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Sarah Clemmens and Spencer Myer Receive Prestigious Javits Fellowships, Discuss Plans for Future

Story by Michael Chipman


Pianist Spencer Myer Named One of Five Finalists for American Pianists Association Fellowship

Two seniors - Sarah Clemmens, a double-major in musicology/physics from Apollo, Pennsylvania, and Spencer Myer, a piano performance major from North Ridgeville, Ohio - have received the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards available to American students in the arts and humanities. The one-year award includes full tuition and up to $15,000 stipend for living expenses, and is renewable for four years, at any accredited institution of higher learning. Clemmens will begin a Ph.D. program in musicology in the Department of Music at Yale University in the fall; Myer plans to pursue a DMA at the Juilliard School.

According to its literature, the Jacob K Javits Fellowship Program, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, provides financial assistance to students of superior ability, as demonstrated by their achievements and exceptional promise, to undertake study at the doctoral and master of fine arts (MFA) level in selected fields of the arts, humanities and social sciences. Panels of experts appointed by the Javits Fellowship Board select fellows according to established criteria. Eligibility is limited to individuals who, at the time of application, have not yet completed their first year of graduate study, or will enter graduate school in the next academic year.

Sarah Clemmens

For Clemmens, the Javits Award was a life-altering surprise. "I have been in school for a long time and wanted to take next year off," she says. "I wasn't even planning on going to grad school, but now everything has changed. I'm really happy about this."

Professor Sylvan Suskin lectures during his Introduction to Music History course
Clemmens fell into musicology by accident. "I hated music history when I got here," she says. "I thought I wanted to be a performer, I wasn't even in the Conservatory at the beginning of my freshman year," says Clemmens, a flutist who studies with Michel Debost, professor of flute. "I had taken a music appreciation class in high school and found it boring, but Mr. Suskin's Music History 101 class was exciting. I did well so I decided to be a music history major, with a double major in physics. Eventually musicology won out."

What was so exciting about Sylvan Suskin's music history class? "For me it was about being taught in a way that really challenged me," says Clemmens. "We were forced listen to music in the library all the time, and we had to know just about everything musical. I found that music matters more to society than I thought it did. Music influenced, and was influenced by, historical events. It is not a self-contained world where what you do doesn't matter. The fact is, everyone listens to music and it does matter. Even in musicology there is a tendency to forget that."

Clemmens continues, "Musicology is exciting right now because it is a young field -- only about 150 years old -- and is poised to make the sort of commentary on society that literary, art and film criticism have been doing for a while. I am excited to make an interdisciplinary study of music. After all, if it doesn't help us answer why we listen to what we listen to, what is the point? It was in Suskin's Music History 101 class that we started getting into those questions. Mr. Suskin is really good at weaving music and the problems of modern society."

Though she hasn't nailed down a definite focus for her grad school studies, Clemmens says she will probably specialize in 19th century music, "because I think that's where everything starts to get weird. That's where we start building our cannon of music. That's where the rise of the individual composer really becomes ascendant and music history arises as a discipline. It never fails that studying something about the 19th century tells me about something happening right now. For example, my honors project is on Beethoven and perceptions of Beethoven from the 19th century to today. Those perceptions are not only still with us but have helped to shape the music that we have now. After Beethoven there was a feeling of wanting to preserve what had come before -- music as museum pieces. The museum approach has continued and that all goes back to something that happened in the 19th century. I'm sure I'll figure out more as time goes on."

Clemmens will pursue a Ph.D. at Yale, but she says she will also "pick up a masters degree along the way. I'm looking at three years of study and then two years to write the thesis. I know I'll enjoy musicology because I can combine what I love most: writing and listening to music. In high school I thought of becoming a musician and I enjoyed performing, but I thought, 'wouldn't it be great if I could make a career out of listening to music?' Now I will be able to do just that."

Spencer Myer

Myer started playing the piano when he was six years old and knew it was what he wanted to do professionally by the time he entered high school. "That decision kept me focused through high school," he says. "Strangely enough, living only 20 minutes from Oberlin, I had never come here before. I just put it down as an additional school where I wanted to audition. I ended up loving it and came here."

Professor of pianoforte Peter Takács

Myer studies with
Peter Takács, professor of pianoforte. He originally met Takács as an accompanist for one of Takács' pre-college students. "I got to know him a little bit through that and experienced his teaching style. My first teacher here, Joe Schwarz, retired after my second year and he recommended Mr. Takács to me."

Myer says he has learned a lot from Takács. "He's comfortable with the sensitive side of my playing, so we have been working on focusing more energy in my hands when playing loud and fast," says Myer. "Also, musically he works on the broader picture of things, musical form and a lot of the inner details that I wasn't attuned to before, so that has been great. As a performer himself, he has a great sense of timing and knows how to make the music speak. Being in the presence of that has helped me a lot."

How does Myer picture himself ten years from now? "Hopefully, performing a lot," he says. "That's really what I love most. I can also see myself teaching. I plan to get a DMA and do a lot of accompanying but my biggest hope is that I will be a performing concert pianist. The best part about performing for me is the enjoyment it brings to the audience and the performer. Music is really the only universal language and it's so amazing in the way that you can reach just about everybody. That's the most special thing. It makes all the hardships worthwhile."

It doesn't take much imagination for Myer to see himself as a concert pianist ten years from now. Already a winner of numerous awards, he is currently one of five finalists in the American Piano Association's Classical Fellowship Awards -- a year-long, multi-faceted and prestigious festival that involves its participants in a way that transcends most other piano competitions. (see related story) For example, in January, Myer performed a half-solo recital with Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and two community outreach concerts. "It's a requirement for all five finalists for one week during the year," says Myer. "Then in the second week of April we'll all be in Indianapolis together for a final round that includes performing a chamber piece with string quartet, and each of us will accompany a song recital with a tenor from Indianapolis. I'm doing a Schubert set and French set -- songs of Debussy and Poulenc -- and a Schumann quintet with the Blair String Quartet. We will also each perform two half-solo recitals."

Myer describes the competition thus far as "amazing." He says, "The structure of the competition is so unique in that it's really performance based and the fact that each of us has already performed individually in Indianapolis. At most competitions, there are hundreds of pianists who each play, then they announce the winners after a couple days of competition. This has been more long-term and the audience has been wonderfully responsive. It's a great atmosphere."

Myer plans to begin a masters degree at Juilliard this fall where he will study either with Jerome Lowenthal or Julian Martin. "I have wanted to study at Juilliard since I first wanted to be a pianist," says Myer. "That is partly because I am interested in other things besides solo playing -- such as piano/voice collaboration -- and there is such a consistently high level of singers and musicians at Juilliard. Also I love the area -- Lincoln Center is the most amazing place in the world.

"The Javits Award, at the very least, will help monetarily," says Myer. "It is harder to obtain money for grad school. I think it's wonderful that the Department of Education offers something like this to support the arts, especially when support for the arts seems to be dwindling. It's a wonderful thing to offer to people who want to make music their career and want to study intensely."

Claudia Macdonald, Javits Fellowships Advisor
Tamara Kissane CRC Advisor

"The Javits Fellowship is meant to be the equivalent of the NSF Grant for the Humanities," says Claudia Macdonald, professor of musicology and Javits advisor at Oberlin. "The award goes hand-in-hand with any award from the grad school itself and means the difference between taking out loans and working, or not. It has just recently become available to students who want to pursue a master of fine arts degree, which makes it ideal for Conservatory students. I knew Oberlin students had done well with the Javits award in the past, and I wanted to make it accessible to them again."

Tamara Kissane: The best resource for career, fellowship, grant, festival, & competition advice.

In fact, Macdonald provided an essential link between the Javits Fellowship Program and the Conservatory's
Career Resource Center (CRC). Career advisor Tamara Kissane says getting the Javits information to students was especially challenging this year. "Because of the complicated nature of government agencies, such as the Department of Education that funds the Javits Fellowship, there is often a communication gap. They usually don't even make the applications for this award available until December, but Claudia found out that this year the applications were due in November. We had to get the word out quickly for students in order to meet the deadline."

"Getting out the word" is what Kissane says the Career Service Center is all about. "Awareness is our goal," she says. "We make students aware of what is available and they can pick and choose." In this case, Kissane's efforts proved richly rewarding for Clemmens and Myer. "It is wonderful that they received this award," says Kissane. "People from all over the country apply for this award. That Oberlin has two winners speaks to the high level of education and to the quality of our students."

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