Original music is composed, performed by ECU students

Student composers and musicians are collaborating in a unique hands-on learning experience to create and perform original music in East Carolina University’s School of Music.

This semester, ECU sophomore Brett Howard has written a musical work for junior Kristi Roller’s string quartet to debut during a Premiere Performances concert on Nov. 15 in the A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall.

“Premiere Performances concerts offer a chance for our student composers to collaborate with student musicians in every step of the creative process: from identifying and securing performers, to sharing sketches and ideas, to creating the final score and parts, to planning and facilitating rehearsals, to producing the final concert performance,” said Dr. Travis Alford, assistant professor of music composition and theory and director of the North Carolina NewMusic Initiative at ECU. “It’s ‘hands-on learning’ at its finest, for both the composers and the performers.”

Howard, a music education major from La Grange, said he has been interested in composition since high school. However, this piece wasn’t his idea. At the end of last semester, professor Edward Jacobs suggested that Howard write for a standard string quartet — a departure from his primary instrument, which is tuba.

“The point of this piece was that I wanted to experience what it was to move out of a comfort zone in a harmonic way,” Howard said of his experimentation with tones, pitches and chords.

Howard and Roller met in the School of Music’s composition studio, where students work weekly with composition professors.

As a cello performance major, Roller said it’s rewarding to be able to work with and play music written by someone she knows. “We play so many pieces of music written by people who are no longer alive. You can’t ask them any questions about it. So being able to formulate questions for a living composer and being able to really carry what they want across to a piece is so valuable,” she said.

Alford said student performers gain experience shaping and bringing new pieces to life, while composers are able to hear their music played by live musicians and not just a computer.

“This is very different than rehearsing an existing piece from the repertoire, which has been through countless edits and editions, and of which there are (perhaps multiple) existing recordings and interpretations,” he said. “When premiering a piece, all you have is the score and your own musical intuition — your performance is automatically the ‘definitive’ interpretation!”

Dr. Edward Jacobs is a composition professor, founder of the N.C. NewMusic Initiative and chair of the Department of Theory, Composition and Musicology.

Dr. Edward Jacobs is a composition professor, founder of the N.C. NewMusic Initiative and chair of the Department of Theory, Composition and Musicology.

ECU School of Music alumni Brittany Green and Emerson Voss said participating in Premiere Performances helped them develop as composers and collaborators.

“A new piece of music, especially when you are a young composer, is like a theory,” Green said. “You have a musical idea that you think is interesting and would work well in a piece of music, but without a lot of prior experience writing for that instrumentation, you don’t know for sure. Premiere Performances gives you the opportunity to have a ‘proof of concept,’ work out the kinks and develop working relationships with performers.”

Green, who earned her master’s degree in music composition and theory at ECU, said her participation in Premiere Performances contributed to her portfolio needed for graduate school applications. Those materials helped her get acceptance and funding from three doctoral programs and be awarded a Dean’s Graduate Fellowship at Duke University, where she is pursuing a doctorate in music composition.

“I’ve also used recordings from Premiere Performance recordings to apply to conferences, festivals and other opportunities, several of which I was awarded,” Green said. It offered paid professional opportunities by connecting Green with performers and venues that she could receive commissions, royalties and sales. Two pieces that Green premiered at ECU have been some of her most performed work internationally. She counts at least a dozen opportunities that she received that came directly from submitting recordings from Premiere Performances.

Voss, who is pursuing a doctorate in music composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh, said being in the ECU School of Music and Premiere Performances helped him grow as a person and artist. He composed two to three pieces for Premiere Performances, including “Filters” for a wind ensemble. “It was amazing to do that. It was a lot of organization and negotiation, talking with performers,” Voss said. “It was an opportunity to hear your music, which is pretty essential as a composer.”

Voss said ECU’s music program offered freedom to experiment; he even created a film with the dance department before graduating with a degree in composition and theory in 2017. “I felt secure enough to be able to take risks,” he said. “It was mostly an environment where I felt like I could be free to explore what was on my mind and grow a lot.”

That mentality is liberating and allows students to find their voices and become well-rounded musicians in an increasingly diverse, competitive field, Roller and Howard said.

“We’re told all the time by our composition professors that, ‘Look, you have the entire world, the realm of music is at your fingertips and you can orchestrate it the way you want it. If you want a specific sound, you can do that,’” Howard said. “When it comes to the opportunities and experiences we’re going to have here, and how it helps us move forward, we can change the world of music, maybe in small ways, maybe in big ways.”

Premiere Performances will be a free concert at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 in Fletcher Recital Hall. The concert will also be live streamed. For more information, visit