The Young Composers Workshop Gives Young People a Legacy in Composition

James Holt / Seattle Symphony

Being an aspiring artist as a teenager can be especially demotivating; the arts landscape seems like a cavernous ocean, and getting your work out into the wide-world seems impossible. Mentorship opportunities can sometimes intimidate young people with their daunting ideals, rather than nurture the creative bud ready to blossom within. In contrast, The Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop at the Seattle Symphony offers young people the safety of honing the craft of instrumental music, guiding them along to discover the trajectory of their futures in orchestra. 

The Young Composers Workshop originated under the profound legacy of lauded classical musician, David Diamond. Honorary Composer-in-Residence of the Seattle Symphony, Diamond was hailed as one of the greatest American chamber music composers of all time, and was one of the greatest forces of composition in the 1940s. His place in Seattle’s music history is inherently intertwined with the values of the Young Composers Workshop. Founded in 1992 and originally named after Diamond and his legacy, the program’s goal was to give adolescent composers the resources and support to cultivate their creative voice within their compositions, imbuing young composers with agency to fulfill their musical aspirations. 

In December 2021, applicants ages 18 and younger applied for the 2022 iteration of The Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop. With a chance to showcase their instrumentation by the end of the workshop’s 12-week run-time, young artists learn how to develop musical themes and narratives through instrumental arrangement. The experience is hands-on, with preparation workshops taught by the Seattle Symphony librarian, and with rehearsal technique lessons taught by the Seattle Symphony Conductor.  

a young girl stands on stage as three adults stand celebrating her
James Holt / Seattle Symphony

This season, students will have the chance to attend two masterclasses taught by Composer-in-Residence Reena Esmail. With expertise in Hindustani music, which she studied in India, Esmail bridges the divide between Western and Indian composition. Young artists will have the privilege of hearing from Esmail’s acclaimed perspective, learning further about the cultural significance and quintessence of orchestral instrumentation. The workshop’s mentorship ultimately culminates in a final, original arrangement with a woodwind quartet, string quartet, and Pierrot ensemble. At the end of the workshop, the Seattle Symphony plays each student’s compositions in a chamber concert at Benaroya Hall.

Before first attending the workshop in 2018, 17-year-old composer Elisa Johnson didn’t listen to very much instrumental music aside from the classical pieces she was learning on the piano. “Coming into the Young Composers Workshop with what I thought was an embarrassing lack of experience was hard for me. I felt completely out of place. For some time, I even considered dropping out. [However] by the end of the workshop, I had bonded with the other young composers and was able to look past my different background.” 

Elisa genuinely flourished through her time in her first iteration of the workshop. In that workshop in 2018, she composed her first instrumental score and built up her knowledge of orchestral music. These were significant landmarks in Elisa’s instrumental journey. 

teen musicians sit in a row taking notes, watching something off camera
James Holt / Seattle Symphony

The workshop also strengthened Elisa’s confidence in her musical abilities, though she sometimes “still feels the sense of insecurity” she felt on her first day. However, the camaraderie and bonding that Elisa experienced with her peers, has helped her fit in with the musical community. “I am amazed by the level of knowledge and talent that comes from my fellow young composers,” she said. “They consistently have incredible advice and feedback to give me when they listen to my music, which has only made me better at coming up with creative ideas to translate into music.”

Now in her fourth year at the program, Elisa has felt empowered through the workshop’s collaborative process. Having first applied in middle school, Elisa never expected to be accepted because at the time, most of her experience with composition was in pop songwriting. Before she discovered her passion for composition, she was an avid participant in musical theatre, gymnastics and science, and she was always curious about how chamber music would be technically different than pop-influenced composition. She included a single choral piece—her only choral piece—in her application all those years ago. Four years later, she is happy to say that taking that first step to apply for the workshop has definitely paid off.

Due to the pandemic, the 2021 iteration of The Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop had to take place virtually. All rehearsals and meetings with musicians were remote, lending to a very different musical environment. “I did not have the chance to practice attending rehearsal and giving feedback to the musicians like I would have in previous years,” remembered Elisa. “This year, I am looking forward to attending rehearsals in person and building my communication skills, which will serve me well in the future as I navigate the music industry and rely on my relationships with musicians.” 

The workshop firmly emphasizes the collaboration between youth artists and Seattle Symphony musicians when creating new musical pieces. It is one of the most integral and helpful aspects of the program, an element which was limited due to the virtual platform of 2021’s workshop. This year, students will have the chance to work with guest mentors and renowned musicians, including alumna and the workshop’s director, Angelique Poteat.

a young boy stands showing an older man holding a violin sheet music
James Holt / Seattle Symphony

“The Young Composers Workshop is ultimately an opportunity to learn,” Elisa summarized. The group composition lessons and preparation workshops have aided many young artists in improving their creative abilities; around 300 students have gone through the program since its inception in 1993. Some of Elisa’s favorite days in the workshop are “when Seattle Symphony musicians visit and talk about what their instruments can do and how to best write for them.” These demonstrations help with the clarity of her compositions, improving her ability “to deliver clearly notated scores that translate exactly into the music [she] envisions.”

Being a part of a cohort of passionate young peers and learning from seasoned professionals in the industry can be a significant way for up-and-coming artists to gain meaningful experiences. Through her experience at the Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop, Elisa has learned more about how she wants to continue her creative identity. “Looking back on my music journey, I wish someone had told me that I was not ‘wrong’ to have had interests outside of music or to have started my compositional journey writing pop music,” shared Elisa. 

Elisa is confident in her interest in music, and she looks forward to studying both science and music in college. Students of the workshop can thoroughly explore their passion for music, allowing them to make decisive choices with their newfound individualism.                

On June 13, at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, the 2022 cohort of young composers will present their final musical scores to their families and the extended public. The concert is recorded, and participants exit the workshop with a high-quality recording of their pieces: an invaluable shard of the workshop’s experiences. For Elisa and others, the workshop offers a priceless experience: a safe space for teenagers to explore their identities through musicality, make mistakes, and emerge with a newfound outlook on the music industry.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.