Metro-East Living

Student of the Week: Musical teen hits a high note

How suite it is

O'Fallon teen plays a little of his winning piano composition.
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O'Fallon teen plays a little of his winning piano composition.

Walter Thomas-Patterson, of O’Fallon, recently composed a musical circus.

A terrific tight rope walker, a dancing elephant and a jovial juggler step lively through his three-part piano suite.

“Well, it all kind of started when I was on summer vacation in Colorado,” said the dark-haired 13-year-old. “I had an electric piano and I was kind of sitting down and doodling a little bit. This tune kind of just came. I just started playing and something really nice came out.”

Nice enough to share with composition teacher Amy Jo Sawyer, of O’Fallon, who helped him shape and expand the piece. His mom, Martha Patterson, listened and advised, too.

“He did put a lot of work into it, a lot of Saturdays,” Martha said. “It was fun. He’d get stuck and call me down. I’d try to get him to imagine. We’d look things up on the Internet. Play the one part where (the tight rope walker) climbs up the ladder to the tightrope.”

Walter played an ascending string of notes that sounded just right.

Judges in the national Carol Klose Hal Leonard Composition Competition awarded “Circus Suite” a silver (second place) out of 60 entries in the 13-to-18 teen composer category. Judges were impressed by the depth of writing, his ideas and the three different styles in the suite, said Amy Jo.

“He’s very, very creative,” she said. “It’s a gift.”

He did put a lot of work into it, a lot of Saturdays. It was fun. He’d get stuck and call me down. I’d try to get him to imagine.

Walter’s mother Martha Patterson

Walter, a Fulton Junior High eighth-grader, also plays oboe in his school band. He gave his $200 gift certificate to school band director Mark Donahue.

“He was really happy. He and I get along really well.”

Walter, who started with Amy Jo in January, remembers her saying she thought he was up to the challenge.

“She said, ‘Why don’t we try it? Don’t get your hopes up.’”

Walter had a 4-minute time limit for his suite which is a set of pieces based on one topic. Each of his three pieces was about a minute, 30 seconds.

What did Walter think of his work?

“I think these pieces are decent. For a beginner, they are good,” said Walter, who started learning to read music at age 5.

Walter plays piano in a cozy book-lined room of the family’s split-level home. Mom Martha is an English professor at McKendree University. Dad Bill Thomas teaches at Block Yeshiva Hebrew School in St. Louis and is a substitute teacher. Walter has an older brother, Mark, who plays bass cornet in the O’Fallon Township High School marching band. They have a wide-eyed cat named Teague.

Q: How long have you been a musician?

A: “I started playing when I was 6. The first couple years were kind of tough. I really started getting serious in fourth grade. In third grade, I was out of the country for a year. We lived in Norway. When I came back, I got a new teacher who really pushed me. Before that, I was somewhat serious. Mom made me practice when I was young, but not anymore. That’s what I enjoy doing.”

Q: How much do you practice?

A: “A good day for me is two or three hours. I sometimes have homework and honor band. I get home about 3:05 and go downstairs. Your parents can say, ‘practice,’ but it’s one of those things that has to come from you inside.” (Walter also takes lessons four hours a week with Mary Anderson, of Belleville.)

Q: What do you like about playing?

A: “I enjoy performing. When I was younger, performing scared me. I’m not afraid anymore. (He performed Oct. 4 at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, after winning a second place for performance at his grade level with St. Louis Young Artists Competition.) The other thing I enjoy is it’s a challenge different from playing a sport. You have to have a different mind set. You can’t just try really hard. You have to focus. You can’t let yourself become distracted. I enjoy making myself focus.”

Q: How long have you been composing music?

A: “Sometimes, I doodle on the piano. This is the first time I’ve written something down and composed.”

Q: Who most appreciates hearing you play?

A: “I was at an assisted living home (Meridian Village) where my grandma stayed. I played for the people there. They enjoyed it. It was really special. I made a friend there, Bill Cooper. He is 96 and a World War II vet. Every time I’d visit my grandma, I’d see Bill. (Bill died in January.)”

Q: Favorite music?

A: “Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and Rachmaninoff’s ‘Second Concerto.’ I listen to classical music on my iPod nano when I run.”

Q: What’s next?

A: “My goal for the oboe is to try out for St. Louis Youth Symphony. Tryouts are in April, and it’s competitive.”

Q: Do you have an idea what you want to do when you grow up?

A: “Something music related, but I like nature. I have a nature collection. Acorns, Seed pods .... I like hiking. I enjoy history. Dad (is interested in) history. I’m a pretty good writer. One of my pastimes is actually reading the news — The New York Times.”

See Walter perform his piece online at

Maureen Houston: 618-239-2664, @mhouston15

About Walter Thomas-Patterson

  • Awards: In 2013, he won the Illinois State Music Teachers Association’s Southern District Competition at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. In April 2015, he placed second in both the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Young Pianist Competition and in the 7th and 8th Grade Division of the St. Louis Young Artists Competition.
  • Favorite pastime: “Going to Powell and listening to classical music.” His parents began taking him when he was 6.
  • Favorite Powell performance: “‘Carmina Barana.’ (24 poems sent to music by Carl Orff in 1936 The opening and closing movement, “O Fortuna,” has been used in numerous films.) I had gotten it mixed up with ‘Casablanca.’ I sat down, sat back and I was stunned. I was totally taken aback.”
  • Composer you most admire: “Beethoven. His pieces are so intricate and ingenious. He’s pretty amazing.”
  • Other interests: Listening to classical and other types of music, running, tennis
  • Favorite food: Pizza, tacos, burgers
  • Favorite restaurant: India’s Oven in Swansea.
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