Eric Whitacre Talks Composing, Conducting at Shenandoah Conservatory’s Performance Forum


Clay Dubberly, Editor-in-Chief


“I’m dying. I’m dying on the inside — of excitement.”

That’s how one Shenandoah Conservatory student, Karissa Rhodes, felt before Eric Whitacre, Grammy-winning composer and conductor, stepped on stage at Armstrong Hall to speak about his journey as a musician.

When he took the stage, some students could be heard shouting “We love you!” above the applause. Several students whistled, to which Whitacre pointed a finger to the audience and jested, “Don’t start.”

The New York Times describes Whitacre as a “younger, hipper Andrew Lloyd Webber, with fleeting hints of Bernstein and Sondheim.” The Daily Telegraph, London, refers to him as both “popular and original.”

Whitacre is recognized worldwide for his “Virtual Choir” projects, where he brings together singers from different countries to collaborate in an online choir. So far, vocalists from over 110 countries have participated. Whitacre asked how many students were members of his virtual choir, and at least ten students raised their hands.

During his lecture, Whitacre discussed topics such as his career, and what it takes to be a performance musician. “These days, to make a career for it, it involves improvisation,” he said, adding that there’s no clear path to success in the world of music.


Eric Whitacre conducting a group of students in Armstrong Hall during performance forum. PHOTO: The ‘Doah

Whitacre quipped that music lost its way, “whenever Boulez started conducting,” which garnered a laugh from the audience.  

He said that he thinks of composing as a dialogue, noting that he sometimes uploads brief sections of his composition drafts to the internet to receive feedback on what the audience thinks before he continues.

Whitacre doesn’t like the idea of the famous, idolized composer, citing Beethoven, saying that he much prefers the idea of the “musician who played in town. To Whitacre, music is a living, breathing thing that’s meant to bring joy and happiness to others.

One student asked Whitacre whether or not he will consider writing an opera in the future: “A ballet is a more interesting thing,” he said, saying that his wife, Hila Plitmann, sings opera and that he thinks it requires too much time to prepare.

When asked how he weaves music into his poetry, he said, “I quiet myself enough so that I hear the music buried within the words.”

When questioned about what his guilty pleasure was, he minced no words: Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Rihanna. “I’m a real sucker for them,” he said.

He also hinted towards his interest in making his own film in the future, mentioning that he’s currently working with famed film composer Hans Zimmer.

Whitacre was born in Reno, Nevada, and began studying music composition at the University of Nevada. He eventually earned his Master’s degree at the Juilliard School, which is also where he met his wife.

His first album, “Light and Gold,” won a Grammy in 2012, and within a week was the number one album on U.S. and U.K charts.

Whitacre has spoken at Oxford University, Harvard, The Economist, the Seoul Digital Forum and the World Economic Forum. He’s also given a TED Talk, as well as spoken at Apple and Google.

Whitacre just finished serving five years as Visiting Fellow and Composer in Residence at Cambridge University, U.K.

Whitacre eventually conducted an eager group of singers in the audience to one of his compositions.

He had each section refine their part until it was perfect — the phrasing, articulation and pitch. At the end of the excerpt he laughed in excitement at the outcome.

Sophomore piano performance major Elizabeth McDowell said, “It was really cool to see him working with the choir and get a sense of what it’s like in a rehearsal.”

A line of several dozen students were standing in the lobby of Armstrong waiting to get an autograph, ask a question or take a selfie with the distinguished artist once performance forum was released.

Whitacre announced his interest in returning to Shenandoah: “What I’d love to do is come back and give a whole concert.”



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