MYSTIC — When a familiar song is rearranged, the musical experience for the singers, players and audience can be “ear-opening” and magical.
Such was the case with “Kyrie Eleison,” a 1985 hit by the American pop-rock band Mr. Mister, which the Stonington Singers, a Mystic Middle School chorus, sang at its spring concert Tuesday, accompanied by djembe, electric bass and piano.
The song was reinvented for middle-schoolers by Yale students in Jeffrey Klitz’s class, “Arranging for Voices.” Klitz is a music director, arranger and orchestrator who has worked on Broadway shows, film, television, and with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony.
But how the song came to be reinvented and then sung by Mystic middle schoolers goes back to a conversation outside of an elevator in New York City.
Klitz said he met Ellen Gilbert, the music teacher at Mystic Middle School, a little over a year ago when she brought her students to New York City for an event where he was an accompanist.
“After that event, we were waiting for the elevator, we were talking, and I discovered she was running the Mystic Middle School choir, and we said we should keep in touch,” he said Tuesday. “Then when I was teaching last fall, I called her up and asked if she wanted to collaborate with my students.”
Gilbert and her choir students chose a couple of tunes and asked Klitz to present them to his students with a request to arrange the music for middle school voices.
“They came to campus in the fall after my students had written a couple of arrangements,” Klitz said.
One of Klitz’s students was Sofía Campoamor, a music major at Yale from Washington, D.C. She said she and her classmates worked on finding new arrangements for Gilbert’s songs.
“It was a really small class with six people, and we had all kinds of assignments throughout the semester, but we were working on arrangements of existing songs,” she said by phone Monday. “We worked on two arrangements for Ellen Gilbert’s class.”
When the middle-schoolers came to Yale, Campoamor and her fellow classmates taught the students the “Kyrie” arrangement during a three-hour session. Classmates who collaborated on the arrangement were Seth Gregson and David Townley.
“We got to hear how they did with what we had done and got to learn what worked for their voices,” Campoamor said.
She said taking existing songs and making new arrangements for them was a great exercise to teach kids that music can be malleable.
“It shows that you can have a more active role in the process,” she said. “They were able to hear the original songs and then and hear how we able to adjust them to bring something new out of the songs.”
Gilbert said the resulting piece was complex and interesting while also geared toward the ranges of middle schoolers’ voices.
“The treatment of the piece is so much more elevated than your typical child piece,” she said, adding that the choir worked hard to master the new arrangement. “My expectations of where they can be vocally are very high, and wherever I ask to go, they always go there.”
Klitz also served as the piano accompanist for the “Kyrie” performance Tuesday, and said he looked forward to working on future projects with Gilbert.
“One of the things that I do is to teach at Yale, but this gives me a distinct and unique kind of gratification working with Ellen and the kids, which is not normally what I do, but I would be happy to do more and more with her and with them,” he said. “I like working with great musicians and that’s why I chose to work with Mystic Middle School.”