Songs with Heart

Funded by endowment support, Sadie Henderson-Best ’24 attended an intensive songwriting camp at NYU.
Sadie Henderson-Best ’24 will tell you the first song she ever wrote was about nothing, but the feeling was still liberating. “I think there’s no better feeling to me than writing a good song,” she says. “It’s always been a way of expressing myself or venting. I’ve always seen a song as an outlet.” Writing, for Sadie, is emotional sublimation manifested in song, a feeling tuned to lyrics. 

She grew up in a house of music, hearing a vast range of sounds from country rocker Jason Isbell to the bluesy raps of Lauryn Hill. Like any artist, Sadie developed her taste and style by sampling different genres of music, but she credits her ear for a well-turned lyric to her mom, Upper School Academic Services Chair Dr. Katie Best, who would marvel at a particularly strong line in any of the songs she played. Similar to a sommelier breaking down the flavors of a wine, Sadie’s mom would note the beauty of a lyric, the specificity of its emotion and how that elevated a song, and as Sadie grew up she would catch herself doing the same thing. “Whenever we listened to anything, my mom would say, ‘Oh, this is such a good line because of the way the writer uses this specific word or how these words create a unique image,’” Sadie recalls. “And so then, because of that, I was able to develop a taste for good lyrics and recognize what was good and what was just OK.” 

When Sadie was in 4th Grade, she began writing songs with her next door neighbor. She enjoyed having someone to write with and bounce ideas off of. She always wrote for pleasure, as a hobby, but this collaboration legitimized her craft. Once the duo completed a few songs, they decided to perform them in front of a small audience. It was daunting and, after Sadie relaxed her nerves, completely exhilarating. “That really was where everything started,” Sadie says. “Our songs were random — I mean, we had one that was just called ‘La La La La’ — but they all had structure, and I just remember thinking how much fun it was to write and perform.” 

Sadie continued writing throughout her time at Collegiate. She always found time for her songs, never taking more than a month or two off from her creative habits. Songwriting was always borne out of an occasion, when something happened to her in life that she felt was ripe to attach lyrics to. In her English classes, even when her writing wasn’t focused on songs, she felt that her teachers helped refine her craft. “My teachers definitely helped me become a better writer,” she says. Similar to the way her mom would have her focus on the vibrancy of a lyric, her teachers were always pushing her to develop her ideas in writing with more specificity. “They helped me by pushing me, by always asking for more. Even though I was never able to focus on songwriting in class, I was able to learn how to articulate my thoughts, and I think that transfers over to my songwriting.” 

Last spring, when her Junior year was coming to an end, her mom encouraged her to find a summer course that focused specifically on songwriting. She discovered a two-week songwriting program held at New York University, and then Collegiate granted her a portion of the Mary Parker Moncure Vaden Endowment for Citizenship and the Arts, which gave her the ability to attend. “There are so many opportunities to pursue subjects that interest you at Collegiate,” Sadie says. “And to be lucky enough to receive a grant like this, one that allows me to really dive into a passion of mine, is really awesome.” 

During her two weeks at NYU, Sadie found herself writing more than she ever had before. Each day, after listening to elucidating lectures from guest speakers on the craft of songwriting, she had to write a new song that would be workshopped the next day. “Each song we wrote began with a prompt,” she explains. “We had to write one song, for example, with the song title ‘Fingerprints,’ and we had to write another song based on a picture we were given.” 

The program helped her limber her sensibilities and improve her productivity. Each day was a new challenge, but each day she rose to the occasion. “It was really different for me, because usually I’m writing whenever it comes to me or when I feel like I need to write something, which is not every day — it’s not even every week,” Sadie says. “But writing every day was a shock to me, primarily because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it or not. Once I realized I could, I noticed my work was improving. I had more confidence, and I was thinking more about how certain parts of a song mix with other parts of a song.” 

Like putting words down on paper and arranging them as lyrics, Sadie’s time at NYU solidified an inclination. Maybe songwriting could be more than a hobby; maybe it could be a career, the defining feature of her life. “Getting better at writing, to be genuinely proud of something you made, is just so rewarding,” Sadie says. “Having this opportunity has been so special. It’s given me the chance to really think about what I want to do in college and maybe even as a career.”