A Flutist's French Connection

May 15, 2020
Erich Burnett
Fulbrith student Karisma Palmore.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Karisma Palmore

Fulbright honor for Karisma Palmore ’20 supports international music studies and language research.

Oberlin Conservatory experienced a record year in 2019-20 with five students named Fulbright Finalists. We are proud to share their stories in this series.

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Karisma Palmore’s first international plane ride came during the summer after her fourth year at Oberlin: a trip to northwest France for six weeks of study with flute teacher Frédérique Gruszecki. She wasn’t sure how significant the language barrier would be.

“I thought this is gonna be scary,” she remembers today. “There’s no subtitles this time!”

As it turns out, Palmore can hold her own in a number of foreign languages. A native of Cleveland, she will earn a double degree from Oberlin this spring in flute performance and Romance languages. Her Spanish is better than her French, she says, and her French is better than her Italian.

And it will get better still: Palmore learned in early May that she is a Fulbright finalist. Through the support of the U.S. Government-sponsored program, she will return to France in the coming year for continued studies with Gruszecki at the Rennes Conservatory. She also intends to conduct research on the impact of foreign languages on learning musical instruments—a point of interest that emerged from her own initial round of study with Gruszecki.

“I noticed that the way she would describe things was so different,” Palmore says, noting how the part of the instrument she had always referred to as the “embouchure hole” her teacher called the light.

“It seemed to me much more poetic. And it made me wonder how learning how to play music in French differs from English, and how it impacts the ways you interact with the instrument.”

For Palmore, it’s a sort of extension of the new ways she has come to think about the instrument she has played for years. That process began in part through her experiences in Oberlin’s Performance and Improvisation (PI) ensembles, which serve as a bridge between the conservatory’s classical and jazz musicians, through which they develop internal rhythmic awareness and pursue paths toward more innovative expression. For many classical players, like Palmore, that involves honing improvisational chops.

A recent highlight of her Oberlin experience was the opportunity to perform with the PI ensemble Genre Nova at the Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans in January.

“It’s really fun to play different kinds of music and to play in different ensembles,” she says. “I really had a great time playing in PI. It was truly such an unconventional ensemble. It was so fun to improvise, but not necessarily come at it from a jazz standpoint.”

One of the most coveted undergraduate honors, Fulbright scholarships support international study for high-achieving students. While the spread of COVID-19 has significantly affected—in some cases canceled—the international travel plans of some Fulbright Finalists this year, Palmore thus far anticipates only an adjustment in her start date: January 2021 rather than fall of this year.

With the extra time between now and then, she intends to refine her list of potential graduate schools, continue studying her instrument, and take occasional lessons with her Oberlin mentor, Alexa Still.

“We’re friends, me and my flute, but I feel like we could be closer,” she jokes. “Right now, I’m pretty excited to just not be double degree for a few months!”

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