Cedar Ellis, a sixth-grader at the Tremont Consolidated School, took first place in his age group in the Bagaduce Music Lending Library’s 21st-Annual Young Composers Festival.
Ellis was one of three young composers to receive the award in the 7-through-13 age group at the festival, held April 22 at Emlen Hall in Blue Hill. The contest judges decided to award first place to the top three composers instead of the usual first, second and third places, according to Nina Doak, a Bagaduce volunteer who organizes the festival.
Ellis’ composition “Boom” is scored for a small band. The other winners in the category, 7-year-old Eleanor Kmack of Portland and 13-year-old Samuel Norbert of Wells, submitted solo piano pieces.
Composers submitted their work earlier this spring. There were 32 entrants in both the younger category and the age 14-through-high school category. Winners were not announced until the day of the festival. Those in attendance either performed their compositions or, as in Ellis’ case, played a recording.
In an interview at his family home in Seal Cove, the 12-year-old said his interest in music began at an early age.
“I started banging on pots and pans,” he said. Before he was three, his parents, Shane, a woodwind player and music teacher, and Emily, a singer, bought him his first drum set. By the age of four, he was binge-watching instructional videos, learning basic rock grooves, swing rhythms and other traditional drum patterns. He admitted to playing so much and so loudly that his father made special extra-light drumsticks to keep the decibels down.
Ellis later would begin piano lessons and still studies the instrument with Sarah Fraley. A few years ago, he picked up the trumpet.
“I was recruited for jazz band,” he said.
The Tremont school jazz band had a couple of drummers, Ellis included. But they were short a trumpet player. After some basic lessons from his father, he took over a trumpet chair.
“Those are my three main instruments,” Ellis said. “I play viola and ukulele as well.”
Ellis said he heard about the competition from his music teacher at the Tremont school, Allison Putnam.
“She said, ‘You can get money,’” he recalled.
Whether it was the creative challenge or the possibility of financial gain that motivated him is a bit uncertain, although he is extremely proud of the $175 check he received at the festival.
Ellis told his father about the competition.
“He said, ‘You should use this program,’ and he showed me Sibelius,” he said.
Sibelius is software that allows the user to enter musical notation and hear it played back. A composer can enter a single-note melody line or orchestrate an entire symphony.
Ellis wanted to compose a piece for a small group.
“My plan was to make it for the band,” he said of the school band.
Ellis already had a starting point for “Boom.”
“I had made up this really cool four-measure song,” he said. He played it for his cousins, who encouraged him to expand on the short piece. “So I turned it into a song.”
After some instruction on basic harmony from Dad, Ellis started to work on expanding his idea.
“I pretty much made it up as I went,” he said.
Ellis said he was taken aback when he found out he was a winner.
“My first words were, ‘No way,’” he said. “There were a lot of good people there that had really good compositions.”
Ellis isn’t the first at the Tremont student to win at the festival. In 2015, Alec Fisichella and Adam Christianson took first place in the 14-and-above age group with their piece for trumpet, trombone and alto saxophone, “Wicked Fast.” Both remain active in high school music programs. Fisichella recently received an award for his music for Mount Desert Island High School’s one-act play “The Insanity of Mary Girard” at the Maine Drama Festival.
Ellis certainly is following in their footsteps. Since “Boom,” he has gone on to compose several other pieces, and there are more to come.
“I’m going to write more music,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s busy rehearsing with the school band. They are scheduled to perform “Boom” at their May 17 spring concert.