Young music virtuoso tells stories through song
Churchill sophomore scored new play
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When Joshua Coyne plays music, he's not only stringing together notes—he's telling a story.
The Winston Churchill High School sophomore, 16, has been described as both a musical virtuoso and a renaissance man — his musical prowess ranges from violin to composition to voice. He's tutored in composition under award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and in violin under renowned musician Lya Stern. He's collaborating on a full-length musical adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" with renowned playwright and actor David Emerson Toney. He plays with the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras and was recently nominated for Best Male Vocalist for his performance as Tom Collins in "RENT: The School Edition" at Churchill, which is taking performers on the road to a theater festival in Scotland this summer. And in February 2008, Coyne played violin for Barack Obama at the Stand for Change rally in Baltimore.
"Music seems to be the only thing I completely understand," said Coyne, a soft-spoken teenager with a mop of dreadlocks. "…It makes me and everyone else feel good."
Despite his success in an array of musical arenas, Coyne says his ultimate goal is to compose scores for films. He says he likes the way music can influence a viewer's mood, give them a glimpse into a character's personality or hint at the next plot twist. "Music has the power to change what you think of the movie," Coyne said.
Coyne moved with his mother, Jane, to Montgomery County from Iowa in 2006 to pursue his musical ability. But for those who are close to Coyne, his success is all the more poignant because of where his journey began. When Jane Coyne adopted him as a toddler, she said, he came from an abusive foster family.
His legs had been so badly broken doctors weren't sure if he would walk again. But the casts on his legs couldn't keep him from humming back the recordings of arias by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini his mother would play to him. "It was pretty clear he had perfect pitch," Jane Coyne said.
By the time he was 4 years old, Jane Coyne said, he was playing the violin. By 8, he was performing publicly — often in coat tails. Much of the music he picked up by ear, long before he learned to read music, she said. It was at Cabin John Middle School, according to the school's instrumental music director Scott Herman, where Coyne first began to hone his raw talent through studying more traditional musical skills.
"His level of interest and passion for the music is terrific and it's unwavering," said Lya Stern, who currently trains Coyne on violin. "He is fully committed to music."
Coyne recently jumped on the chance to compose a musical score for a new play written by Janet Langhart Cohen, an Emmy-nominated journalist, author and playwright. Coyne was introduced to Langhart Cohen by her husband, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, whom Coyne met at one of his violin performances.
The play, entitled "Anne and Emmett," brings to life an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till, a young African-American boy whose brutal 1955 murder in Mississippi brought to light the struggles of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Era.
For the score, Coyne developed music that would speak to the life experiences of each of the characters. "The music sounds like what you would think of when you think of Anne — it's feminine, light, bright, intelligent, and soft in all the right places," Langhart Cohen said. When the music shifts to depict Till's character, Langhart Cohen said, the move is seamless. "It's very different — it's bouncier, it has a heaviness to it …it's what Emmett might have heard during that time, or what his mother or father might have hummed to him."
The Washington-based Theatre Lab, where Coyne is also set to play principal violin this summer during a performance of "The Secret Garden," is developing an educational module to use "Anne and Emmett" as a learning tool for students.
Langhart Cohen said she thinks of children that have lost their lives because of abuse, or prejudice and hatred such as the characters she depicts in her play, in light of the potential contributions the world is missing because of their loss. "We are blessed because we didn't miss Josh, thanks to his mother Jane," Langhart Cohen said.
And as to what the future holds for the young virtuoso? "I can see where he's going to be, because it's where he already is," Langhart Cohen said. "It's just that the rest of the world needs to find him."
A performance of "Anne and Emmett," a one-act play by Janet Langhart Cohen featuring an original score by Winston Churchill High School sophomore Joshua Coyne, will take place at 7 p.m., June 12, at the George Washington University. Tickets are available through ticketmaster.com. To learn more about the play, visit www.anneandemmett.com. To learn more about Joshua Coyne, visit www.musicmanjosh.com.