, you build confidence in yourself, and you get to learn about other cultures, be it from the members of the string quartet or fellow student composers.

What do the compositions and stories featured on Original Score mean to the local community, and what do they mean to you as an alumni of NACAP?

I would imagine that it is very surprising and refreshing to the community to know that there are young Native people expressing themselves in a healthy and creative way. This program also gives the students and community a sense of pride, ownership, and confidence as it fills the writer when they hear their hard work brought to fruition and enjoyed by others. Not only do they have pride for themselves, but pride for the school and community, as these students represent their schools, their family, and their people all across the state, nation, and world.

When I was growing up on the Navajo Nation, we could only get two channels coming in on the television, both channels were from Flagstaff, Arizona, and three channels if the wind blew just right! When I was growing up, it always felt like everything outside of the Navajo Nation was far away and unattainable. When I finally started high school, I started to get into classical music and heavy metal, especially classical guitar. So I signed up for this classical guitar program, only for it to be canceled days before it was supposed to start. Luckily, the school librarian was a former orchestral percussionist, and he helped me with what he could, and later introduced me to the NACAP project. Never had I heard about Native Music, or been told about the string quartet, yet alone met a Native American composer until I participated in the first NACAP project. NACAP brings the classical world to these students, and these students take these tools and build a world of their own.

Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP)--Photo courtesy of NACAP

Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP)–Photo courtesy of NACAP

Beyond listening to the podcast, what can people do to support NACAP and the Native American communities featured in this project?

To Support NACAP:

To Support Communities: 

  • Hire a Native composer!
  • Make sure to Vote!
  • Follow and support issues that impact Native communities: land, water issues, etc.


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