Travis Whaley was about a month into his sophomore year in 2012 when Tracy Cowden, associate professor of piano and vocal coach in the Music Department of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, told him about a young composer Christmas carol competition. She discovered the contest, sponsored by the Fairfax (Va.) Choral Society, on Twitter and suggested he enter.
There was only one problem. The deadline was the next day. Whaley’s professors weren’t sure he would have enough time to write an original composition. In a sense, they were correct. It took him a few hours.
On Nov. 25, 2012, Whaley won the contest and a week later debuted his winning composition “A Christmas Carol” at the Vienna (Va.) Presbyterian Church.
Not even three semesters into his college career and Whaley, triple majoring in piano performance, music composition, and German language and literature, was earning a reputation as a talented composer.
He already had a reputation as an accomplished organist and earlier that summer got the opportunity of lifetime while touring Italy as a member of the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers.
Whaley and his fellow singers arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica to perform during a Mass at the Vatican. Unbeknownst to Whaley, Dwight Bigler, director of the Chamber Singers, received permission from the monk playing the organ to have Whaley take over and play the postlude of the service.
“Dr. Bigler turned to me and asked, ‘Do you have anything ready?’ I told him that I wrote a piece on the plane on the way over,” Whaley said. “So, I spent the rest of the Mass sitting there making sure I remembered it because I didn’t have any music with me.”
When the Chamber Singers finished their part of the service, Whaley stepped toward the church’s organ.
“For someone who loves to play the organ, it is the organ to end all organs,” he said. “The piece probably lasted about four minutes, but it felt like an hour. I cannot describe the feeling that it gave me. I remember finishing and I turned and shook Dr. Bigler’s hand and I stood up and I was just shaking.”
Whaley, who is from Cary, N.C., didn’t plan on attending Virginia Tech. He had his eye on Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music in Illinois, where he could major in piano and organ. But an invitation from Virginia Tech’s University Honors program to visit campus in February 2011 changed his mind, despite the fact Virginia Tech did not offer an organ program.
“It was a really difficult decision, having to choose between a conservatory and Virginia Tech because I have a piano and organ background,” Whaley said. “But when I started talking with Dr. Cowden, she mentioned that there were some openings in local churches for organists.”
Whaley became the full-time organist at Blacksburg United Methodist Church. “I love it,” he said. “So it completely worked out. I have an organ I can practice on every week.”
He also received scholarship offers from the music department and University Honors.
“Being an out-of-state student, the scholarships have really helped with the cost of tuition,” Whaley said. “I feel invested in. I feel like the university expects great things from me, which in turn motivates me to do great things.”
In addition to performing at the Vatican and winning the Fairfax Choral Society’s competition, he earned another University Honors scholarship in summer 2013 to study at Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany. And in 2014, he’ll return to conduct a research project, also funded by a scholarship.
“Getting Travis into the honors program was very important because the environment helps make a large university feel like a smaller school,” Cowden said. “And having those scholarships available are crucial for us to provide the opportunities that students like Travis are looking for.”
Travis Whaley has a passion for music. "Music, for me, is the easiest way for me to express myself," he said. "I can say in music what I necessarily can't with words."
Travis Whaley attended a masterclass in November 2013 with famed pianist Robert Levin at the Goethe-Institut Boston.
To get there, Whaley auditioned against students and graduates from some of the most prestigious conservatories and universities in the world, including Julliard, Stuttgart Conservatory, Harvard, Yale, and Royal Conservatory Toronto. Levin selected him to perform during the masterclass.
Associate Professor Tracy Cowden set the poems of "Vegetable Verselets" to music and will perform them in New York City.