Undergraduate Spotlight: Haoyu Zheng ’24, Composition and Contemporary Musical Arts

Haoyu Zheng

As he gears up for graduation and life after his undergraduate studies, it's clear that Composition and Contemporary Musical Arts double major Haoyu Zheng ’24 has made the most of his time here at New England Conservatory. Not only is he graduating with a degree from both departments, but he also earned a music theory minor and a concentration in music technology. He has been a Teaching Fellow through NEC's CPP office for the past two years, teaching music and accompanying the choir at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury. He is also a mentee in the EM Office's Mentorship Program, paired with mentor Stephanie Economou ’12, a fellow NEC Composition alumna and the first-ever winner of the Grammy for best video game score

The future is very bright for Zheng, an aspiring film score composer who just accepted a full scholarship to earn his Master's degree in film scoring from the Peabody Institute starting this fall. Before he heads to Baltimore, he will travel to Los Angeles this June to work as a composer assistant in composer Nathan Wang’s studio.  

What did your journey into music look like?

Both my parents were artists. My dad is a pop singer back in China, and my mom is a professional dancer. So when I was a little kid, I was listening to music all the time. One day, I was practicing piano in a practice room in the studio when a professor from the Shanghai Conservatory found me. They asked my parents if I wanted to apply for their Prep school. So I ended up there, studying for six years, from middle school all the way to high school. And then I decided to apply for NEC for composition.

What made you decide to come to NEC?

NEC has a really, really good reputation, not only in China but all over Asia. It’s an influential place that students want to go. It’s a top-tier music college, for sure. 

How were you first introduced to NEC’s Teaching Fellowship, and what made you decide to apply? 

I started doing the Teaching Fellowship right after COVID-19 when I got a chance to come back to campus. Because of COVID, I had to move back to Shanghai for one and a half years. I started teaching music theory, piano, and composition there, and it was really enjoyable for me because I feel like teaching music is a great learning experience. You can listen and see how your students improve. As a teacher, you feel proud of your students at all times. After I moved back to Boston, I felt like I wanted to do the same thing. My friends were telling me to apply for the Teaching Fellowship. It's also paid, which is great. So I decided to apply. 

When I got accepted for the Fellowship, I was matched to a K-8 school called Orchard Garden K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury. Mr. Hogan, the teacher there, asked me what I was majoring in and what I was good at. He was really interested in seeing what I was eligible to do and what I wanted to do there. I'm doing piano accompaniment and sometimes choir arrangements for their student choir, which is really fun because I am getting a chance to have my pieces performed by a fantastic choir. 

I told Mr. Hogan that Chinese is my mother tongue, and he asked me if I was interested in teaching the students a Chinese song. I chose a really famous song called Jasmine Flower, or Mo Li Hua. I made a piano arrangement and explained the Chinese alphabet and pronunciation system to the students. They did a really, really good job. Some of the kids even memorized the lyrics, and I was amazed because Chinese is really hard; it's a way different language than English.

Last year was my first year doing this, and I've continued doing it for a second year. At the end of the semester, the students and I were saying how we were going to miss each other, and we hugged and took photos together, which was really nice. It was a remarkable experience to have them as a part of my education at NEC. 

You talked about wanting to go into film scoring post-grad. Could you see yourself continuing to teach on the side? 

Yes. I got into the Peabody Conservatory for my Master's degree, and part of my scholarship included an offer to be a TA. I'm a TA here at NEC, too, so I will continue teaching as a music theory TA at Peabody. Also, I heard from Peabody that they have a program similar to NEC's Teaching Fellowship, and I think I will do that, too, because teaching and helping kids has been an amazing time for me.

Along with your double major in Composition and CMA, you are also earning a music theory minor and a concentration in Music Technology. What has been your experience in the Music Technology concentration?

Music Tech has allowed me to learn with a professor one-on-one, which is fantastic because it’s like a private class. For most of the composers at NEC, if you wanted to do something like this, you would need to take a class with about 20 people in it, and you have less focus on yourself because there are other people in the class. But in the Music Tech concentration, you can work more on what you’re interested in — like if you're interested in mixed media, or you’re someone like me, where I'm really interested in film scoring, you can work on that. Professor John Mallia is a fantastic person. He's really open-minded, so in the private class, you can do whatever you are interested in. It's also been really influential for my Master’s applications, and Professor Mallia has given me a lot of really fruitful suggestions. 

As a composer, have you had opportunities to get your original works performed during your time at NEC?

Yes, a lot of chances! As composition students, we have a score reading, which is where you get to have your piece recorded professionally with the best orchestra ever — NEC's orchestra. I have had some really, really good experiences working with them. Other than that, you can also do Tuesday Night New Music, which is a fantastic program where student works are performed four times per semester. NEC performers are just the best, and you can always just ask them to perform your work as well. Most of my friends say, "OK, I'm down for this!" because it's a great experience for them to play new music composed by students that they wouldn't have in their regular curriculum.

For myself, because I am double-majoring in CMA, we have at least two big Jordan Hall performances per semester, and I have my recital. I asked around and got lucky to get an orchestra to perform with. I think the atmosphere here is really great because everyone is so willing to help the composers have their work performed. Everyone is so motivated because everyone's so supportive of each other. 

What faculty members have been particularly influential during your time at NEC?

There are a lot of professors that have been very influential to me. When I first got to NEC, my English was not fluent enough to talk to people. When I first entered the country, I was trying to keep up with my studies, and the first three weeks were just a nightmare. Ms. Kambouris, the ESL teacher, helped me a lot during that time. Professor Roger Graybill and Professor Bert Van Herck are also great heroes of mine in the field of Music Theory. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to get as interested and involved in music theory as I am now, and I wouldn't have eventually pursued a music theory minor. 

When I was applying for the CMA program, Hankus Netsky auditioned me. I'm really grateful that he wanted to have me be a part of the department. I'm thankful that I have had this year to fulfill all the additional facets of my education for my bachelor's degree. It makes my whole education feel fulfilled. 

You’re about to graduate in just a few weeks. Reflecting on your time at NEC, what are some of the biggest things you’ve gained from your experience?

First of all, NEC has given me great connections. I aim to be a film composer, and I feel like NEC's connections will make a smoother transition because there are such great opportunities to meet people here. For example, we met Conrad Pope, an amazing orchestrator, last month

I am also part of NEC's Mentor Program, which is run through the EM Office. I got matched with a Grammy-winning composer and NEC alum, Stephanie Economou. We met through my professor, Michael Gandolfi, who introduced us over email because I was interested in doing film scoring for my Master's degree and as a career. He said, "Why don't you email one of my former students? Let's see what she thinks about your piece." After our first meeting, I decided to pursue film scoring formally instead of just doing it as a hobby. Stephanie gave me a lot of info and advice for me to use for my film scoring, which helped me a lot during that process. 

Secondly, NEC is really, really supportive. They have been very supportive of me doing a double major. I actually wanted to apply for a piano major in the first place, but it was around COVID, so I missed the chance to apply. When I came back, I felt like I wanted to do CMA because I wanted to perform. I realized CMA would be a great fit for me because I could do so many things — I can even do film scoring in CMA; there is a professor who teaches it in the department. We also have a fantastic gospel professor, Nedelka Prescod, who is my studio teacher right now. She has changed my singing skills and given me a lot of suggestions about how to sing thoughtfully because, as a composer, I feel like it's really hard to sing with my heart because I always overlook the lyrics and focus more on the melody. But based on what she taught me, I've gotten so much better than before because I am now really looking at the lyrics and analyzing them. I'm really fortunate to be able to do this at NEC through my double major.