Jazz Vocalist Yifei Zhou ’22, ’24 MM Reflects on Six Years of Musical Growth at NEC

Yifei Zhou

“It felt like an actual home,” said recent graduate Yifei Zhou ’22, ’24 MM, describing an early experience at NEC performing with the Gospel Ensemble, led by Nedelka Prescod. Zhou, a talented jazz vocalist and songwriter, has been deeply involved in student life since her first semester as an NEC undergraduate. An international student from Shanghai, China, she wanted to immerse herself in as many opportunities as possible to build a community and feel at home here in Boston, joining multiple campus clubs immediately upon arriving. "Those initial experiences of people going out of their way to include everyone in the community truly inspired me," she said. They eventually led her to get involved with NEC's Center for Cultural Equity and Belonging (CEB). Through CEB, Zhou directed this year's Mental Health Awareness Week on campus and hosted a forum for international students and faculty members to discuss their experiences. 

For Zhou, the last six years as an NEC student have been incredibly fulfilling, from performing with the Gospel Ensemble to being a member of this spring's electronic-inspired CMA Honors Ensemble, redbird. She studied with numerous faculty members here, including Dominique EadeHenrique EisenmannFrank CarlbergJerald LeakeKen SchaphorstTed ReichmanStratis Minakakis, and Jason Moran. Having just graduated with her Master of Music, she will now attend Berklee's Global Jazz Institute and embark on a new creative challenge: writing a full-length opera exploring the subject of feminism and patriarchal views of a woman's role in society. Before this exciting next chapter begins, she reflects on her musical growth at NEC and the people and experiences that shaped this formative time.

What was your journey into music, and what made you pursue music in college and grad school at New England Conservatory?

Music has always been a part of my life, since I was very young. Growing up in Shanghai, I was a dancer — I studied musical theater, ballet dance, and hip-hop dance. But I also loved singing. I took lessons and entered singing competitions as a hobby. I was very interested in music throughout high school, and I went to a five-week program at Berklee when I was 16. There, I got very into the idea of becoming a professional musician. I started studying jazz at 17 and decided to pursue music as my career. One of my first jazz teachers, Lawrence Ku, went to NEC, and I really admire him. He is the reason I decided to apply to NEC.  

What have been some of your favorite performance opportunities at NEC?

This year, I am a part of the CMA Honors Ensemble, redbird. Adrian Chabla ’24 contacted me and told me he wanted to start a group with me, Jacqui Armbruster ’24 MM, Karl Henry ’24 MM, and Evan Haskin ’25. Then, Eden MacAdam-Somer encouraged us to apply to become the CMA Honors Ensemble. We applied and were accepted, and it's been a great experience. We specifically perform electro-acoustic songs. We all bring songs to the group and then workshop them together. We don't have to come up with a solid idea of arrangement on our own; we just bring a song, talk about it, and come up with lines and other ideas for it together. It's been a very open and special place for me at NEC. 

The redbird Honors Ensemble with faculty coach Ted Reichman.

Another memorable performance was with NEC's Gospel Ensemble. During the first year of COVID-19, we recorded a performance that was posted on the NEC website. I have always liked to go to Gospel Ensemble performances — I feel like they are the most moving performances at NEC. But I remember when I was doing this specific performance, recording it and seeing it come to life during the time of COVID was so powerful to me because people were getting together and trying to figure out a way to be with each other while we were all separated all over the world. Nedelka Prescod was also such a great coach. She made this ensemble one of my favorite ensembles. Also, the people in the Gospel Ensemble all love and support each other very much. It felt like an actual home. 

During your time at NEC, you have partnered with the Center for Cultural Equity and Belonging on a few projects, most recently planning events for NEC's Mental Health Awareness Week. Can you talk about that experience?

I came up with the idea of "healing through senses" for NEC’s Mental Health Awareness Week this year, where people could heal and gain more mental health awareness from visual, smell, taste, and movement. I ended up organizing two events: Healing through Senses and Healing through Hearing. I did an ambient music set with my friend in the CEB office. I decorated the office in a very comfortable way to create an inviting and chill space for people to come in and out and rest. Especially during the end of the semester, I felt like people really needed a space to rest. 

This year, I was also a part of an International Student Experiences forum as part of CEB's "Our Stories" event series. I gathered three international faculty members and four international students, and we sat together to talk about our experiences. I asked questions about each person's cultural differences, like "How do you navigate your identity through the music you study?" I asked this because a lot of us are studying Western music, and people may have felt a kind of cultural crisis. It was a really informative event. I got a dim sum for everyone to enjoy while we had the conversation. A lot of people came to listen. 

What was your experience as an international student like when you first started at NEC? 

My experience during my first year was really positive because when I first got here, I joined almost every club at NEC. I learned a lot about American culture through those experiences and found that people were super welcoming to new students. It was really cool to get support from all of the club members. I made a lot of friends from going to club meetings. Those initial experiences of people going out of their way to include everyone in the community truly inspired me and were a big part of why I wanted to start working with CEB. It's very beautiful and something I hope continues at NEC. 

Reflecting on your time here, what faculty members have been most influential to you?


I've studied with a lot of incredible teachers here; it's hard to choose! I studied with Dominique Eade for years. Being in her ensemble was one of the best experiences I've ever had, and I learned so much from her. She's very wise, and her approach to music is so open. She taught me a lot. Just being next to her gave me a lot of perspective. 

I also really appreciate Ted Reichman. I have studied with him privately and was in his ensemble two to three times, and every time, I had good experiences. He's really open-minded. I appreciate open-minded teachers who give a lot of insight rather than stepping on what I do, and he does that. 

Next, Jason Moran, of course! I studied with him this year, and every time I talk to him, I gain more understanding about music. He can listen to the most subtle aspects of your music and give you the best suggestions that could completely switch your perspective on how you play your songs or perform. 

Lastly, this year, I studied with Stratis Minakakis, a composition teacher. His perspective on sound, forms, and improvisation inspired me a lot in terms of composition and performance. He's one of my biggest inspirations right now.

I really appreciated studying with these four, but there are so many others at NEC who influenced me, too. 

With graduation behind you — congratulations, by the way! — what are you planning to do next? 

I'll be attending Berklee's Global Jazz Institute for another year. During this time, I also plan to write an opera about feminism. The opera will combine jazz, contemporary classical music, and electronic music. It's about women's, especially Asian women's, experiences in society. For instance, women are often taught to be subservient to their husbands or taught to get married at a certain age. There are a lot of internalized pressures and internalized patriarchal ideology in women, and that simultaneously influences how we act, how we think about dreams, how we pursue careers, and how many women are made to feel afraid that they can't reach their dreams and need a man to survive. I wanted to write an opera that reflects on this concept and brings out the idea that being a woman can be really powerful. The loving aspect of being a woman is especially powerful. Feminine power can change a lot of fundamental problems in society. It's still in the planning stages, but writing this opera will be my most significant plan for the next two years. 

What is your best piece of advice for a first-year NEC student? 

My best advice would be to be open-minded. Go to as many events as you can, especially as a first year. Join clubs, go to CEB events, and try to be a part of this community. Also, I think classical students should take jazz and CMA courses, and CMA and jazz students should try to take classical courses because NEC is such a great resource for all styles of music. It has everything — electronic music, new music, jazz music, folk music. The best things I've learned at NEC came from being surrounded by such a rich musical culture. I learned so much, and I think you wouldn't be able to get this outside of NEC. So as a first year, don't just stick in your practice room — go out of your way to meet people, do things, and learn more than just your major. 

Who are some of your biggest musical influences? 

My favorite artist is a Japanese artist, Hakushi Hasegawa. He is my biggest inspiration in music. I also really like Esperanza Spalding and Ichiko Aoba. Those three artists are unique in their musical language. You can hear that they are into classical, jazz, folk, and electronic; they listen to a wide range of music, so their music sounds like everything they are influenced by. Ichiko Aoba particularly inspired me because she's a quiet girl, similar to me — I'm pretty quiet, too. But she's very confident in herself when she performs and in her songwriting. I watched her performances, and that changed my life. She makes me want to be more confident in my musical self rather than looking at others.