Eddie Jacobs has it tough, teaching a music course
with no single right answer and very few wrong ones
By Steve Row
ddie Jacobs has ways of bringing the music out of students, even those who admit coming to class unprepared. In those cases, Jacobs often asks the student do one simple thing: Play one note on the keyboard. He then asks the student to play a second note, then a third and a fourth note. Then he sets a timer for five minutes and tells the student to compose something based on those four notes.
“Generally works every time,” says Jacobs, associate professor of music composition, theory and electronic music in the ECU School of Music.
A member of the ECU faculty since 1998, Jacobs teaches one of the most difficult courses in any college catalog—a course based almost entirely on student creativity. A course with no single right answer and very few wrong answers.
Although he has his own ideas about composing—his own works carry such titles as Time As A Fly, Ensemblespiel and The Thing With Feathers—he tries not to impose those ideas on his students. “I don’t care what they do stylistically, but the demands they encounter are that this is a process of constant decision-making. As we meet each week and review materials, it’s my job to ask what works, what doesn’t, why it doesn’t. I hope that in the process, they will get rid of the chaff,” he says. “But everything is so subjective.”
Jacobs encounters three broad groups of students in composition classes—those curious to know what it’s like to create,
those who think they have something to say, and those who think composition is their life’s path.
Few, if any, come to him having had training or instruction in creating music; younger students generally come into composition with some performance experience, such as a local orchestra, Suzuki instruction or marching band, but not much in the way of thinking creatively about music.
“For me, composition is approached in multiple stages by dipping into one’s creativity. You write down ideas and filter through them to find the best one idea to pursue. You decide, ‘Which ones are good thesis statements?’”
J. Christopher Buddo, director of the School of Music, admires Jacobs’ way of staying current in an ever-changing field as he teaches. “One of the things that I find most fascinating is that Eddie is always keeping abreast of what’s new. He stays on top of things, and this lets him engage students in a way that reaches them where they are.”
Jacobs “always brings a level of quality to his teaching, because he is quite demanding of his students in a way that turns them on, not off,” Buddo adds.
A jazz saxophone player from age 10 through college, Jacobs earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition from the University of Massachusetts in 1984, a master’s from the University of California-Berkeley in 1986 and a doctor of musical arts from Columbia University in 1994.
He taught at Wabash College in Indiana from 1995 to 1998 before coming to ECU. Before Wabash, he also was a part-time or adjunct instructor at Columbia, Manhattan College and Yeshiva College.
In addition to teaching, Jacobs has been active in conducting. He founded the Wabash College Chamber Orchestra and conducted the Wabash Brass Ensemble, Columbia University Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra. He also was a guest conductor with the ECU Symphony Orchestra in 2002.
One of his most prominent roles on the ECU campus, however, is founder and director of the New Music @ ECU Festival, which concluded its eighth annual session in the early part of the spring semester. ‘An interest in hearing this stuff’
The festival started almost by accident. Jacobs recalls that then-School of Music dean Brad Foley had “told me on the first day I was here we need to hear your music.” In 1999, a year later, Jacobs put together a program that featured his own music and that of ECU faculty member Mark Richardson, which prompted another faculty member to suggest that perhaps more contemporary music should be available on campus.
In spring 2001, Jacobs asked soprano Christine Schadeberg to perform Pierrot lunaire, a 45-minute “landmark piece” for voice and instruments by Arnold Schoenberg from 1912, and even though it was a Friday afternoon, “the recital hall was packed,” Jacobs says. The performance prompted a standing ovation, and she performed the music a second time that evening. The hall was packed again.
“That made me think that there is an interest here in hearing this stuff,” he says, and the idea of continuing a contemporary music festival-type program took hold.
Not only does the festival expose local audiences to a wide range of contemporary music, but it also exposes music students to contemporary music composers and performers. “Student composers will write an exercise for great artists to review and evaluate and for performance,” he points out.
The 2008 festival, for example, featured Speculum Musicae, a New York-based ensemble that served as Robert L. Jones Distinguished Visiting Professor of Music during the academic year. Also performing were the ECU New Music Camerata with soprano Louise Toppin; pianist Geoffrey Burleson; the ECU Chamber Orchestra; and ECU faculty member and clarinetist Christopher Grymes. Organist Colin Andrews gave a recital to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Olivier Messiaen.
“There’s always a teaching component to the festival,” Buddo says. “His students always have the chance to interact with the composers and performers.”
Jacobs has composed more than 30 pieces of music since 1983, and his work in composition drew national attention in 2005, when he was named a winner of a $15,000 Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was one of more than 50 composers, artists, architects and writers to receive cash awards for their work.
“It’s a wonderful honor to be recognized alongside so many distinct composers,” Jacobs said at the time. “I’m flattered to be included among such a wonderful group.”
His work continues to get exposure before a larger audience. During the final concert of the 2007–08 Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, for example, artistic director Ara Gregorian included Jacobs’ Time As A Fly, a piece for string quintet that had been completed only a short time before. His composition shared a program with quintets by Brahms and Mendelssohn.
“If you put Brahms and Jacobs next to each other, they complement each other,” Jacobs says. “In fact, I’m greatly influenced by Brahms. I believe that contemporary and older music both sort of inform each other.”
Gregorian is a fan of Jacobs. “I can see the great relationships that students have with him and the amount of respect that they have for him. Eddie is greatly respected by me and all of his colleagues for the quality of his work and for the way that he interacts with the students as well as his colleagues. He is a true leader in the School of Music.” A teacher first
Jacobs, who was nominated for the ECU Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award in 2004, considers himself a teacher first, then composer, conductor and festival director. And he does not restrict his teaching to ECU classrooms. He goes into local schools to work with fourth through sixth grade students in a “young composers” program.
“The kids make music, and the teachers teach note names, rhythms and values,” he says. “At first, they learn that we’re just playing with sound. But then we do the same thing with percussion instruments, then recorders, then guitars. I act as a secretary, and the students tell me what to cut and paste to create a melody.”
Some of the results are impressive, the same as some of the results he hears in his ECU classroom.
“What I look forward to the most is going into the classroom. So much of what I teach is based on music with which I am very familiar, and yet every time I teach it, it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. I enjoy hearing the students hearing the music,” he says.