In 2019, nine years after Stefan Thompson earned his bachelor’s degree in music, he returned to the classroom to pursue a master’s in music composition at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and is now preparing to commence doctoral studies in screen scoring at New York University (NYU) in the fall. He is the first person admitted to the program in four years.
His end goal is to one day write music for films, television shows and video games, as well as to be trained to teach at the collegiate level.
“Looking back at my life, I can see how every step has been ordered to prepare me for this opportunity, and I hope that one day I can be to a young Bahamian composer, what John Williams [American composer, conductor and pianist] was to me.”
Thompson, 35, was introduced to the music of Williams, whom he said is one of his favorite film composers, while growing up and playing in his church’s band.
“His music inspired me to think outside the box when it came to improvising on the piano and creating my own orchestral compositions on my computer. Having achieved the honor of being accepted into my dream school to study music for the screen, at the doctoral level, nonetheless, opens the door to my achieving everything that I have ever dreamed of doing with my music,” said Thompson.
Thompson was accepted into three other doctoral programs. He said NYU’s screen scoring program is the best of its kind, and perfectly tuned to his unique musical proficiencies.
“Doctoral programs are extremely competitive – universities look for well-rounded students that are not only gifted in their area of interest, but in others as well. While at Boston Conservatory, I developed a good relationship with my professors, many of whom are highly respected in the fields – their recommendations helped my application, too. Ultimately, though, universities are inclined to look at applicants as individuals, and want to know why one would make a good fit in their program.”
He is also able to attend NYU as it offers its PhD students full funding for the duration for their studies as well as a stipend to cover the basic costs of living.
Thompson knows that a stipend that does not meet minimum wage standards won’t compete with the rising cost of living, especially in New York and, as such, while there, plans to seek on-campus employment as well as grants from organizations to offset the high cost of living.
Thompson, a composer of contemporary classical music, enters NYU as he comes off the premiere of one of his pieces, titled, “NDE: Impressions of a Near Death Experience”, in Boston at the prestigious Symphony Hall by the Boston Conservatory at Berklee Orchestra.
After graduating Boston Conservatory in May 2021, Thompson’s former private instructor, Dr. Jonathan Bailey Holland, contacted him about an opportunity to compose a new work for a concert that would consist entirely of works by living Black composers to be held in April 2022.
Although it was not his first orchestral premiere, it was his first to be held at the Symphony Hall.
Thompson was given about eight months to compose NDE: Impressions of a Near Death Experience.
“As far as composing NDE: Impressions of a Near Death Experience, it is my hope that those people that grieve their loved ones are comforted in the thought that they never really leave them, and that they are always with them in spirit.
“After much spiritual introspection and countless conversations over the course of the pandemic, I have come to learn that death is not at all final. Instead, it is simply the doorway to the next part of the journey, and I hope that the emotions explored in NDE reveals that.”
NDE: Impressions of a Near Death Experience can be viewed on YouTube.
Thompson said composing for orchestra takes time, even for the most seasoned composer.
“When I was first presented with the opportunity to compose the piece, I had no idea which themes I wanted to explore. The majority of the eight months was spent creating the piece in my mind. After I was sufficiently inspired by the idea, I was ready to commit my thoughts to paper.
“Having a work as large as this one performed on such a large scale will continue to open many more doors for me with other universities and professional
orchestras, especially those concerned with diversity, equity, and equal opportunity,” he said.
Having taught music at two New Providence private schools for a combined 10 years, Thompson said he has come across many musically gifted students. And that no matter how exceptional they are, he said their hopes of making a living from the performing arts is limited, especially in The Bahamas.
Thompson, who plays many instruments but who said his favorites are the piano, violin, cello and the voice, hopes that by his example, his former students, and Bahamian students, generally, can see that opportunities are out there and that there is hope, regardless of one’s background.
And of leaving teaching to further pursue his dreams, Thompson said, “[The late] Mahatma Ghandi [Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi, Indian lawyer, politician, social activist, and writer] is often credited with the saying, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ I have taught many and encouraged even more to follow their own paths and pursue what makes them happy. Scripture teaches us that a person’s gifts will make room for them and leaving the teaching profession forced me to practice exactly as I taught and believed.”
But his current success is in no way contrived of his own making.
“I have been helped by many since leaving for my master’s. I am eternally grateful to the Charitable Arts Foundation, the Lyford Cay Foundation, the Nassau Music Society, Dr. Dion Cunningham, Dr. William Kenlon, Dr. Eun Young Lee, Dr. Jonathan Bailey Holland, my mother Sharon Thompson and my brothers, and my first music teacher, Gina Rolle.
“I am a testament that you can forge a new path at any stage in your life, regardless of age. I remember countless guest speakers in my school days stressing that we as students could become doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but rarely were we encouraged to explore the creative field. I hope that my students realize their own gifts and explore their potential and live a life that would ultimately satisfy them and bring them and their country much pride.”