Alanah Ntzouras: Film Scoring Debut Harmonizes With Work to Engage Children in Music and Inquiry-Based Learning

UCLA Lab School Music Demonstration Teacher Alanah Ntzouras draws on her work as a composer and performer to engage preK-6 students in inquiry-based learning

Music Demonstration Teacher Alanah Ntzouras is a singer and plays guitar, saxophone, clarinet, and flute. Recently she added film scorer to her list of musical superpowers. Ntzouras wrote her debut film score for Hello Instantgram, a live-action short that premiered at the February 2018 BAMkids Film Festival in Brooklyn, NY. The film was written, directed, and produced by Matt Maguire and Matt Kollar of Sneakthief Media and features animatronic puppets created by Patricio Wolovich of Long Beach fabrication shop Encirco Studios. The Jim Henson Foundation, which curates puppet-themed selections for the festival, discovered Hello Instantgram on social media and invited the filmmakers to show their work. For Ntzouras, who joined the UCLA Lab School faculty this year, it was an artistic opportunity that also has resonance for her teaching.

“Coming back from the festival, I shared the film with our students as a way to show them my passion as a musician, and that you can perform live, compose for film, and collaborate with other artists and technicians,” she said.

Writing music for the story of Captain Grelf, the hapless space explorer on a self-professed mission to “destroy the humans,” required a style that Ntzouras calls “a little sci-fi and a little adventuresome, with a lot of humor mixed in.” A lifelong Muppets fan, she said she liked thinking about how Grelf the puppet might be expressed musically and was especially honored to be part of a project selected by the Henson Foundation.

Maybe one of the best rewards, she added, was hearing children and families giggle and laugh through the two sold-out screenings. “Puppets are so engaging, and kids are interested in how they move, how they’re created,” Ntzouras said. “It’s so full of life in that way.”

Puppeteers bring to life Space Captain Grelf, star of the film short Hello Instantgram

The Hello Instantgram crew at the 2018 BAMkids Film Festival: (from left) Sol Wolovich and Patricio Wolovich, Encirco Studios; Matt Maguire and Matt Kollar, Sneakthief Media; and UCLA Lab School Demonstration Teacher Alanah Ntzouras

Back in the classroom, Ntzouras’ teaching is deepened by her work as a composer and performer, where creativity and a spirit of improvisation are part of listening to children and building on their ideas to create meaningful learning experiences.

Knowing that Intermediate students were curious about musical instruments, Ntzouras looked for ways to tie that interest into their study of the history and culture of Los Angeles, a city shaped in part by the music and film industries. As part of their project, students have been looking at music and orchestra in film and “diving into where music is played in Los Angeles, in spaces both private and public,” Ntzouras said.

Similarly, when Upper II students expressed a strong desire to use technology, Ntzouras taught them to use GarageBand and MIDI keyboards. She then had them compose digital music around the theme of growing up and moving on from elementary school. The plan is to incorporate the pieces into their culmination celebration in June.

Projects like these give children a context for learning many of the skills Ntzouras uses in her professional artistic work — collaborating, exploring, and expressing ideas and concepts through different media.

It’s an approach that factors into why Ntzouras was attracted to the UCLA Lab School music teacher position when she heard about the opening last summer. “There is a different way of doing things here,” she said. “You have the flexibility to take children’s suggestions, honor their curiosity and let it grow into a shared experience.” And she appreciates the mix of ideas and styles the children express, noting that “the community is so diverse and kids have so many different ways of connecting to music.”

Growing up in her hometown of Downey, California, Ntzouras said that when she was playing in the school band “it never occurred to me I could work in film, but when you make friends and start collaborating on projects you get opportunities you weren’t expecting.”

That’s one of the added lessons she hopes her students will take with them. She also hopes they’ll continue connecting to music. “There are so many challenges for them in middle school,” Ntzouras said. “If they can express those challenges in a positive way through writing music I’ll feel really good about sending them off.”

Watch Now:

Hello Instantgram! Festival Cut

Space Captain Grelf records a special video greeting and reveals his plan to destroy the humans.

Building Captain Grelf

Go behind the scenes to see how an animatronic puppet is made. Children and adults interested in puppetry and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) should be sure to check it out!