Symphony Volunteer Association Shares Importance of Annual SLSO Express the Music Contest

Music has the power to move people in a variety of ways. What one listener hears as dark, contemplative, or melancholy could be heard as powerful, strong, and empowering by another.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Express the Music contest—a 23-year-old competition that invites students in St. Louis-area middle and high schools to listen to a piece of orchestral music and respond with poetry or prose inspired by the music.


This year, students listened to the first movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterwork Scheherazade—the musical suite based on One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic. The well-known musical work, with its sinuous violin solos, evocative melodies, and lush instrumentation, served as the inspiration for more than 2,000 student submissions.

The Symphony Volunteer Association (SVA) organizes the contest yearly. A committee of SVA members contact area schools, select judges, screen the entries, and plan an awards ceremony. Express the Music (ETM) reaches across the St. Louis region, with participating middle schools, high schools, and home schools from Fairview Heights, Illinois, to St. Charles, Missouri, and as far west as Union, Missouri.

Student writers developed a wide variety of themes and characters with depth inspired by Scheherazade: a bird outrunning a destructive storm, a lonely woman expecting her first child, the death of a beautiful tree, a boat in waves, and far more.

“Reading the works that students create out of that inspiration provides a fresh take on works that maybe were overlooked or forgotten—or perhaps are just so familiar that we don’t give them much thought,” said Liz Halpin, SVA member who has been involved with the ETM contest for years.

Poetry and prose entries were reviewed separately using a multi-judge blind process: no school or student identifiers appeared on the documents seen by the judges. Volunteers from the SVA served as preliminary judges, reviewing entries according to standard rubrics in prose and poetry. Twenty-one finalists from the Junior Division (grades 6-8) and 26 finalists from the Senior Division (grades 9-12) were advanced to the next round. Two panels of experts, one in poetry and another in prose, judged the finalists’ compositions on creativity and excellence in writing in response to this year’s musical selection. Their scores determined the First, Second, and Third Place winners in each division.

I am always moved by the imagination kids bring to any assignment, and even more so with tasks that involve music,” said SVA member Jamie Spencer, who is also a retired English teacher. “As long-time lovers of music we love to see a new audience developing for the beauty of music.”

Terry Gates, another SVA member and ETM volunteer, agreed.

“Reading a hundred stories and poems by 6-12th graders restores my faith in America's youth once a year,” Gates said.

SVA members enjoy seeing children and families at Powell Hall for an annual ETM awards ceremony—some for the first time.

“Over the years I have met many families who had never been in the building,” Halpin said. “The very word ‘symphony’ can be intimidating to people if they have never been. The ETM award ceremony creates a welcoming experience for a lot of people.”

Congratulations to the top winners, and to all the 2020 Finalists!

Click on each winner's name to view their entry.

Prose (Junior Division):

First place: Hannah Moon, 8th grade, Wydown Middle School

Second place: Melanie Migneco, 7th grade, Truman Middle School

Third place: Julia DeWeese, 8th grade, Truman Middle School

Prose (Senior Division):

First place: Marian Fonseca, 12th grade, Villa Duchesne

Second place: Betsy Benzinger, 12 grade, Villa Duchesne

Third place: Ava Brouster, 9th grade, Villa Duchesne

Poetry (Junior Division):

First place: Laney Spaulding, 7th grade, Lincoln Middle School

Second place: Claire Fodge, 8th grade, LaSalle Springs Middle School

Third place: Vivian Wang, 7th grade, Wydown Middle School

Poetry (Senior Division):

First place: Zoe DeYoung, 11th grade, Parkway West High School

Second place: Isadora Karathanos, 12th grade, Belleville West High School

Third place: Ally Martin, 11th grade, Parkway West High School

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