Ksenija Komljenović: First Woman in Serbia with a Doctorate in Percussion, Joins University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Alumna Ksenija Komljenović has had a fascinating journey since she became the first woman in her country with a doctorate in percussion. Her next stop—taking over John R. Beck’s position, an icon of percussion for the past 25 years—at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

“I've been really lucky, but I know I have big shoes to fill,” admitted Frost School of Music alumna Ksenija Komljenović, who will be joining the University of North Carolina School of the Arts this fall. “John R. Beck is an icon of percussion, who is moving into another position within the university and leaving the percussion studio to me,” she says.

Komljenović earned her doctorate in Percussion Performance in 2017 and her Artist Diploma in 2018. Shortly after leaving Frost School of Music and spending a year in Hong Kong, she moved to Texas, where she worked as an Assistant Professor of Percussion at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi for four years. And now, she is excited about her next move. 

She met a few students and future colleagues during her March visit to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts campus. Since her interview, the question: “What do you hope to achieve with this new role?” has been replaying in her mind. After all, she knows the importance, qualities, and responsibilities of a great college professor who helps students achieve their professional and artistic goals.

“Frost Professor Svetoslav Stoyanov is still such an important lighthouse in my life,” explains Komljenović. “Conversations with him are crucial when I have serious decision-making to do in my career. Not only is he a brilliant musician to learn from, but he has been a very generous mentor to me. I hope my students feel as empowered and cared for in my studio as I did in his.” 

Komljenović is a relentless visionary and entrepreneur. She is no stranger to making new paths successful, believing in pure perseverance. On the successful tail of the release of her album, Rite of Spring, a Vesna Duo production with business partner and Frost peer Liana Pailodze Harron, which earned them a Grammy nomination consideration last year, she is riding a new path and making the most of life. She sees her new role at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as straightforward and wise. 

“As a professor, one has the responsibility to teach certain concepts. That is the least interesting part, in my opinion. While I will be there to teach the instruments, I am most dedicated to nourishing the beauty of the student's inner selves as they grow into who they’re meant to be while giving them the freedom to be creative. Out of great souls, out of kind people—many wonderful notes, rhythms, and grooves will come out, I am certain. However, for my students to remain passionate about what made them love music in the first place, to evolve their understanding of the world through our art form, and to make a living doing what they love would be the most wonderful thing to witness as a mentor.”

Komljenović remembers well when she first fell in love with percussion. As a child, she learned to play piano in a specialized elementary music school in her hometown of Belgrade in Serbia, a country in the Balkans region in Central Europe.  

As a high school freshman, she attended her first percussion ensemble concert, which flipped her mind. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I saw these musicians playing Chopin on marimba, jazz tunes as an ensemble, and theatrical music on tables. The audience went wild—it was the closest thing to a rock concert I had ever seen,” she says.   

At 15, Komljenović contacted the percussion professor and asked him if she could join the studio. “You’re too old,” he quipped. According to the educational system in Serbia, it is traditional for percussionists to enter a studio at a very young age, and they must study for eight years before they become eligible to audition for a university program.  

She remembers being opinionated and never one to pull punches; she begged people to help her ‘sort of twist his arm’ and let her into the studio. In return, she promised to compress her eight-year education into four years, taking her finals every few months until she finished high school. She did exactly that. Years later, that drive led her to Frost School of Music in Miami, where she earned her doctorate, becoming her country's first woman with a percussion doctorate. 

Inspired to educate, entertain, and do good work, Komljenović’s new role at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is already filling a large part of her life—the only way she is satisfied.