NORMAL — Tucked in an alcove off the band room at Normal Community West High School, among concert tuxedos and spare music stands, Konnor Halsey sits on the ground composing music.
“You can find him there for three to four hours per day,” said Lisa Preston, a Normal West band director.
At 16, Halsey is a junior, a percussionist and winner of the 2017 World Projects International Composition Contest that will earn him a trip to the landmark Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“At one point I just decided I like to write music more than playing music,” said Halsey.
Over the summer, a melody started to form in his head.
“It was squirrely and happy but chaotic. So I wrote a piece based on that,” he said.
Halsey combined skills learned from his high school music theory class and private composition lessons with Illinois State University professor Roy Magnuson, who teaches music theory and composition.
Within four months, Halsey had completed a three-minute score for wind, brass and percussion instruments titled “Joyful Chaos.”
“Honestly, the lessons weren’t a lot different than working with a college student," said Magnuson. "Konnor is exactly what you hope to find; really focused and down to earth with a great, supportive family. He understands his limitations, but wants to grow and does the hard work. He's been a delight to teach."
Most young composers have a tendency to “have too much going on” in a piece of music, said Magnuson, so he worked with Halsey to pare down and focus on individual sections.
“I learned a lot about the limitations some instruments have, but also the boundaries you can stretch with those instruments,” said Halsey.
When he was told that “Joyful Chaos” was selected, Halsey said he was “giddy.” The work will premiere in June.
“It was a great feeling. My plan is to go to college for composition and I’ll see what happens after that,” he said.
Halsey will travel to New York City in June for the World Projects New York Sounds of Summer International Music Festival. There, he will work as a composer and director to teach his piece to a performing band.
Magnuson said Halsey’s upcoming experience at Carnegie Hall is “like the first flick of a marble that sets the game in motion.”
“He’s performing at the highest level he possibly can at age 16 and he’ll be getting national exposure,” said Magnuson. “Through this performance he’s also going to get a great recording, which for a young composer is nearly invaluable.”
Halsey can use the high-quality, live recording to enter future competitions and for college applications.
Preston said Halsey’s composing ability “is incredibly unusual” for a musician his age.
“We based our marching band show off a piece that premiered in Carnegie Hall by an 18-year-old composer. So for Konnor to do this at 16 is pretty unheard of,” said Preston.
Due to Halsey’s interest in composition, Preston said the school added a second music theory course on composition and arranging.
“His long-term goal is to make a living as a composer. Hopefully, someday, his pieces will be in print and played by bands across the world. We’re really proud of him,” said Normal West band director Ryan Budzinksi.
“He’s a shining light for people who want to compose,” said Preston. “It takes a lot of bravery to express yourself through music.”