CNMN > Projects > Exploring First Nations Ways of Knowing, Doing and Being Through Composition

Keitha Clark

  • Acoustic instruments
  • 13 to 18 years of age
  • Intergenerational

1.5 hours of class time ( 2 sessions) // 2-6 hours of individual creation time

  • Education
  • Diversity

Exploring First Nations Ways of Knowing, Doing and Being Through Composition


This col­lab­o­ra­tive project took place in the spring of 2022 with Den­nis Shorty and mem­bers of the Fid­dle­heads, a youth fid­dle ensem­ble in White­horse. The project focused on find­ing ways to inte­grate a local First Nations sto­ries and musi­cal expe­ri­ences into pri­vate lessons and ensem­ble music classes.


Pri­vate Fid­dle Teacher Kei­tha Clark: 

Kei­tha Clark lives and teach­es in White­horse, Yukon, on the tra­di­tion­al ter­ri­to­ry of the Kwan­lin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Coun­cil. Her stu­dents range in age from 7–15, and her prac­tice focus­es on con­nect­ing com­mu­ni­ties and cul­tures through fid­dling. Kei­tha has a a pri­vate stu­dio with 25 stu­dents in White­horse and has also found­ed fid­dle pro­grams in Tes­lin and Haines Junc­tion. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her Mas­ters of Edu­ca­tion with a focus on how to improve arts pro­gram­ming deliv­ery in remote north­ern communities. 

Elder Den­nis Shorty:

Den­nis is a Kas­ka musi­cian, artist and knowl­edge keep­er from the com­mu­ni­ty of Ross Riv­er, Yukon. His music is writ­ten in the Kas­ka Dena lan­guage and cel­e­brates the land, ani­mals, respect, ances­tors and tra­di­tions. Den­nis and his part­ner, Jen­nifer Fröh­ling, per­form as Dena Zagi. They have played venues in Cana­da and Ger­many, and their album, Gucho Hin, was nom­i­nat­ed for both an Indige­nous Music Award and a Cana­di­an Folk Music Award.


 I have worked with Den­nis and Jen­ny for sev­er­al years. I first met them at a com­mu­ni­ty BBQ while teach­ing fid­dle at the school in Ross Riv­er, and we end­ed up jam­ming in their garage that evening (super fun!). I went on to be part of their band and played at var­i­ous fes­ti­vals and com­mu­ni­ty gath­er­ings in the Yukon with them.

This project grew out of a com­mis­sion I received to arrange a ver­sion of Den­nis’ song, Gucho Hin (Ancestor’s Song), for the All City Band (with The Fid­dle­heads) for their spring 2022 con­cert. This was a large ensem­ble arrange­ment for 60 musi­cians with 25 dif­fer­ent instru­men­tal parts. (The All City Band suc­cess­ful­ly applied for fund­ing from the Yukon Gov­ern­ment to cov­er fees for Den­nis and Jen­ny, the com­mis­sion, trav­el costs, venue and recording.)

Check out the video clip of the All City Band/Fiddleheads per­form­ing Gucho Hin.

This com­po­si­tion project was devel­oped out of a desire to cre­ate addi­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to explore and respond to Den­nis’ story.


Project Goals

  • Cre­ate a short, orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion that responds to the expe­ri­ences, sto­ries and cul­ture Den­nis Shorty shares in this learn­ing video.
  • Reflect and engage with dif­fer­ent cul­tures using non-Euro­cen­tric ways of know­ing, doing and being. 
  • Explor­ing how you can use the ele­ments of music to express your own ideas and emo­tions, as well as reflect the ideas and emo­tions of others.

Project Stages

Stage One — Col­lab­o­ra­tive Brain­storm­ing (via Zoom — 45 minutes)

Stu­dents gath­ered on Zoom to watch Den­nis’ learn­ing video, dis­cuss the main themes and ideas, and explore how they want­ed to con­nect those ideas to their own cre­ative response using the ele­ments of music. 

Stage Two — Inde­pen­dent Com­po­si­tion Devel­op­ment (2–4 hours per student)

Stu­dents used the basic ele­ments of music (pitch, rhythm, tim­bre, temp, dynam­ics, etc.) to con­vey their ideas. Exam­ples include using ascend­ing scale frag­ments to con­vey the moun­tain pass Den­nis’ fam­i­ly would climb; using pizzi­ca­to to con­vey Den­nis’ Grand­ma pick­ing berries;  incor­po­rat­ing minor scales and bars with extra beats to con­vey the uncer­tain­ty and sad­ness of Den­nis being tak­en away to res­i­den­tial school.

(See below to view and down­load the Cre­ative Para­me­ters Hand­out used in this project.)

Stage Three – Instruc­tor Feedback/ Record­ing Prep (1 hour)

Stu­dents worked in Garage Band to record and arrange their com­po­si­tions inde­pen­dent­ly. (We were hon­oured to have Den­nis and Jen­ny cre­ate a spe­cial tra­di­tion­al drum track for the stu­dents to work with as they were writ­ing as well.) 

Once stu­dents had a first draft com­plet­ed, they emailed Kei­tha the audio for feed­back. Stu­dents then had two days to make the final adjust­ments on their com­po­si­tions and clar­i­fy their arrangements. 

Stage Four- Record­ing the com­po­si­tions (15–30 min­utes)

For the video, stu­dents were asked to intro­duce them­selves and their top­ic, the land­scape or expe­ri­ence they were writ­ing about, thank Den­nis for shar­ing his sto­ry, include an expla­na­tion of how they used the ele­ments of music to express their ideas and briefly describe how this project changed how they think about music. 

Stage Five — Stu­dent Feed­back (30 minutes)

After watch­ing each other’s per­for­mances, stu­dents were asked to pro­vide feed­back to their peers. (Because the project was most­ly online, stu­dents cre­at­ed writ­ten feed­back on Padlet for this.)

Feed­back cri­te­ria included: 

  • A com­pli­ment-  Be spe­cif­ic, did you like how they used a cer­tain scale, dynam­ic, rhythm etc. to con­vey their idea, or a unique per­spec­tive they brought to their tune idea? 
  • A com­ment on a way that they ref­er­enced Dennis’s sto­ry or idea- What did you like about the way that they did this? Is there any­thing you would like to see more of?
  • A ques­tion — What kind of ques­tion would encour­age the com­pos­er to take their work to the next lev­el? Exam­ples include: What would you change about your piece if you were writ­ing this again? What was your favourite part about this project? Has this project changed how you view music? 


I loved doing this project with the fid­dlers! They cre­at­ed work that showed a lot of lis­ten­ing and learn­ing; both about the sto­ries and expe­ri­ences Den­nis shared, and for how to find mean­ing­ful ways to reflect and respond to those expe­ri­ences through music.

It was also amaz­ing work­ing with Den­nis and Jen­ny for this project! I was hon­oured to have this oppor­tu­ni­ty, and grate­ful to Den­nis and Jen­ny for their will­ing­ness to share their music and sto­ries with our community.

Below are three exam­ples of what the fid­dlers com­posed and reflec­tions on their learning:


Here are a few thoughts about this project and why com­po­si­tion is an impor­tant part of cre­at­ing cul­tur­al under­stand­ing (view video here).


I thought this project was real­ly suc­cess­ful because the kids are real­ly engaged in the work, and we were able to reflect Den­nis’ sto­ries and expe­ri­ence in real­ly mean­ing­ful ways. I think one of the most pow­er­ful things we can devel­op as musi­cians is the abil­i­ty not just to cre­ate but to lis­ten in a real deep and mean­ing­ful way. I think the kids were able to do this with this project, and show true lis­ten­ing to Den­nis’ sto­ries and then show a real mean­ing­ful response by how they approached writ­ing their tunes and what they reflect­ed in their pieces. 

To me that was the most sat­is­fy­ing part of the project, get­ting to see them devel­op those lis­ten­ing skills and then be able to respond with their own cre­ative voic­es to what Den­nis’ sto­ries and expe­ri­ences were. I think that’s such a gift of the cre­ative process: to be able to give young musi­cians the chance to lis­ten to expe­ri­ences and sto­ries from dif­fer­ent cul­tures and find ways to mean­ing­ful­ly respond to those with the musi­cal skills they have and that they can devel­op through these projects.

“In a way the world is a huge com­po­si­tion – a huge musi­cal com­po­si­tion that’s going on all the time, with­out a begin­ning and pre­sum­ably with­out an end­ing. We are the com­posers of this huge mirac­u­lous com­po­si­tion that’s going on around us and we can improve it, or we can destroy it. We can add more nois­es, or we can add more beau­ti­ful sounds. It’s all up to us.” (R. Mur­ray Schafer in Lis­ten (2009), a doc­u­men­tary film.)

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