Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

A Budding Beethoven: Winston Schneider Composes His Musical Mark

Jun 25, 2021 04:45PM ● By Sean Robinson
Winston Schneider at piano with cat

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

At 12, he became the youngest composer to be accepted to the Young Artist Summer Program at Curtis Institute of Music (the alma mater of Leonard Bernstein), and he’s already a three-time American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Morton Gould Young Composers Award Finalist for composers under 30.

It's 4 a.m.

The Schneiders’ West Omaha house is still and silent—except for the scribble of pen on paper in 13-year-old Winston Schneider’s bedroom. Unlike his peers, it’s not playing video games or producing TikTok videos that keeps him up until the wee hours of the morning. It’s inspiration. His next masterpiece just itching to get out. 

“My creative period for composing is late at night. That’s when I get my best ideas.” Winston said. “My parents are not the biggest fans of this. But I say, ‘C’mon just one more measure, one more passage.’”

Winston may not be old enough to get behind the wheel of a car, but he’s already composed about 70 original songs and received considerable acclaim for his musical accomplishments, including more than 20 national and international awards. This kid is the real deal: a musical prodigy and bonafide composer in the making.

“One of my favorite things about composing is the fact that you can create whatever you want musically out of a blank piece of staff paper. That has always appealed to me,” Winston said. 

Before becaming a mini maestro, Winston started by taking piano lessons at 5 years old. Planted on the bench, fingers to keyboard, and feet stretching toward the pedals, Winston played like a beginner for a brief period. In a few months, he was playing pieces in entirely different keys than the ones in which songs were written. 

Those small tweaks were the beginning of Winston flexing his creative muscles. Original composing soon followed. Five months into piano lessons, Winston wrote his very first song, titled “Snowman, Snowman, Don’t You Melt.” 

“First, I was playing my pieces in all different keys. That was something I just loved to do in my spare time,” Winston said. “Then the notion of creating my own music became a favorable idea of mine.”

Winston, the first born of two, took his parents by surprise. His parents didn’t have prior experience watching a child master music, so Winston’s rapid pace didn’t initially seem out of the norm. 

“He would play in different keys, and I would enjoy listening. I didn’t know until later that was unusual,” mom Heather Schneider said. “At some point, we realized he had perfect pitch. Then, year by year, it was more and more impressive.”

Impressive is an understatement. 

At 10, Winston was one of six pre-college composers selected internationally to write a new piece for the Music at the Anthology’s Jr. Festival. That year, he was also named a first place winner in the National Association for Music Education’s Composition Competition. At 12, he became the youngest composer to be accepted to the Young Artist Summer Program at Curtis Institute of Music (the alma mater of Leonard Bernstein), and he’s already a three-time American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Morton Gould Young Composers Award Finalist for composers under 30. It was announced May 14 that Winston won an honorable mention in the 2021 competition for an 8-minute piece "Expiculating Quintet" for clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, and violoncello. He was one of 38 honorees out of hundreds of applicants.

To those not in the classical music circuit, these honors and programs might not have much meaning. However, one thing is certain: This young composer is already making a big impact in his community.

“There’s the big ‘wow’ moments, but it’s the smaller ones that stand out. One of my favorite memories was when he was 9,” Heather said. “We were listening to a recording of a string quartet playing one of his songs. He said, ‘Mom, let’s dance.’ I knew instantly to treasure that.”

It’s often the smaller things, too, that Winston draws inspiration from.

“I love insects. They have been one of my foremost musical inspirations,” Winston said. “They are like nothing else on this planet. They’re like miniature aliens.”

As with music, this teenager has been fascinated by bugs since he was 5—and they’ve buzzed their way into his work almost from the beginning. Creepy crawlies meet classical composition with original pieces titled “Arousing of the Arrow-Jawed Ants” and “Insect Suite.”

“That piece, ‘Insect Suite,’ almost brought me to tears,” said Dr. Kenneth Meints, music director and conductor of Orchestra Omaha. Meints has been working with Winston and honing his composition skills since the budding Beethoven was 7.

“The harmonies he uses at the end are heart-wrenching,” Meints continues. “He has a last moment about fireflies. Hearing it, it’s like watching the fireflies go away for the evening. You can imagine yourself sitting there with a loved one and seeing them twinkle out.”

Not all of his work has such a playful motif. Winston was commissioned by the Omaha Symphony, as part of a joint project with the Durham Museum, to work on a piece focused on children’s perspective of COVID-19. He was given a stack of essays authored by other kids and asked to pick and choose inspiration from the text. 

“On the way from swim practice, an idea finally popped in my head. I asked my mom to please not talk so I could think about and formulate it,” Winston said. 

That idea became “The Summer of COVID-19” and was performed by the Omaha Symphony in October 2020. 

He achieves the sort of recognition that many adult composers dream about. He premiered one of his latest compositions, "The Battle of Five Armies" (inspired by the book The Hobbit) for winds, brass, and percussion on May 13 at Composition Date 2021 with New York Youth Symphony.

However, it’s not all work, no play. Winston is still just a kid. Like any of his peers, he balances academics, sports, friends, and even finds time for another creative passion. He has been in several Rose Theater productions and was nominated for a Broadway World Regional Award for his 2018 performance in Newsies.

“How do I balance it all?” Winston wondered. “I don’t like being stagnant. I guess by day I’m normal Winston, but I’m composing Winston by night.”

By night and the early hours of the morning…just don’t let his parents know the latter. 

Visit winstonfschneider.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.