Elaina Stuppler meets Dr. Jennifer Higdon

This article was written by Elaina Stuppler.

Dr. Jennifer Higdon starting infront of a brightly colored wall.
Dr. Jennifer Higdon.
Photographer: Andrew Bogard

I had the incredible honor of speaking with the extraordinary Dr. Jennifer Higdon! She is a three-time Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning composer. Dr. Higdon was bestowed with numerous awards from ASCAP, The Guggenheim Foundation, Pew Fellowship in the Arts, The American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the National Endowment of the Arts. In 2016 she won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere for her opera, Cold Mountain. Her “Percussion Concerto” was added to the National Recording Registry and Dr. Higdon was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Dr. Jennifer Higdon began playing the flute at fifteen years-old. Her mother initially bought a flute for herself and Jennifer later discovered the instrument in her attic. It was an accessible instrument that she could play and Dr. Higdon said, “the flute was a good match for me!” 

She grew up listening to a variety of styles of music like bluegrass, folk music, and pop with not much exposure to classical.

Jennifer Higdon, “Violin Concerto,” Performed by Hilary Hahn with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Later, she formally started training at eighteen when she went to Bowling Green State University to study flute performance. Next, she was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music where she received her Artist Diploma and then studied at the University of Pennsylvania where she was awarded her M.A and PhD.

Creating a wide range of music, she composes operas, orchestral compositions, choral, chamber, vocal, and wind ensembles. Also, Dr. Higdon scores for a broad level of musicians, ranging from youth symphonies and middle school bands to world renown groups such as the Chicago, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh Symphonies and the Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Cleveland Orchestras to name a few.

Not only have her compositions been performed by spectacular groups, but she has also written works for musical legends like Hilary Hahn, Yuga Wang, Joshua Bell, and Jennifer Koh.

Jennifer Higdon has over seventy recordings of her compositions and her piece, “Blue Cathedral” is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works. She is also one of the most played living composers with performances worldwide and commissions from symphonies from all over the country. In addition to all of her amazing achievements and talent, she is known to be an incredibly genuine and kindhearted person.

Jennifer Higdon, “Blue Cathedral,” performed by the Portland Youth Philharmonic

Talking to her about her compositions, I asked Jennifer Higdon if studying flute performance impacted the sound of her pieces more than if she was a percussionist or string player.

Dr. Higdon reflected that there is definitely an influence, “I notice that the composers that I have taught that play piano tend to think of things as harmonic movement. The Percussionists always approach everything as rhythmic and the single lined instruments like the strings and the winds and brass tend to think of composing as lines. I think of it as what we call counterpoint which is basically different lines moving at the same time and I know that’s because I first experienced music as a performer on a single line instrument. I bet if I was a pianist, judging from all of my students who have been composers/pianists I would probably think very differently.”

Having attended both a music conservatory and university, I asked her which she would recommend for a composer. She answered, “I actually love the fact that all three schools I went to were different.” Dr. Higdon mentioned that she learned unique things at each one. Continuing, she said that conservatory training was her “absolute favorite,” but she also values what the universities gave her because “it tends to be a wider, little more liberal arts education.” She emphasized the importance of finding a “teacher that suits you well on your instrument because that is also a very close relationship.” Higdon added, “It’s an interesting balancing act for music people. I think it’s a little more difficult than it is for most other majors because there is so much one-on-one time.”

Jennifer Higdon, “Percussion Concerto,” Performed by the University of Michigan Symphony Band

When I asked her about winning some of the highest accolades as a composer, I inquired if there was one prize that had a particularly strong impact in her life. Dr. Higdon replied, “You just try to be the best artist you can” and continued that it’s more about “your satisfaction in what you are doing and how you are communicating with people”.

What I also found inspiring about Dr. Higdon was how she talked about giving herself permission to fail. She noted that “failures are the places we learn the most” and how you recover from the failures is “a really important lesson.”
For more information, you can visit Dr. Jennifer Higdon’s website to learn more about her concerts and music: http://jenniferhigdon.com/

About Elaina:

Youth Roving Reporter, Elaina Stuppler

Elaina Rae Stuppler is an award-winning composer and singer. She attended Crossroads School for the Arts in Santa Monica, California where she studied vocal arts, composing, trombone, violin, and recently received the U.S. President’s Education Award.

The Oregon Symphony named Elaina as their first Luna Composition Lab recipient where her piece, Anxious Alignment, had its world premiere at their 125th Gala Anniversary. The Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Youth Symphony have also commissioned pieces by her. Elaina is a member of the Young Composers Project and will have her orchestral composition debuted in 2023.