Undergraduate music student shares her passion for learning and teaching, engaging others

Eliana O'Brien


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Eliana O’Brien thrives in environments that require personal engagement and creative flexibility.

In May, she will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in music learning and teaching.

In spring 2020, O’Brien was awarded a grant from the Kennedy Center to create a one-minute short film through the center’s Art Under a Minute project (O’Brien’s video is fifth). The short-form videos, called “brain breaks,” are described as breaks from at-home learning – moments to interact and shift one’s thinking or perspective. 

“This process helped me realize that I really, really love learning,” said O’Brien. “I am so grateful for the interdisciplinary opportunities this school has offered throughout my time here.” 

O’Brien is an accomplished pianist, harpsichordist, jazz vocalist and plays the euphonium.

“Eliana is first and foremost a creative individual, always thinking big, including community and finding ways to engage audiences,” said Deanna Swoboda, associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “Her professional history and personal hobbies center around the craft of organizing creative community experiences, and she intends to connect people and support fine artistry in all that she does.”

This May, O’Brien will complete her third year as a resident assistant in Arizona State University Housing, where she coordinates creative programs for over 500 residents and streamlines communication between university staff and residents.

In 2019, O’Brien worked with the Santa Fe Opera as a substitute usher for the summer; served as collaborative pianist and librarian with the Quintessence Choral Festival, where she accompanied rehearsals and prepared scores for the Santa Fe Symphony and mass choir; and served as artistic director and conductor of the New American Chorus, a premiere Women’s Chamber Chorus at ASU.  She has also worked as a freelance pianist for over eight years. While student teaching full time this semester, O’Brien was involved with jazz classes, private lessons and completing an internship learning how to tune pianos.

“Eliana is committed to being the best she can be by learning about everything she can,” said Margaret Schmidt, assistant director and professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “She has pushed herself to stretch her teaching and musicianship skills, so that she can design exciting learning opportunities to share with her future students.”

As a member of the Arizona State University tuba/euphonium studio, O’Brien designed and currently maintains the studio’s first Instagram account. She received a special talent award and an academic scholarship, which allowed her to attend ASU as an out-of-state student.

“Eliana brings her creative energy and curiosity to her teaching as well, and whatever she does next, her future students are going to be lucky to work with her,” said Sandra Stauffer, professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and senior associate dean in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I cannot name one specific moment, because music feels less like an “aha” and more like settling into my favorite spot on a big cozy couch. I look forward to it every day. There have been countless moments where I perform with an ensemble, hear a new record or read about some nerdy instrumental thing, and I get goosebumps and just laugh to myself at the realization that the silly little intended college major decision I made at age 17 was so, so good.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Curiosity is precious. I have taken a smattering of courses in different areas, simply because I was curious about random stuff and my time at ASU has taught me the value of honoring those obsessions. Devoting the time and energy to inquire about something that interests me — or even bothers me — will almost always result in rewarding new experiences and knowledge.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU was the final school that I visited, and Professor Swoboda was by far the kindest, coolest professor I met in my auditions. I was not entirely set on an instrument and ASU had a very welcoming attitude toward my enthusiasm to explore multiple artistic paths. The buildings on campus were beautiful, and it felt like the right place to be.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I have always dearly appreciated the landscape architecture on campus. My favorite spots revolve around plants and the little public areas just for hanging out. One of my friends in the urban planning major introduced me to the concept of the “third space,” which is essentially an intentional space that exists outside of home and work. It’s just a place for people to be, and it improves the health of communities. To me, this is just the most tender, wonderful thing ever. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Write. It. Down. I cannot count the number of times I thumbed through a messy notebook to find one single sentence I jotted down during a lecture. And in 30 years, I know I will really enjoy reading the thoughts I had as a 20-something. 

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