Composing for Video Games Summer Camp

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio,
Pierce Huxtable, Minnesota Public Radio
August 7, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Anyone who has worked with kids will tell you that they are an endless source of creativity and energy.

And when you combine that creativity and energy with a medium as expansive and fantastical as video games, the result is nothing short of amazing.

Troy Strand, a music teacher in Apple Valley, Minn., looks forward to one week of the year more than any other. A group of teenagers gather at the MacPhail School for Music in Minneapolis, and for five days, they learn and create together at the Composing for Video Games summer camp. Strand is the eye of this artistic hurricane, directing the students' innovation and teaching them about how to make their theories into reality.

Their goals are the same: compose one or two tracks for a video game of their own invention, and complete the work in 5 days. Top Score got to sit down with Strand to find out more about the camp, about his own video game compositions and about the joys of working with kids.

The Composing for Video Games Camp's deadlines could make the week seem like work, but the kids have their priorities straight.

"Kids are just having fun the whole week," Strand says about his students. He does his utmost to keep from stifling their creativity. When they come up with a new idea or direction for their music, "I kind of let them go with it," he admits.

That's not to say Strand isn't involved in their learning. He teaches his campers to use a digital composing program that allows them to write a piece down and to hear the result immediately. They are able to share the result, and group compositions can be an e-mail away.

At the end of the week, the campers are able to share their work through a performance. Strand could not be any prouder on those days. "We make some really great music," he enthuses.

Strand has more than teaching experience to bring to the table. He is a video game composer as well, and he isn't a stranger to working under pressure.

In 2013, Strand was contacted by a friend and video game developer who found himself in a predicament: The friend entered a video game production competition, and had 48 hours to build an entire game from the code up. The game was coming together well, but with less than 24 hours left in the competition, it desperately needed a soundtrack.

"He shot me an e-mail on Sunday morning and said, 'Help! I need music for a game … and it's due, like, tomorrow'," Strand recalls. "And I said, 'Oh. Sure. Okay. Well, let me see if I can put something together.' And it just ended up working perfectly."

The game was submitted with the title Sinister Sid and the Snowball Sneaks, and it had an appropriately creepy-sounding soundtrack to match.

Strand now uses his experience as an instructing tool, but he tries to teach his campers more than just a skill. "I'm in a really unique and fortunate position to not only teach kids music, but to demonstrate that they can make a living and make a difference doing what they really love to do," he explains.

Perhaps years from now, the next great video game composer will be interviewed, and he or she will remember starting at a summer camp in Minnesota.

For samples of the campers' work, and to hear Emily's interview with Troy Strand, listen to the audio at the top of the page.

You can subscribe to episodes of Top Score on iTunes.

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