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Easterling earns prestigious Kentucky Arts Council award for music composition

Derek Easterling PicturePlenty of kids walk around with notebooks in high school. Derek Easterling (20) walked around with a book of notes.  

His notes weren’t the kind he would get in trouble for if they got passed around in class to a friend or even the type of notes he would be taking from an instructor’s lectures. They were musical notes.   

Since he couldn’t be in a music class all day or take his sizable euphonium with him everywhere, he carried a journal containing blank pages of sheet music. This is where he painstakingly placed musical notes that would eventually become original compositions.  

“I was kind of the odd kid out in that aspect. People were always like, ‘you are such a nerd,’” Easterling said, laughing. “I ate, slept and breathed music.”  

Easterling’s passion for musical performance, composition and education is what led him to Morehead State University, but it was his skill as a musical composer that earned him the Kentucky Arts Council’s (KAC) Emerging Artist Award for Composition.  

Easterling loved music from an early age growing up in West Liberty. He got involved with music in school when he joined the sixth-grade band. When he talked to his band director about what instrument he should start out playing, he recommended him to play low brass.  

“As soon as I opened the baritone case, it was like the holy grail. The moment in the movie when you hear angels singing. All that stuff,” he said.  

Easterling picked up baritone, and later his main instrument euphonium, rather quickly. He was performing with the high school band when he was in the seventh grade and started learning trumpet, saxophone and clarinet before taking a crack at musical composition his eighth-grade year. That led to his first original concert band piece, “Eye of the Storm,” being performed as part of the senior band concert at Morgan County High School.  

“That just interested me, I guess. Just to see how everything fits together,” he said. “I said, you know, if I want to be a good composer one day, I need to know how each of these instruments work so that what I’m writing is playable.”  

Before he enrolled at MSU, Easterling made regular visits to campus in middle school and high school for events like the Tri-State Middle School Band Clinic, the MSU High School Band Clinic and competing at All-District Band tryouts. On his way to earning a Bachelor of Music Education, he played with the MSU Symphony, the Tuba Euphonium Ensemble and the MSU Marching Band, playing euphonium his freshman year before moving to color guard for his remaining three years. He also wrote a variety of compositions arranged for soloists, quintets and ensembles.  

Easterling submitted three pieces for consideration for the KAC Emerging Artist Award for Composition: “Apep: The Enemy God” (for wind quintet), “Los Regio Vientos Tango” (for wind quintet with solo soprano saxophone) and “Nocturne Immortalle” (for solo piano). He said the assistance and support he received from MSU music faculty and students when he decided to submit his compositions for consideration is indicative of his overall MSU experience.  

“Everybody is just there to help each other. It’s just a really great environment,” he said. “There’s just something magical about Morehead.”  

Easterling said the KAC award he received also included a $1,000 unrestricted monetary award. He said he was going to use to upgrade his music writing software and put toward his graduate education. That education will continue at MSU this fall as he earns a master’s degree in euphonium performance. He is also gaining hands-on experience as assistant director for the bands at Nicholasville County Middle School and Nicholasville County High School, working with the marching band, pep band and color guard. Becoming a band director was a childhood dream solidified at MSU when he was placed at McBrayer Elementary School in Rowan County for his Elementary Methods and Materials course.  

“I was teaching concepts and I saw almost the light turn on for a kid and, that moment when I saw it click for the kid and they understood what I was talking about and the excitement on their face of how happy they were and they understood it, that was when I knew I was in the right program,” he said.   

Easterling knows firsthand the impact music can have on a person’s life, and he hopes he can take his love of music and the experience he’s gained at MSU and help students tap into their musical potential.  

“The thing that I’m probably most excited about it just the ability to teach music. I know that sounds really mundane and really boring, but music is a huge part of my life and it has saved me in the darkest parts of my life,” he said. “I want to give the opportunities I’ve had or better opportunities than I’ve had to my future students.”  

To learn more about music programs at MSU, contact the Department of Music, Theatre and Dance at, 606-783-2473 or visit