Meet Our Latest OppU Achiever: Stella Gitelman Willoughby!
Name: Stella G. Gitelman Willoughby
College: Berklee College of Music
Major: Music Composition, Film Scoring
Degree: B.M. (Bachelor of Music)
Graduation Date: 2022
Our latest OppU Achiever used music to turn obstacles into opportunity.
We’re thrilled to announce the winter recipient of the $2,500 OppU Achievers Scholarship, Stella Gitelman Willoughby!
For as long as she can remember, Stella has loved music. (She started playing the piano at 3 and began composing at 5.) But for the same amount of time, she’s faced obstacles. Physical and mental, these challenges permeated her life, but only later did they receive a diagnosis.
For Stella, music has provided a space in which she can turn her challenges on their head. She can express herself unhindered, and in that world she thrives.
In the fall, Stella will start her freshman year at Berklee College of Music. She’ll study composition, influenced by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Cage, and Clara Schumann—an inspiration for her as a female composer. She chose Berklee because it not only trains students to be musicians, but also teaches them how to make a living in the field. And this distinction is important for Stella, who already has her sights set on her career. Professionally, she dreams of one day writing commissioned pieces for symphony orchestras and scoring music for films.
You can read Stella’s winning essay below, and be sure to listen to her music—it’s stunning.
I am an unlikely achiever. I stumble daily—literally from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and seizures, metaphorically from autism, dyslexia, and a mood disorder. Every moment is unpredictable; I balance precariously. I fight to regulate my senses, emotions, and body in space. It is only once I fall that I can pick myself up, rebalance from my misstep, and move forward.
Through my music composition I steady myself. Rooted on the piano bench, rapt in sound, improvising melodies and harmonies, quickly notating ideas, I am in command. My dysregulation, stress, anxiety, instability—my obstacles—become music. I work my tension into minor triads or uncomfortable intervals, possibly a tritone. Gaining calm and control, I conclude the Largo movement and the music develops into a brighter Allegro, or Vivace. I might boldly attempt triplet passages, with accelerando.
My musical expressions, the embodiment of my challenges, have won awards nationally and internationally. I am an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award winner. Concert halls in Boston, Manhattan, St. Louis, Honolulu, Canada and Italy, have echoed with sounds of my compositions. I have received commissions from members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada and had my work played by members of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. My pieces have been performed at renowned venues such as Old South Church in Boston and Lincoln Center in New York. At each performance and with every award, I recall my unsteady journey to this blissful moment. I relish and savor the present.
My goal is to be a professional classical music composer. When I compose, I am at my best. I am smiling. I feel capable and confident. Since becoming a teen, my parents have instilled in me the need to develop self-advocacy skills, and work toward independence and financially supporting myself. Through music composition, I know I can succeed. I have already laid the foundation from which to build a career. For these reasons, I choose to pursue a degree in music composition.
Tomorrow I may wake up feeling physically or emotionally insecure. My joints or ligaments might feel particularly tight or abnormally loose, I may be overwhelmed by assignments, struggle with hearing loss I experience with seizures, or simply be over-stimulated by fluorescent lighting. Yet, I will seep into the piano bench. I will start anew, equipped with blank staff paper and a pencil. I know I can achieve; I’ve done it before. I will right, and write, my woes into wins.
Through my music I hope to bring beauty and joy to others, and inspire strength in them to confront their challenges. My dream is that one day a child will be so moved by my music that she will say, “I too want to write music!” Or, when someone needs cheering up, he will hear my music and say, “I feel much better.” Most of all, I hope that a person with similar struggles to mine will listen and say, “Wow, I now know that one day I too can achieve and excel at my passion!”
Could you or someone you know use $2,500 for tuition? The OppU Achievers Scholarship is open to high school seniors, college students, graduate students, and students in trade or professional programs. To apply, submit a short essay through our web portal.