May 12, 2011 — When Elliott Burris graduated from the Mathematics and Science High School at Clover Hill in Chesterfield County, he was certain he wanted to pursue music.
That's not surprising – his father, Allen, is an endocrinologist, classical flutist and jazz musician, and his grandfather, George, was both a chemist and a noted New York City pianist.
The Midlothian resident applied to several conservatories and music academies – and the University of Virginia. "Really, I just applied to U.Va. because my sister went there at the time and my father went there back in the day," he said recently, as he prepared to graduate on May 22 with a degree in music, and head off to be become … a commodities trader at Morgan Stanley's offices in Greenwich, Conn.
He chose U.Va. "for a number of family reasons and other things," and promptly began exploring all of the nooks and crannies of the College of Arts & Sciences, taking classes in math, Tibetan Buddhism, sociology – "everything under the sun."
"I knew I wanted to do music," he said. "But everyone sort of does music and something else, and I didn't know what my 'something else' would be, the one that would theoretically get me a job."
He lit upon a double major in music and physics, with an eye toward medical school, and in his second year dove into math and physics courses. But just before spring semester exam week, he began experiencing intense headaches, a loss of his sense of taste and chronic nosebleeds.
He had planned to go on a College Arts Scholar Award-funded trip to Africa to pursue his burgeoning interest in African drumming, but instead spent his summer under a medical microscope. The illness remains undiagnosed – his doctors treat the symptoms – and the whole experience soured him on medicine.
"I just don't want to spend any more time in a hospital than necessary," he said. Time for a new "something else."
"During my third year, I randomly enrolled in your basic finance, accounting, economics, all of those sort of core courses, fell in love with it and went from there," he said.
He had missed the deadline to transfer into the McIntire School of Commerce, and felt it was too late to add a second major alongside music. "I really just sort of took classes that I think were relevant," he said.
He applied for a range of business internships for the summer between his third and fourth years. "During every interview people kept telling me, 'You should really look into trading,'" he said.
So he did. He spent the summer researching. He sold a side business customizing iPods and other mobile devices that he had started in his first year, and began investing the proceeds. At iTunesU, he watched videos of business lectures from schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and Cambridge University. He even followed the course readings.
"I just absolutely fell in love with it," he said. "I really discovered the creative element of finance, especially as it relates to the markets. You can extrapolate information in so many, so many degrees, and that can lead you to another result."
Meanwhile, music remained a constant.
"When I came to U.Va. I couldn’t bring all of my drum sets and all that, so I started playing the piano, and that really opened me up to a lot broader of a musical ear," he said.
An African drumming course he took in his first year was a formative experience. He was invited to join the U.Va. African Music and Dance Ensemble (that's him in the video above leading a dance at a recent performance), and eventually became a teaching assistant and instructor in U.Va.'s African drumming class. He particularly focused on the culture, dance, language and drumming of the Ewe people of west Africa and the BaAka people of central Africa.
"He has an amazing ear and picks stuff up immediately," music professor Michelle Kisliuk said. "He's one of those people who whatever they try to do, they excel at."
He kept up his classical percussion, as well, which led to a particularly enriching experience when, in the spring of his second year, he was selected to join the YouTube Symphony Orchestra after sending in a video audition.
Percussion instructors I-Jen Fang, and Ilon Weeldreyer helped him practice his pieces, and in April he flew to New York City for a whirlwind week of rehearsals and a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
Burris and the five other percussionists came from five different countries; two did not speak English. They played a diverse array of music, from Tchaikovsky and Mozart to a more modern piece, "which was really free improvisation – yelling, using any instrument that you want. I used a shoe to bang on my chair," he said.
"It was so cool to only interact with 90 other people only in music. We really couldn’t communicate any other way. It was insane – I'll never forget it."
Back at U.Va., he also dabbled in computer music, something he had first explored in high school.
"He came in with quite a number of skills nicely developed," said music professor Judith Shatin, who heads the Virginia Center for Computer Music. He expanded his technical skills along with his knowledge of the music world; some of his pieces were included in Digitalis, the center's annual computer music concert.
As his time at U.Va. comes to a close, Burris, 21, sees commonalities in his financial and musical interests.
In business, "there's an aspect of improvisation and finding your own voice," he said. "If you're able to see things in a different way – quite literally to see things in a different way – you’re sort of bound to be successful in some manner. It really interested me that just by being unique, you could be successful."
He certainly has no regrets about his college choice.
"All of those conservatories and musical academies, you wouldn't be able to take anything outside of music. I would never have been able to take Tibetan Buddhism, or sociology, or all of those other classes that really opened up my mind during my first year and second year.
"I can't even imagine having done anything else. It's amazing how things work out."