It began as spirited rivalry with her older brother, who’d just taken up the piano. “I loved the look of it—the keys. It was very tactile,” says Jennifer Nicole Campbell.
Campbell was 5 at the time and artistically inclined. The Glen Mills native also started violin and dance. She began composing her own pieces, dissecting other songs to understand the instrumentation. Then came lessons with David Auldon Brown, an award-winning pianist and composer who trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. “He introduced me to a whole new world,” she says.
Campbell wasn’t the only one moved by the experience. “Right away, I noticed she paid more attention and [had] more talent in her work than most students in her age group,” says Brown, who’s been teaching for nearly 50 years. “There were a lot of things that stood out in the first year of study.”
Brown helped Campbell win two scholarships—one at the Music School of Delaware in Wilmington and another at Darlington Arts Center in Garnet Valley. After that, she studied music and composition at Johns Hopkins University’s prestigious Peabody Institute. Currently an artist in residence with the Delaware County Symphony, Campbell has performed at venues all over the world, including the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
“She’s a fantastic ensemble player,” says Brown. “I don’t think I’ve heard anyone around here who can play piano with string players and make it fit like a glove [the way she does].”
Already, the 26-year-old is seeing her young career come full circle, beginning with her return to the area. Earlier this year, she partnered with the Academy of International Ballet in Media, where she’s now a composer in residence. It’s a position held by few others in the country, and it gives dancers the rare opportunity to actually perform to original songs.
The partnership began last winter, when Campbell worked with the academy on a collaborative production called Butterfly Whispers. “I still remember when I saw them perform for the first time—I was almost in tears,” recalls Campbell. “It was the most beautiful thing to see the musical gestures brought to life. It’s a totally different way of looking at music for me. I was just blown away.”
The feeling was mutual. “The audience loved it,” says Denis Gronostayskiy, owner and artistic director of the academy. “So far, it’s been a wonderful experience.”
Campbell is writing several additional compositions for the academy, including one called “Daring to Dream” for two young girls. “Seeing classical ballet and classical music in this amazing synergy is breathtaking for me,” says Campbell.
To get a feel for dance again, Campbell spent time observing the students, which sparked some inspiration in her. “The challenge is to funnel all of those ideas into one and try to create short pieces,” she says.
In addition to composing, Campbell plays live at many performances. Gronostayskiy—who’s been a principal artist with the Moscow Renaissance Ballet, Philadelphia Dance Theatre and the Richmond Ballet in Virginia—sees it as a decided advantage for his students. “It teaches them to actually hear the music,” he says, adding that it encourages students to adapt on stage. “Sometimes, if you’re listening to a recording, the tempos will never change—the pitch, the intonation of the music will stay the same.”
Working with the academy has been a real learning experience for Campbell. “It’s inspired me on a lot of levels, not just with my composing but with my teaching, too,” she says. “I’m trying to think more about movement and make sure my students can visualize the music in a different way.”
Perhaps it’s a bit like how Campbell herself felt when she got together with Brown. “During my first lesson with him, the way he was playing made me think, ‘I want to experience whatever that is,’” Campbell recalls. “It was like flying.”