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Simos Papanas: Of Music and Mathematics

By Marci Janas

Related Links:

Bach to Bach...to Bach: Three Connies Sweep Top Prizes at International Baroque Violin Competition

Heidi Powell: Making the Music Speak

Emily Fowler: Taming the Beast

Ironically, first-prize winner Simos Papanas ('99 Greece) spent the past year concentrating on his PhD in mathematics at Yale University, and not exclusively on music.

Papanas entered Oberlin at the tender age of 16. A double-degree student, he majored in violin performance--studying modern violin with Professor of Violin Taras Gabora and Baroque violin with McDonald--and mathematics, in which he took high honors and received the Rebecca Orr and J.D. Baum prizes. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi and Pi Kappa Lambda with one of the highest GPAs on record, received the Conservatoryss Kaufmann prize, won the Concerto Competition, and served as concertmaster of the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra.

Clearly not content to focus on music or mathematics in his graduate studies at Yale, he is enrolled in the master's program in music as well as the Ph.D. program in mathematics--the first student in Yale's history to pursue such a dual path. He is 21 years old. He began studying the violin when he was six.

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, Papanas had just arrived home for a visit with his family when contacted for this article.

"I met Taras Gabora at a seminar in Greece when I was 15," he recalls, "I was immediately impressed by his teaching. I told him that I would really like to study with him after high school. I was planning on attending a seminar he taught in Canada, so I mailed him a tape of my playing. Mr. Gabora played this tape for the admissions committee at Oberlin and they told me that I would be admitted with a full tuition scholarship, even without having finished high school. I thought this was the opportunity of my life--and it was."

After taking a couple of courses in the mathematics department, in his second semester Papanas was also admitted to the College.

Papanas says that he's entered several competitions, but not many. This is the first time he was won first prize on the international level. It was also the first time he entered a Baroque violin competition.

How does preparing for competition differ from preparing for a performance?

"There is a lot to say about that," he says. "Certainly you try to be more perfect. Perfection is about the only objective thing in one's playing, so in competitions it certainly counts a lot. Most of the time, people will try to be more 'neutral' in terms of musical ideas, in fear of offending someone. A competition is, most of the time, not a good place to present new musical ideas. However, I have to say that I treated this competition purely like a performance. After all, it was mostly for the performance experience with some incredible artists that I entered it. I did not hold anything back, I did everything I liked, no matter how wild it might have been. And I guess the jury liked it."

Papanas says that he does not like competitions, generally. "After a certain bad experience I had, I made a promise to myself that I would only treat competitions as chances to perform, and that I would express my musical ideas with no fear, and at any cost. After all we are here to make the best possible music, and that should be the same, not depending on the occasion."

For this reason especially, winning first prize was a sweet victory.

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