Faulty Spotlight – Dr. Amir Zaheri

How long have you been on faculty at the University of Alabama and what has been your experience as a faculty member?

  • I began as a faculty member in Fall of 2013. My experience has been one of great opportunity. I often tell people that I have the best job in the building, and I sincerely mean that. I teach private composition lessons and classroom courses, conduct the contemporary ensemble, and I get to perform alongside both faculty members and students. I also have the opportunity to serve the student population as the Director of Undergraduate Studies utilizing some of my administrative experience and skill set.

Tell me about your musical training. How did you decide that composition was the avenue for you?

  • I have been involved in music in some way since I was very young. Interestingly, I am the only musical person in my family, but it was always something that was supported and encouraged. I have been in choirs and instrumental ensembles. Music is essentially what helped me get through Middle School and High School. I realized my first semester of college that composition was for me when I met Michael Kallstrom, the composer at my undergraduate institution and heard his music. It was really a life changing event. I, being rather naïve, didn’t know that there were still composers actively creating music. I approached him to have composition lessons, he agreed, and the rest is history.

You received your B.M. at Western Kentucky State and your M.M. at Georgia State. How do your experiences there compare to your time as a D.M.A. student at the University of Alabama?

  • In a lot of ways they are very similar. I was advised in high school to look for schools with faculty members who were well suited to my interests and goals. I selected all three of the Universities I attended based on the individual with whom I would be working. I have been fortunate to have incredible teachers. They have been different in the sense that Western Kentucky State is a medium-sized university with a small department of music, Georgia State is in a very urban location in downtown Atlanta, and of course the University of Alabama is an enormous Research I institution, with a very large student population. These contrasts have helped to make me better-suited to work with students who come from diverse backgrounds.

How have your experiences here as a student impacted your philosophy and approach as an educator?

  • My experiences as a student here made it very clear to me that it is incumbent upon the student to do everything in her or his power to access the resources available to them. Here at UA we have an incredible faculty population. The wealth of knowledge, the wealth of experience and the skill sets of our faculty members are truly remarkable. Simply following the basic curriculum will not necessarily give every student an opportunity to experience everything that our faculty members have to offer. Seek out extra opportunities from those faculty members, be it from an independent study, additional performance opportunities, or something as simple as inviting a faculty member to have a cup of coffee to discuss her/his research. I’ve found those things made it really important to me, as a faculty person, to explain to students that there is a lot more information here than what is available at the surface. Their education here can be as strong and as rewarding as they want it to be.

What are some of the upcoming projects you have in the next academic year?

  • Something current that will continue into the next year is a part of the University of Alabama’s Alabama and Greece initiative. It is a collaboration between the University of Alabama and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. My colleague in the Dance Department, Rebecca Salzer, and I continue to collaborate with a faculty person in the Theater Department in Greece. We are working together on a short film, which will be shown internationally. Also, I’m currently working on several pieces which will be premiered by our own ensembles, some larger works which will premiere at institutions throughout the U.S., and a handful of projects that will be premiered overseas next year.

You’ve done a lot of work recently with the Dance Department here on campus, particularly with Prof. Rebecca Salzer. Can you discuss how you came to collaborate with other areas and how that has impacted your compositions?

  • Quite simply, I reached out to the Director of the Dance Department, Cornelius Carter. I explained to him that collaboration was something that I felt very passionately about. He suggested I be in touch with Rebecca Salzer. We met and discussed our individual work and the possibility of working together and we realized pretty quickly that we had a great deal in common artistically, individually, and collectively. She also thinks of herself as a composer of movement. We have worked together non-stop. That has increased my ability to produce even more collaborative work, which I think has been life-giving for me and has been really eye-opening for my own students. The connection that Rebecca and I have has opened up further connections between our two departments. Other faculty members and students have become very interested in collaborating. Next year, we have three performances dedicated to collaborations between composition students and dancers/choreographers in the dance department. We are trying to create a culture of collaborative art and that will continue on as these students graduate and pursue their careers. Both Rebecca and I sincerely believe that creating art in silos, independent of other artists is unhealthy at best and will often times lead to very unsuccessful results.

What is your favorite course to teach and why?

  • That is very difficult to answer. I truly do love every course that I teach. There may be a tie. I love 18th century counterpoint and I also love teaching Orchestration. I think probably, that’s due to the amount of rigor both as intellectuals and as creative individuals. So they are depending on both intellect and instinct and that is really exciting to me. I love to see students doing something that is uncomfortable to them thrive.

What advice do you have for high school students who are considering a degree in composition?

  • To simply reach out to me or any other composer and feel free to ask as many questions as they have! There are no stupid questions. They don’t have to worry if they have ever composed a single note in their lifetimes. They should listen to the music of every composer at every university they can find. If they wish to study with a specific composer, it does not mean that their music will sound just like that composer’s music. The instructor’s main task will be to help that student uncover her or his own unique voice.

What are you listening to these days?

  • I listen to a little bit of everything! I love musical theater. I’m a big Sondheim fan. He’s one of my heroes. I listen to a great deal of 1980’s pop rock and I listen to a lot of what I’m teaching. Right now that is Bach and current chamber music. A lot of my students are writing chamber music at the moment and I feel that it’s important for me to be as aware of all of the current trends in contemporary music. Right now I’m focusing primarily on chamber acoustic music and chamber electro-acoustic music.


For more information on Dr. Zaheri and the Composition Program Click Here