Starstruck in Santa Barbara

by Guest Blogger

Jessica Rucinski ’13, a resident of Pforzheimer House concentrating in Physics, is awarded a Fellowship to attend the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara as a vocal pianist. She has taken piano lessons from the age of six and grew up accompanying and singing in choirs, developing an interest in choral directing. She has been a Choral Fellow of the Harvard University Choir, a member of the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum Chamber Singers, Vice President of the Harvard Organ Society, and board member for both the Harvard Early Music Society and the Dunster House Opera Society. She has also served as the Assistant Music Director/Chorus Master for Harvard Dunster House Opera productions of The Marriage of Figaro (2012) and Die Fledermaus (2011). Rucinski plans to pursue a career as a vocal coach.

The Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara is strikingly similar to Harvard in that, as a student, one has the feeling of being surrounded by people who will be famous soon.

As encouragement, we are provided with friendly, down-to-earth, and brilliant faculty members who also happen to keep company with some of the most successful and well-known people in their fields. After a recital a few weeks ago, I commented on the huge jeweled earrings I'd seen one of my teachers wearing onstage. "You know who gave me these?" she replied. "Anna Netrebko."

I shouldn't have been surprised to hear her mention the famous (and fashionable) soprano—my teacher works full-time at the Metropolitan Opera during the year, and she name-drops regularly. Her single most frequent piece of advice to me? To think before I speak, and before I play the piano. Taking a breath and considering the color of the sound I want to produce before I touch the keys has produced a simple yet revolutionary change in the way I approach my music-making.

There are plenty of "What am I doing here?" moments in this secluded California paradise. On one morning, the 21 singers and six pianists in the vocal program sat in a sunny wood-paneled room a few feet away from both Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Marilyn Horne, two of the most important singers of the 20th century, for a question-and-answer session. (Miss Horne also happens to be the director of the vocal program here. As a pianist, I play for her voice lessons and try not to drool.)

Starstruck, we listened as pearls of wisdom fell from Miss Te Kanawa's mouth. She told us not to be afraid to turn things down: you can always come back from a no, but not from a yes. Before you listen to advice, think first who's talking, and be sure to seek the opinion of the one person you can always trust. In performance, she said, mistakes are gone after they happen. Most of all, she advised, do not waste another day—better to spend our time working, learning, growing.

I guess I'll have to think about the new TV-watching habit I've developed.

[Caption: Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara, CA]