Posted March 26, 2019

High note: Music major’s crossword puzzle lands in New York Times

Ellis Hay, a junior music composition major, made his New York Times crossword puzzle debut earlier this month.

Ellis Hay holding his New York Times crossword puzzle
Photography By: 
Ryan S. Brandenberg
Ellis Hay, a junior music composition major, submitted a crossword puzzle he created to the New York Times in April 2018. This month, the paper published his puzzle.

Ellis Hay is currently working on a composition that, as he puts it, “is a bit of a challenge.”
It’s a piece of music that has required patience, focus and careful consideration from Hay, a junior music composition major. With the same attention to detail that his music requires, Hay has also found success in his other passion: crossword puzzles. 
Hay made his New York Times debut this month when the newspaper published a crossword puzzle he constructed. The 20-year-old native of Lansing, Michigan, submitted the puzzle to the New York Times in April 2018, heard three months later it had been accepted, and learned of the puzzle’s publication date only days before it appeared in the March 4, 2018 edition.
Developing crossword puzzles, as opposed to simply solving them, became a hobby of Hay’s only two years ago. Hay included a fun wrinkle in his New York Times crossword: each answer is a homophone of B. A few examples: Benadryl might treat them (bee stings); Betty White co-star on The Golden Girls (Bea Arthur); and Hay’s personal favorite, given his academic major—Bach masterpiece, informally (B Minor Mass).
“The entire experience—from constructing the puzzle to seeing the reactions it has gotten—has been very rewarding,” Hay said. “I set out to design a puzzle that wasn’t too challenging. It was meant to be a Monday puzzle, and I’ve been hearing that it actually turned out more difficult than a typical Monday puzzle.”
The New York Times’ crossword puzzles increase in their degree of difficulty as the week progresses. The competition for earning publication is fierce. The New York Times receives, on average, 75 to 100 crossword submissions per week.
“We liked Ellis’s puzzle because of the simplicity and cleverness of the theme and the cleanness and liveliness of the construction,” said Will Shortz, the New York Times’ crossword editor since 1993. “It was well done for a constructor of any age and experience, but especially so for someone who is both young and making his debut.”
Hay is not the first Temple student to publish a crossword puzzle in the New York Times. He joins Evan Birnholz, who in 2013 as a second-year history PhD student also accomplished the feat.
Hay chose Temple for its urban setting, access to the music and arts scenes, and the strength of the music composition program at the Boyer College of Music and Dance. Hay, who plays piano, has found success in composing music for other instruments and ensembles. Most recently, he composed for a woodwind quartet and a string trio.
“Composing music for some instruments is more challenging than for others,” he said. “I’m writing a piece for harp, which is a very difficult instrument to write for because the mechanics are different than any other instrument you can find in an orchestra. It’s all about familiarizing yourself with the instrument and speaking with people who play the instrument to get an idea of its limits. You don’t want to break the boundaries of what it can do.”
Kind of like composing crossword puzzles.
“In some ways, they are very similar tasks because there are lots of aspects to keep in mind simultaneously,” he said. “It’s trying to make these different elements work well together, and I’m glad I was able to pull it all together for my New York Times puzzle.”

—Christopher A. Vito