Composer pays it forward
When Blake Henson (Music) played a song by Radiohead in class to make a point about harmonic sequences, he received some strange looks from his students.
“I’m sure they were thinking, ‘How do you know Radiohead?’ I do have a life. I do enjoy music,” he says.
Henson, who joined the faculty in the fall of 2010, not only teaches music, but is also the first professional composer hired at St. Norbert – and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated one at that. The Dallas native is regarded as one of the top sacred music composers in the country. His works, including his most popular composition, “My Flight for Heaven,” are published by GIA Publications.
“I’m from a long line of teachers,” says Henson. “I became a composer first because at some point, someone pulled me aside and said: ‘I think you have a gift for this. Let me work with you and make it better.’ It’s sort of been a pay-it-forward thing, if nothing else. Teaching has always been a calling of mine. No matter what I do in music, I always need to be a teacher.”
Henson’s vocal talents were first discovered by his fourth-grade choir teacher. He started composing at age 13 and had his first piece, a church anthem, published at age 15. When he graduated from high school, Henson had already published a dozen church anthems.
Listen to “My Flight for Heaven.”
Henson now composes both sacred and secular music. He is regularly commissioned to write for choral groups and events. One of his favorite works, “August Moonrise,” was composed for the 35th anniversary of the Thomas Circle Singers of Washington, D.C.
Closer to home, Henson has been commissioned to write a symphony that the St. Norbert Wind Ensemble will premiere in 2014. He is also working on an opera for the college that features a social networking theme.
Henson’s familiarity with the composing process helps him teach, he says. “If you can write a piece that sounds like Mozart, you can build from that. Now, what do you sound like? When you’ve gone through the mechanics, then you develop your personal style.”
He also learns from his students, he says. “A composition student of mine was having a problem with a section and we sat and worked through it together. His solution was actually better than the one that I had.”
One challenge of composing is finding a text with which you connect, says Henson. He often works with Adam Tice, a poet and hymn writer for GIA. “Adam writes a lot of real challenging stuff. We have this nice exchange.”
Henson, who teaches comprehensive musicianship, sight-singing, orchestration, composition and keyboard harmony, was recently named one of the 50 most influential music professors on Twitter by OnlineDegrees.com. He was recognized for utilizing Twitter feeds to encourage aspiring musicians and composers and offer tips.
Henson says that he looks forward to seeing the compositions of St. Norbert students published. “Several students have sent out scores,” he says. “All it takes is one to get it rolling.”
Nov. 4, 2012