FERNDALE — The Ferndale High School wind orchestra will take to the stage May 18 with Elon Jamison directing like it has numerous times previously. The student musicians are talented, Jamison said, but in this year’s spring concert, they will be tested like never before.
For the first time, the FHS wind orchestra had a musical piece commissioned especially for it by a Hollywood composer with Detroit roots. Ira Hearshen, who was born and raised in Detroit and the surrounding area, commissioned “8 Mile Rhythm” for the wind orchestra, a piece that uses Motown songs as inspiration.
“I’m from Detroit and know Detroit is having a rough time, and I have a lot of connections and I wanted to do something that is supporting the area. It’s that simple,” Hearshen, 64, said. “I wanted to create something that was identifiable, that people could relate to and something I could do so that the kids in the band could relate. The “8 Mile Rhythm” refers to the border between Detroit and its suburbs and hopefully everyone feels good hearing it.”
Hearshen graduated from Wayne State University and moved to Los Angeles in 1972 to pursue his career. Since then he has orchestrated scores for movies such as “Toy Story 2,” “Rush Hour” and the upcoming “Monsters University.”
“8 Mile Rhythm” will pull inspiration and melodies from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations, “Living For the City” by Stevie Wonder and “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye. Hearshen will head to FHS May 15 to help the student musicians rehearse, and he will be in attendance for the actual performance.
“The music that these kids perform is either by dead composers or by musicians they have never actually met or talked to, and they have to try and bring to life what they put on the pages,” Jamison said. “Now, they have the opportunity to perform a piece and talk to the guy who composed it and hear what he was thinking when he wrote it. It is a pretty powerful experience.”
Hearshen’s nephew, Douglas Miller, is a senior bass clarinetist in the FHS wind orchestra, something Jamison wasn’t aware of until about two years ago, when he met Douglas’ mother — Hearshen’s sister — Julie Miller.
“I saw Julie was prepping food for a fundraiser we were doing and we were Facebook friends, so I saw her maiden name was Hearshen and she said Ira was her brother,” Jamison said. “I stared at her for a minute and was dumbfounded, and my jaw probably hit the floor. Ira works primarily for film and has been nominated for awards, but not a ton of groups do his work because it is truly difficult.
“Julie said, at that time, she would let (Ira) know I knew him by his work and within a matter of days, we proposed him working with us.”
Outside of composing music for films, Hearshen was also nominated for a 1971 Pulitzer Prize in music. As he has gotten older, Hearshen said he has drifted more toward teaching, and was excited about commissioning a piece for a high school wind orchestra.
“Elon and I discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the band and what I should take into consideration,” Hearshen said. “When I sent the first part on ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ for the first time in my career, he sent back that he thought it was too easy. I’ve never, ever gotten that.
“I take into consideration who I am writing for, and it doesn’t matter how proficient they are, but does what they are doing sound good?”
After Hearshen sent Jamison more pieces, Jamison said he realized how tough the piece actually was.
“We didn’t get all the pieces until about Spring Break and it is a really, really hard piece,” Jamison said. “I told Ira he needed to really envision the piece, that we could handle it. When we started working on the second and third movements, I don’t know what I was thinking.
“We will be in good shape, but it has been a hard road to get to this point.”
Hearshen gave Jamison and FHS a home-state discount on the nearly 10-minute long piece, but the wind orchestra still had to do some fundraising to pay for it. The band asked parents of the students to donate money in early March 2012 and, with some donations from other sources, the commissioned piece was paid for in six months.
The original piece was supposed to be around six minutes, but Jamison told Hearshen to produce a piece he was happy with and that meant something to him. With Hearshen in attendance May 18, Jamison hopes he and the students can make him proud.
“It took a long time for me to convince Ira that I wanted something my kids could play but something he was passionate about and was a reference to Detroit,” Jamison said. “If he did a piece that meant more to him, he would be more invested in it and I think, in the end, that is what he did.
“It is a rather episodic piece and it goes in and out several times with Motown sounds. It keeps changing, so there was a lot to teach.”