Striking a chord

Inaugural music composition competition brings student-created music to center stage.

Debbie Kane
July 27, 2023

The last rays of twilight filtered through the windows of the Forrestal-Bowld Music Center as Polly Vaillant ’23 stepped to the microphone, guitar in hand, and told a brief story about developing the ballad “A Ten and Two Pennies.” It’s based on an interaction she had while working in a local coffee shop as well as a reflection on being a senior and preparing herself for new adventures. The audience of students, parents, faculty and others listened appreciatively as she sang her thoughtful, hopeful and funny song.

Vaillant is one of nine students whose songs were presented or performed in May during the “concert of finalists,” the culminating event in the Pittman Family Student Composition Competition — a new initiative focused on original works written by Exonians.

Vaillant’s witty take on her present and future struck a chord with the competition judges. She won the songwriting category and the overall competition. Albert Lu ’26 and Vi Matheos ’24 received honor-able mentions: Lu for “A Turbulent Festival,” a notated score; and Matheos for “Or Not To,” a vibrant electronic and vocal composition. Vaillant’s prize was an online course at Berklee College of Music. Lu and Matheos received credit toward private lessons with an Academy music teacher of their choice.

Competition organizer Eric Schultz, Exeter’s director of electronic and emerging music and the evening’s host, is quick to point out that all of the students “won” by participating. He is thrilled that 20 students entered 25 pieces of music, numbers far exceeding his expectations.

Now there are 25 new pieces of music in the world that weren’t there before, which is beautiful."
Eric Schultz, Exeter’s director of electronic and emerging music

“Composing is a messy process,” Schultz says. “You don’t know how it’s going to sound until it comes to life.” But, he jokes, Exeter students always appreciate a deadline. “Now there are 25 new pieces of music in the world that weren’t there before, which is beautiful,” he adds.

More important, the competition redefines musical opportunities at Exeter, welcoming students who create music but may not participate in traditional voice and instrument classes, lessons and group performance activities within the Department of Music. “This competition brings student composition into the mainstream of the Music Department,” says Kristofer Johnson, Michael V. Forrestal ’45 Chair for Music, “and places it on stage, where student work will increasingly be centered. It enables them to take risks.” 

Exeter’s rich musical tradition is rooted in classical voice and performance. “Appropriate, when one considers that Mozart was walking the earth when the Academy was founded,” Schultz says. There are numerous opportunities for students to make music, including orchestras, jazz bands, a cappella groups and choirs, as well as rock and multi-me-dia performance clubs. One-quarter of the student body engaged in at least one musical ensemble this academic year. Musical alumni include a Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, Tony and Grammy-Award-winning singer-songwriters, and top-40 musicians. Johnson notes that many students feel that they’ve found a creative home in the Department of Music.

Now the department is intention-ally broadening its musical offerings to welcome even more students. Schultz, a composer and musician whose work includes acoustic and electronic music, joined the faculty in 2020. A year later, Music Instructor Marcus Rabb joined the faculty as director of bands and jazz, expanding the department’s jazz and contemporary music options. Rab will take on the role of chair of the Department of Music in the fall. “We’ve seen a huge increase in student interest and performance level of groups like the Exeter Association of Rock and others,” Johnson says. The Pittman Family Student Composition Competition is yet another opportunity to showcase student talent.

“This competition brings student composition into the mainstream of the Music Department and places it on stage.”
Kristofer Johnson, Michael V. Forrestal ’45 Chair for Music

“There are so many students creating or making music here,” Johnson says, “but they’re writing music on the fringes. They don’t have a platform to grow in the same ways as our Music Department students.”

The composition competition is one of Schultz’s first efforts to showcase different musical styles, including electronic music. Coming to Exeter after directing a community college music program in California, he was struck by the talent he found in his students. “They are writing about things in a way that goes well beyond the years they’ve been alive,” he says. “That’s certainly true of the pieces submitted for the composition competition.”

For the competition, students could submit works in any of three categories: electronic music, notated music (notes on a score) and song-writing. “We were looking for any kind of student musical expression that is original,” Schultz says, “inviting songwriters and others who make more popular styles of music that are technology driven.”

Three musicians and composers, colleagues of Schultz’s from California, served as judges. They provided detailed feedback on each composition and were surprised by the quality of the student submissions. “They could not stop texting me during the judging process,” he says. “They asked: ‘Who are these kids? Where did you find them?’ Because every piece is amazing. It was a real challenge for the judges to figure out what to do with so much talent. It’s a good problem to have.”

Schultz hopes that the competition inspires more students to pursue composition. “Learning music by making it yourself is a different way to become a musician,” he says. It also requires vulnerability, a tall order for any aspiring performer but even more so for adolescents. “If you go out and sing the song you wrote that reflects what you feel, any judgment of that song is a judgment of you,” Schultz says. “To have received that commitment during this competition from 20 young artists is a big win.” One that he hopes to see repeated often.  


Meet the student composers

Polly Vaillant ’23

Vaillant wrote her award-winning song last fall, as part of her senior project, an album entitled Songs in the Key of E(xeter). A conversation with a classmate in her English class captured how she was feeling. “I asked how he was and he said: ‘I’m not here. My mind is on an airplane,’ and I so felt that,” she says. “It perfectly captured the ambivalence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the apprehension of graduating and a lot of stuff coming together.” She wrote the song and submitted it to the composition competition.

This isn’t Vaillant’s first musical honor: last winter she was a finalist in the voice/singer/songwriter category at National YoungArts Week, a program of the National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists.

Trained in classical voice performance and a voice student of Johnson’s, Vaillant is inspired by singer-song-writers like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Gregory Alan Isakov. She will continue her vocal performance studies at Vanderbilt University this fall.



Albert Lu ’26

Lu’s intense classical composition, “A Turbulent Festival,” is a three-part musical response to the pandemic. Incorporating elements of Gamelan, an indigenous rhythm music from Indonesia that intrigues Lu, the piece was performed onstage during the competition by an ensemble of Exeter musicians.

Lu has played cello and classical piano since he was 4 and started composing music in middle school, using an electronic MIDI keyboard. “I started small, with basic piano pieces,” he says. Writing notated music for multiple instruments was challenging. “When I’m writing for one instrument, I don’t have to consider its interaction with other instruments because I know how it’ll sound,” he says. “But two instruments have different timbres and, when they interact with each other, the sounds may collide. I really have to write it all at once and not write for each instrument.”

The competition was Lu’s first experience working with musicians who were playing his compositions.

“Albert’s piece is amazing and very difficult to perform,” Schultz says. “You can use software to notate scores and it will play back the music for you, which makes it easy for a composer to write because the software can play anything. But a young composer has to learn how to take their musical ideas and fashion them in a way that humans can play.” Lu isn’t deterred. He’s looking forward to next year’s competition.



Vi Matheos ’24

Matheos’ hyperpop-inspired “Or Not To” was a kinetic blast on stage; Schultz played the electronic composition on a laptop while Matheos sang vocals. The composition incorporates a two-note melody inspired by phrasing found in Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. Matheos says, “I was wondering what it would sound like to write the opposite vibe to Bach, something hyperpop-based on a simple, condensed phrase.”

Matheos, who also entered an untitled composition in the songwriting category, enjoys the creative process and has composed and recorded music since middle school. Trained in classical piano and violin, and a keyboardist for the Exeter student band Dork u$ Buxter, Matheos has a diverse performance repertoire that includes jazz, pop, rock and hyperpop.

“I write the type of music I listen to, depending on what I like at the time,” says Matheos, who has been experimenting recently with sound design and production. “You have to be aware of the harmonies going into the song and you control it. … And you have to be aware of the melody so you can create them with the singer and be aware of the complexities of the song. It’s a full immersive experience.”

Matheos, who dreams of becoming a touring musician, is grateful for the opportunities the Music Department offers, saying, “It feels like the depart-ment is doing what they can to improve our journeys as musicians.”


A gift of music

The Pittman Family Student Composition Fund was established in 2021 by Joan and Fred Pittman ’51 to inspire student composers and music creators at Exeter. A talented student who was valedictorian of his high school class in rural Cleveland, Mississippi, Fred secured financial support to attend a postgraduate year at Exeter. It was a year that changed his life, according to his son, Tim Pittman ’82, and inspired future support of the Academy.

After receiving his undergraduate degree at Yale, a medical degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham, England, Fred pursued a career as an academic physician, holding teaching positions at Tulane University and later at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and its VA hospital.

Fred enjoyed singing, a talent he furthered as a member of the Yale Glee Club as well as the Whiffenpoofs, the university’s a cappella group. He and his wife, Joan, also performed with the Yale Alumni Chorus. In his later years, Fred was an enthusiastic supporter of Charleston Stage and appeared in such productions as My Fair Lady and Of Mice and Men.

In the spirit of non sibi, Fred and Joan endowed a scholar-ship fund for students from South Carolina and Mississippi to attend Exeter. When approached to create the Pittman Family Student Composition Fund, Fred, recipient of the Founders’ Day Award in 2003, and his family readily agreed. “Dad was less interested in capital projects and more inter-ested in supporting students directly,” Tim says of Fred, who died in 2021. Music Instructor Eric Schultz says: “The beauty of this gift is that this competition isn’t a one-off. Students who didn’t enter this year or weren’t named finalists have something to think about for next year. In essence, with this gift, the department is saying, ‘We support you creating your music, and with this infrastructure that wasn’t here before. So take those lyrics and finish that song.’”

The Pittman family’s gift aids efforts by the Department of Music to encourage student creative expression across all musical styles and media, including the Pittman Family Student Composition Competition. “I think dad would’ve appreciated the students’ enthusiasm to compete and challenge themselves (in the composition competition),” Tim adds. “He would have some measure of satisfaction and joy that this happened.”


These stories were originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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