Prodigy hopes to see success in movies

Teen has composed music for school band

June 16, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

First, there were the sheets of paper with original song lyrics on them that little Brittany Newsome's family would find lying around the house. Then there was the piano music wafting from downstairs -- unfamiliar, but every bit as sophisticated as other things her parents had heard her play.

But perhaps the biggest clue that Lynn and Clarence Newsome might have a musical prodigy on their hands was when Brittany's piano teacher started letting the 14-year-old play her own compositions at recitals.

"The other kids would be playing Beethoven and Bach," Mrs. Newsome said. "Brittany would be playing Newsome."

If Brittany's family members needed any other confirmation of her talent, they have it now. Inspired by boredom, the Owen Brown middle schooler recently composed a three-part suite for 23 instruments based on her original screenplay about an African queen named Akili. Her work made its debut at a concert last month, courtesy of the school band.

"I think I was probably excited, but a little bit scared," Brittany said. "It was just wonderful for other people to hear what I'd been hearing."

What Brittany had been hearing -- and seeing -- was a Disney-esque tale of royalty, love and strife that had been in her head since she was 8 years old. In fact, the whole story was inspired by her disappointment that no one had done a major animated film about a black person.

Looking for an extracurricular challenge, Brittany talked to a guidance counselor who suggested that she play some of her work on the piano for Richard Roberts, Owen Brown's band director. Roberts was so impressed by the girl's original tunes that he asked her to write some music for the band.

"I was amazed at the depth of understanding she seemed to have on a musical level," Roberts said. "I knew composition majors in college that didn't write as well as she does. I just think she has something that's unique."

Brittany dug in, working on songs in her basement and collaborating with Roberts for weeks. Aided by a keyboard that can mimic the sound of various instruments, she created three songs for her schoolmates to play: the sweeping "Akili's Kingdom," the menacing "Enter Shani," named for the tale's villain, and the majestic "Reclaiming the Throne."

All this without a single composition lesson.

"It's never been that difficult," Brittany said of writing music. "Usually, I sit down, I play something, I'm humming some tune. It's never been that hard for me."

Brittany conceived Akili as an Ethiopian queen, born as a gift from the goddess of the moon and the god of the sun. Her nemesis is the evil Egyptian Queen Shani, who wants world domination.

Though Brittany only recently set the entire tale to music, she had been fine-tuning the story for years. In elementary school, she began peppering her parents with questions about such things as the landscape of Ethiopia and African names. Eventually, Brittany began creating bits and pieces of songs for the story.

"She started trying to explain it to us because she couldn't even get it all on the keyboard," Mrs. Newsome said. "That's when we realized that this was a little out of the ordinary. This past year, it has become more consuming for her. She would rush to get her homework finished so she could get to the keyboard."

Not surprisingly, Brittany hopes to compose music for films one day, following in the footsteps of some of her favorite writers such as James Horner ("Titanic"), Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Evita") and Hans Zimmer ("The Prince of Egypt").

"I might end up studying film. I really don't want to limit myself to just animated film," Brittany said. "I definitely know I want to work in the film industry."

The young musician sings and acts too, and played the lead role in "Cinderella" at Columbia's Slayton House last summer.

"She could do anything, really," says her older sister, Gina, a junior at Hampton University in Virginia.

Brittany's biggest fans are waiting for her next achievement.

"This is pretty much without training," Mrs. Newsome said. "I'm just waiting to see what she'll do when she has the training in composition."

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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