The York Symphony Orchestra hosted its 13th annual summer music camp, My Opus Magnum, last month at Logos Academy in York. It offered musicians in grades three through 12 the opportunity to learn the steps of creating a song and preparing it on music manuscript.

Chris Whittaker, a conductor, composer and pianist from York County, returned to teach the class. Previously, Robert Hart Baker ran the class, but he announced plans to move to St. Louis earlier this summer.

On July 25, Whittaker, 27, guided students through syncopation, arpeggios and other technical parts of writing music. When camp ended at noon, students waited to play him songs.

My Opus Magnum was a fun challenge, Whittaker said, since it involved kids of different ages, abilities and musical preferences. He added that he has taught some private lessons, but never a group of 20. He knows that composing can be daunting. As a kid, he tried lots of hobbies, but always came back to music. He began playing by teaching himself Christmas songs on a keyboard at the age of 6.

"Now when I get to sit and compose, it's one of the most satisfying things to do," he said. But the process, he added, is completely abstract. To write music, people have to build structure and narrative from nothing.

Today, it's even more difficult to teach the craft, since styles vary drastically, Whittaker said. Some of the My Opus Magnum students wanted to write film scores, others liked indie pop and still others wanted to write Baroque fugues. Even though Logos provided laptops and other equipment, Whittaker said he preferred to teach students to write out notes by hand.

Since the camp only lasted a week, he tried to focus on fundamentals, including melody and harmony. He added that was impressed by his students.

"I kind of envy the kids," he said. "They have no expectations in some ways."

As a professional composer, he said he has to be more conscious about being true to his own voice. Whittaker said he writes in the contemporary classical and orchestra genres. Sometimes, it's a struggle to bring an idea to fruition.

"It's not all inspiration," he said. "It's hard work. You have to work through it logically."

At 19, Whittaker led 65 musicians through seven classical pieces he penned during a show at Living Word Community Church in York Township. At 20, he conducted a piece commissioned by YSO.

He earned a bachelor's degree in composition from the Peabody Institute, and recently completed his master's degree in orchestral conducting at the University of Michigan. His music has been featured on Baltimore's WYPR-FM and southcentral Pennsylvania's WITF-FM.

With his students, Whittaker said he tries to break composition down to making choices. Selecting a key, time signature, mood and instruments helps inform the rest of the process.

"The more choices you make, the easier the decision-making process works," he added.

At the moment, he's working as a freelance composer in New York City while applying for conducting and composing jobs. He said he tries to remain optimistic about his career, which can be challenging at times. But he said learning music will help students who might end up studying other topics, including law and science.

"Making order out of the chaos that is the chromatic scale ... teaches you to recognize patterns," he said.

FlipSide staff

Young people are invited to enter the 36th Annual York Symphony Orchestra Song Writing Contest. Individuals or groups with up to three members can enter once. Entries will be divided into three categories: grades three to five, grades six to eight and grades nine to 12. Deadline is Sept. 15.

Judges will select six winning songs - two from each group - to be arranged and performed by the YSO during the Young Person's Concert 10 a.m. Nov. 7 and 8 at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, 50 N. George St., York. A cash award will be given to the composer of each winning song.and all participants will receive a certificate.

For details, rules and an application, call 717-812-0717 or visit

Series subscriptions and single tickets for the 2013-14 York Symphony Orchestra season are on sale.

Just added: Musician and actor Paul Williams will perform with the YSO during a Jan. 18, 2014, SuperPops concert at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, 50 N. George St., York. Tickets cost $61, $71 and $91. Proceeds benefit YSO education programs and outreach.

Former YSO conductor Robert Hart Baker left the area this summer. YSO will bring four director/conductor candidates to the area during the 2013-14 season. Their performances will be used as an audition. The final selection will be based on feedback from board members, musicians and the community. Randy Day has been selected to serve as interim conductor of the York Symphony Chorus for the 2013-14 season.

For details and tickets, call 717-846-1111 or visit or

Read or Share this story: