First Polk State Alumnus Accepted to Juilliard Will Now Study Composition in Finland

Posted on by Sasha Syboodeen

AJ Stillabower, Polk State’s first alumnus to study at the renowned Juilliard School, has received a Fulbright scholarship to study composition in Finland.

“Not only is the Fulbright award a recognized accomplishment in many professional circles in regards to my long-term ventures, but this opportunity reflects a short-term desire to explore something intimately personal on my own,” Stillabower said.

“The past seven years I have studied music in an academic setting, and this is my first opportunity since I began to really take a large chunk of time — a year is a lot if you use it well — to synthesize the experiences I’ve had and more readily prepare myself for experiences to come.”

Stillabower made Polk State history in 2014 when he was accepted to Juilliard; Polk State Music faculty members can’t recall another alumnus who has moved on to Juilliard.

Stillabower’s acceptance was all the more remarkable because of the unusual path he took to the prestigious conservatory.

Growing up in Winter Haven, Stillabower was a fan of heavy metal music, but it wasn’t until he was a student at Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School that he took up an instrument. Stillabower recalled that he bought a keyboard during a Black Friday sale, took it home, and taught himself to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Hooked, he continued at Polk State to complete his Associate in Arts degree, thriving in the College’s music department.

“There are very few music institutions that have an open-door policy, allowing you the chance to pursue your passion although you may lack some of the skills required to really ‘make it’ at a collegiate level,” Stillabower wrote in recent email to News@Polk.

“Coming to music at the end of high school, I was definitely not prepared to engage with the requirements of a four-year program right after graduation. I needed an outlet to hone and explore this newfound passion. Polk State was that place for me, and I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had there — and the doors it has opened since.”

After graduating from Polk State in 2010, Stillabower earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition from Florida State University.

Stillabower graduated with his master’s in music composition from Juilliard earlier this year, and soon thereafter learned he’d received a Fulbright scholarship to study microtonal composition at The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

Stillabower explained his study area for the music layman:

“In general, there is a difference between the notes used in ‘western music’ and ‘non-western music.’ The notes in western music can be defined by fixed-pitch instruments like the piano or harp, which are tuned to a general standard of 12 notes per octave. Other cultures and types of music characteristically use notes that lie outside of this fixed-pitch spectrum — sometimes having as many as 24, 36, or even over 100 notes within that same octave range. I’m interested in exploring the sound worlds these other notes create in regard to my own ideas of music composition,” he said.

Stillabower’s Fulbright award will pay for him to live and study in Finland for a year, beginning later this month.

As if Fulbright and Finland weren’t good news enough, Stillabower is also celebrating having recently been commissioned to write a piece for The Mana Quartet, a California-based saxophone ensemble. Stillabower’s piece, “Vide Supra,” is the title track for the group’s debut album, which was released in June.

When he returns from Finland, Stillabower said, he’ll continue composing and maybe begin a teaching career. Where, or in what capacity he’ll work, however, is yet to be determined — and that’s just fine with him.

“Teaching can take many guises, and the creative process as a ‘career’ is an indefinite one at best,” he said. “Needless to say, I’m not too worried about it. Being thoughtful and responsible with my life choices, while staying passionately dedicated to what I love, seems like it’s working out so far, and as they say, if it ain’t broke…”

 In addition to Music, Polk State’s arts programs include Theatre and Visual Arts, all of which enjoy outstanding statewide reputations.