Schreyer Scholar’s lessons in music extend beyond the classroom


This article was originally published May 1, 2024 in Penn State Today.

By McKenna Murphy

When Dermott Breault, a second-year Schreyer Scholar and music composition major, started piano lessons in kindergarten, his family quickly recognized his talent for creating melodies and translating them into scores. None of them could have known at the time that Breault’s talents would one day help him compose music that would be heard by international audiences or be a part of a unique research exhibit.

Since arriving at Penn State, Breault’s passion for writing music has unlocked several one-of-a-kind types of opportunities. Thanks to engaged faculty, experiences abroad and public performances he has learned and developed his skills in and out of the classroom.

Early on, it was apparent that Breault was motivated to take what he learned about music in school or during lessons and create something on his own. He looks back to a favorite childhood movie as one of his first sources of inspiration for how he could use songs to reflect his interests and apply techniques that he had learned.

“When I started, I really liked 'Star Wars,' so everything that I wrote sounded like the 'Star Wars' movie soundtrack. Now, I have started to do that more intentionally,” Breault shared. “I like to combine what I am learning, such as experimental techniques from the classroom, and bring in my own knowledge of pop, rock and metal music.”

A native of Wayne, Pennsylvania, Breault searched across the U.S. for a university that offered the right environment to help him grow as a composer. He eventually connected with Baljinder Sekhon, associate professor of composition at the Penn State School of Music. Their conversations about the University's emphasis on letting students use their interests to pave their academic path proved to be the deciding factor for Breault, he said.

Stretching skills and reach

His relationship with Sekhon has afforded Breault opportunities he never thought possible, including one that stretched both his skills and his music’s reach. In fall 2023, Sekhon asked Breault if he would compose a piece for a student at the University College of Dublin, Ireland. The project was part of a larger musical collaboration between Penn State and UC Dublin. Breault was tasked with creating a solo piece for the viola, which he had never done before.

Despite this, Sekhon expressed his confidence in selecting Breault for the piece. He shared how he knew Breault’s passion for composing music could overcome any challenges associated with taking on the project.

“Dermott is a wonderful musician and multi-instrumentalist. He is someone who is comfortable in a variety of styles and I knew that he could meet whatever demands this collaboration required,” Sekhon shared.

The project challenged Breault immensely as a student, forcing him to work between two time zones while learning a new style of composing. From frequent Zoom calls with the UC Dublin student, Qianqian Fu, to editing and rewrites, Breault described the initial obstacles he faced while working on this project.

“The biggest difficulty was just learning how to write for viola. I have written for string instruments before, but writing a piece for a solo instrument is different because there is more pressure to make that instrument do as much as possible,” Breault said. “I ended up having to take a lot of that out originally and rethink the entire piece at times.”

Despite the setbacks, Breault continued working overtime to learn the mechanics of the viola and perfect his score. After finishing the piece and sending it to Fu, Breault expressed how rewarding it was to watch her play virtually.

The performance took place at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, a musical landmark for the area, often referred to as the “home of music” in Ireland. Watching a performance of his composition in such a historic venue and reflecting on the collaboration required to write the piece gave Breault an even deeper appreciation for the opportunities Penn State offers its students.

“I think it is crazy how many people, across the world, have connections here and the potential I have to build these connections through Penn State. It is a huge benefit of being here,” Breault shared. “Being able to compose for someone in Ireland and have a piece that I wrote be played for an audience in the renowned National Concert Hall was never something I imagined.”

Breault’s work with Fu served as inspiration to immerse himself further into Ireland’s culture. He applied for and was accepted into a Schreyer Honors College signature study abroad course, ‘Deliberative Democracy in Ireland.’

While abroad, the Schreyer Scholars will learn about the Irish Citizens’ Assembly and how its deliberation initiatives have impacted the country’s culture, economics and politics. Breault and his classmates will interview Irish residents on their country’s current political climate and create podcasts and documentaries with their findings.

While there is no musical component to the course, Breault intends to explore the connection between Irish music and its influence on politics while he is abroad.

“I thought it was a neat program because I have always been interested in music as an instrument for social change, and Ireland has a strong tradition of that,” Breault explained. “I've been reading about how the way people interact with music is often very similar to the way democracy is created. Especially in Ireland, a lot of the music happens in pubs or bars, and anyone can be part of it.”

The opportunity to go beyond the assigned coursework is also helping Breault lay the groundwork for his honors thesis. The real-world experience he gains abroad will help him research and write about how music can incite societal progress, he said.

'Embrace what you love'

Breault has also taken advantage of co-curricular experiences that have deepened his connections to the Penn State community. His most recent composition work was on display at the 2024 Music Composition Spring Concert which featured three of Breault’s original pieces.

Breault worked diligently outside the classroom to prepare for the event. Finding performers, organizing meeting times and leading rehearsals have helped him hone his leadership skills and apply course concepts to a real performance.

“It's been a great experience so far. For each rehearsal, I make sure to figure out what the band needs to work on the most and how much time we have to spend on each section,” Breault said. “Using what I have learned from other activities, like the glee club, and my classes has helped me to be more efficient and to make better use of my time.”

group photo

Dermott Breault (center) and the musicians who performed his pieces at the spring 2024 concert.

Credit: Dermott Breault

One of his songs that was performed at the concert is titled “Riding into the Wind,” inspired by Breault's love of cycling. He described how the song focuses on the feeling of freedom he associates with riding his bike, and how the song’s repetitive rhythm mimics the clicking of a bike chain.

Sharing his projects, like “Riding into the Wind” with the Penn State community has been a fulfilling experience for Breault. He said he hopes his music inspires others to unapologetically embrace what they love and find ways to marry their interests with their academic journeys.

Creating a 'buzz'

When it comes to his most recent composition, though, Breault took advantage of a collaboration opportunity that pushed him even further outside of his comfort zone than his previous projects. And this piece of music is creating a bit of a buzz around University Park.

The Penn State School of Music partnered with the Center for Pollinator Research on a project that uses student-written musical scores to give audiences a new way to learn about the intricacies of pollination. Breault composed a spacial audio score that mimics the noises of bees as they pollinate. He created sounds to represent the buzz as bees travel between flowers and even the noise of pollen fluttering in the air.

Breault’s was one of 10 student-composed pieces that were showcased in a performance at University Park’s Pavilion Theatre earlier this spring.

From international collaborations, concert compositions and rehearsals, and pollinator projects, Breault has found several ways to apply classroom lessons to real-world scenarios and broaden his skill set. Each experience has granted him the chance to apply course topics to real-world scenarios and broaden his overall skillset as a student, he said.

With plans for a career in the music industry, Breault said he believes that the skills he developed and the lessons he learned outside the classroom will help set him apart from his peers. His experiences embody the numerous opportunities to learn outside of a conventional classroom setting, and how stepping outside of one’s comfort zone can spark personal growth.

“A big focus [in Penn State’s School of Music] is not only how to write music but being able to develop a career,” Breault shared. “You can learn about the techniques that composers use, but you can't learn in the classroom how to use them efficiently. This is why learning takes place outside the classroom rather than inside the classroom. Practical knowledge is extremely important, and I have learned a lot just from these life experiences.”