Students Compose Music at St. Saviour Catholic Academy

Tags: Currents Brooklyn, NY, Catholic Education, Faith, Inspiration, Queens, NY

By Paula Katinas and Jessica Easthope

PARK SLOPE — Aradhana Agarwala has quite an impressive resume as a musician. She plays the piano as well as the clarinet and has composed at least 40 pieces of music. Even more impressive: She’s just 11 years old. 

Despite her youth, composing music is nothing new for Aradhana, a sixth grader at St. Saviour Catholic Academy in Park Slope. In fourth grade, she took part in an ambitious project — creating a musical based on the life of Harriet Tubman. 

Aradhana puts a lot of thought into her compositions. “I like to think of the setting when I’m writing music. If it’s taking place in a mystical forest, I’ll do something with the flute and string instruments. It gives me an empowering feeling,” she explained. 

What’s unusual about all of this is that it’s not unusual at St. Saviour Catholic Academy. The school takes music instruction seriously, so seriously, in fact, that it requires students to compose music. 

Starting in the fifth grade, all students at the K-to-8 school take part in the Young Composer Initiative, a program developed by music teacher Ted Stafford to unlock children’s creativity, promote a positive work ethic and instill in them a sense of teamwork. 

Some students learn to play musical instruments while others learn to sing, but all get the chance to write music. At the end of the school term, their musical compositions are performed by professional musicians in concert at St. Saviour Church — a big thrill for the junior Bachs and Beethovens. 

“It’s great because when you see it written down and then have it being played, it’s very different. You get to see what you’ve done and see it all come together,” said seventh grader Jocelyn Rossillo, a flute player. 

Music teacher Ted Stafford said, “To hear your own piece played in the church by a bunch of pros? It’s pretty amazing for these kids.” 

The program is an important part of life at St. Saviour, said Principal Susan Walsh, who immediately gave Stafford the green light as soon as he proposed it nine years ago. 

“The Young Composer Initiative is important to us as a school because we try to balance the arts and the academics. We want to send well-rounded children out into the world,” she said. “They’re also learning how to read music, write music, and then they hear their songs recorded.” 

Aradhana, who is adept at both the piano and the clarinet, loves taking part in the Young Composer Initiative. 

“I really like expressing myself through music,” she explained. “I know a lot of kids think that composing is only for people who are older and that you have to know all about music before you start. But I think that music is the universal language and it’s for everyone. People my age can do it. You can learn as you do it.” 

That’s music to Stafford’s ears because it fits in perfectly with his philosophy. Part of his goal in creating the program was to demystify music education. 

“It’s not rocket science. It’s not magic,” Stafford said. “It’s a learnable skill that anyone can do, and it really comes down to being a right. 

Everybody should know how to compose a reasonable melody, just like learning to write an essay or being able to solve a math problem. It’s among the skills that everyone should have as part of their right to education.” 

Stafford estimated that in the nine years since the inception of the Young Composers Initiative, more than 300 students have come through the program. 

The students work on their compositions during twice-a-week sessions in the school’s music room. But the youngsters often find ideas coming to them in their lives outside of school. 

“I was sitting down at my desk trying to do my homework and I got an idea,” said Ella Lee. “And then suddenly I said, ‘Wait, this could be a good sound. This could be a good tune if I add more instruments to it.’ And that was actually one of my inspirations for the first piece I composed.” 

Ella called her piece “Dance of the Tides,” a name inspired by the fact that on paper, the melody looked like waves. 

The young composers are influenced by a variety of musical genres — classical, jazz, hip-hop and rap. 

Alessio Cavaleri, a seventh grader who plays the saxophone and the drums, listens a lot to the rapper Eminem. “Listening to him gives me ideas,” he said. 

Ella loves Beethoven. “I see his pieces as really intense and they have nice mood changes. But I don’t look up to him as a piano player. For that, I look up to people like Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff,” she explained. 

Alessio enjoys the freedom of expression that comes with composing. “You have a lot more options when you’re creating music. You can do so many different things because you’re not locked in and you’re not being super delicate. You can just go crazy on it and it will just sound good anyway,” he said. 

Stafford said one of the best things about the program is that it often frees the students from the fear of failure and opens them up to try new things. 

“They know it doesn’t have to be perfect. But it has to be written,” he added.