Sound of the City

MU pianist lauded for his award-winning composition ‘The City Awakens’
Monday, April 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:02 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

During the winter of 2004, John Ernst began composing his latest piece of music. By spring, the piece was completed, but it still lacked a title.

“It just sounded to me like a city as it gained momentum at the beginning of the day,” said Ernst, a senior at MU.

“The City Awakens” came to life, inspired by Atlanta, the only major city in which Ernst had lived.

A year later, Ernst’s piece took first place in the 2006 National Young Artist Composition Competition given by the Music Teachers National Association.

Ernst has played piano since childhood and has written more than 20 compositions. He transferred to MU from the Georgia Institute of Technology after realizing he wanted a career in music.

After entering the seven-minute composition into the contest, “The City Awakens” beat the competition at the state and divisional levels. Soon thereafter, Ernst was accepting first place nationally for his piece.

“I think any time any student wins a national award, it has a certain significance,” said Thomas McKenney, an MU professor of music theory and composition.

The piece had its national debut on March 28 in Austin, Texas, at the Music Teachers National Association conference. It was performed by three of Ernst’s mentors among MU’s music faculty: clarinetist Paul Garritson, cellist Stefan Freund and pianist Karen Larvick.

“I got spoiled,” Ernst said. “I felt privileged to have such fine musicians playing my piece.”

With hundreds of young composers entering from around the country, the win is seen as an honor for Ernst and MU’s School of Music. McKenney, another of Ernst’s professors, has had four of his students win the competition.

“We get talented students here,” McKenney said. “I hope that, in some small part, I have made some contribution to their writing good pieces. But having said that, I also believe that our students are a product of the hard work of everyone in the School of Music — all of the department.”

Last year, Ernst’s wife, Sara, won a studio fellowship from the music teachers’ association for her work as a piano teacher. The couple met playing a duet in a piano studio class. They were married on March 25 — only three days before this year’s award ceremony, to which they hurried from their wedding in Florida.

Ernst plans to write two more sections of the composition and to continue the city theme. He intends to use the same three instruments, with one movement likely mimicking the sound of a subway and the final one resembling the majesty of a skyscraper, he said.

Ernst has been accepted into three graduate programs and is in the process of making his decision. Although winning this competition looks great on his resume, Ernst got accepted into these programs because of the “entire package,” not just one piece, McKenney said.

“It’s a wonderful piece,” he said. “And I think it is very deserving.”

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