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Dance for a nation

Winter Park resident Joe Prior practices the French horn at Covenant Church. Last month, his winning composition was played by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

Winter Park resident Joe Prior practices the French horn at Covenant Church. Last month, his winning composition was played by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Joe Prior has been making music almost since the day he was born.

He’d hum, all the time, even in his sleep. And now, 16 years later, his music has taken a more tangible turn. His hums have turned into notes, notes that are played by professionals.

The Winter Park 16-year-old was one of six of this year’s national Young Composers Challenge winners. The Orlando Philharmonic competition is in its sixth year. Musicians ages 13-18 can submit an original score written either for an entire orchestra or a chamber ensemble for up to six instruments.

Joe was one of the ensemble winners with a score featuring French horn and piano. He got to hear his composition played by professional musicians from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in a public concert at the Bob Carr auditorium on Oct. 10.

Many writers, no matter their age, never hear their music performed by a professional orchestra.

“A lot of talented kids don’t have the chance to express themselves and then don’t go into music,” said Steve Goldman, composer and contest creator. “We want to create the next great American composer for the 21st century.”

Growing to a beat

And Joe is certainly striving to be the best he can be. He’s homeschooled but he audits composition classes at Rollins College, plays in a band for Covenant Arts Academy and has played in the Maitland Symphony Orchestra since he was 8. He spends most of his time on music.

“It’s just been part of who Joe is,” his mom, Becky Prior, said. “His free time, or borrowed time, is spent with music.”

He even uses music as an advantage at home. Getting out of the dishes is easy when he can bribe his mom with classical music on the piano, or jazz and ragtime — his favorite to play.

Joe’s a kid who doesn’t show much emotion. He’s serious and straight-faced, but when he starts playing “Maple Leaf Rag” by famed ragtime composer Scott Joplin, he morphs.

It looks easy for him, and he relaxes. Even when asked about his Young Composers Challenge win, his response is a deadpan, “It was exciting.” But when he called his piano teacher, she could tell he was pleased with the win.

“You know how you can just hear in someone’s voice, the happiness,” Lucy Warren said.

The winning piece

Joe won with “Dance Royale,” which he describes as a “medieval dance.”

“I would like them to feel like it’s complex and well-developed and interesting; I want to draw them in like a movie,” Joe said of how he wants listeners to feel about his song. “I want it to feel familiar … something not too modern.”

And it really feels like a medieval dance. The French horn seems to be calling young maidens to line up for a dance, coy hands waiting for a partner, and it’s upbeat and traditional, but in the middle it changes, and Joe’s modern sense comes in. That’s a skill Warren said Joe’s great at — taking a traditional song and mixing it up.

“It’s got a great combination — it eludes to something in the past, and yet … it’s modern,” she said.

And the musical community can’t wait to hear more from the young musician.

“We’re very proud to have a talent like Joe in the Central Florida area,” Goldman said. “We expect big things from him.”

Joe aspires to combine his two passions — music and Chinese culture — by possibly teaching there. He’s not sure he’ll be a pro-musician one day, but said he can’t imagine a day without music.

“Life wouldn’t be very exciting for me.”