Audrey Vardanega ’13 
Professional Pianist / Artistic Director
and Founder of Musaics of the Bay 

Q: You started playing piano at the young age of six. Can you describe to us how your interest in music and the piano developed? 
A: I participated in a variety of activities when I was growing up. In addition to piano, I took gymnastics, karate, ice skating, and math. I just kept going with piano, and it was the activity that stuck with me. Growing up, playing piano became a way for me to feel at home and express myself emotionally, partly because I was a very shy kid. I also was doing all sorts of music at the same time, playing violin and doing composition, too. For the first few years, I was mostly learning how to read music and how to physically play the instrument. I was learning to be a pianist. However, it wasn’t until I hit 20 or 21 that I started to feel like I could do what I wanted at the piano, and produce the kind of sounds I imagined in my head without feeling hindered by physical or psychological obstacles. That’s when I really started learning how to be a musician. 

Q: What was it like to perform at such a young age?
A: That was very, very difficult. My first performance was when I was six. It was a little recital and I remember being incredibly frightened. At the end of that performance I bowed with my backside facing the audience, probably because I didn’t want to look at them all! But by the time I was 11 or 12, I was playing more professional concerts, which was absolutely terrifying at that age, but I also received a lot of support from the adult musicians I was collaborating with. That was really special. Performing doesn’t get easier, it just changes for me over time. I think this holds true for many of the great musicians I know. Leon Fleisher, a legendary pianist, once told me that there are two types of nerves: good and bad. The good kind is the nervousness that you feel wanting to convey the piece to the best of your ability. The bad kind is worrying about what people will think of the performance, and worst of all, what they will think of you. But that’s your issue, not the music’s. This anecdote has helped me so much as a performer, because I realized that wondering how others perceive me has nothing to do with making music. 

Q: How did College Prep support you on your path to becoming a professional musician?
A: Being at College Prep was a time of immense growth and also immense challenge. I don’t think I wanted to become a musician at that point. I was taking the time to explore and get deeper into a lot of my other interests and exploring other options. A few teachers that come to mind, like Julie Anderson, Sharona Barzilay, and Stephen Wilson, really encouraged me to find my own voice both in and beyond the classroom. I was never the kind of student who was eager to raise her hand in class, but I remember feeling genuinely inspired by their teaching styles to find ways to actively contribute my ideas to class discussions and be a more vocal part of the class collaboration. That’s my sense of the general attitude at CPS; it wasn’t being told how to think or how to learn. It was a sense that we’re at the table together, figuring this out together. This kind of thinking has been so helpful to me through college, through grad school, and also in my musical life. It’s learning how you learn, respecting the process of how you think, and not trying to adapt to someone else’s structure.

Q: You’ve travelled and performed extensively. What stands out for you through all of these experiences abroad?  
A: Growing up in the Bay Area and going to a school like CPS prepared me to be open minded and adaptable when traveling and interacting with people from different places. When you’re on tour collaborating with musicians who are a few decades older than you and who are from places you’ve never been, being open-minded, empathetic, and eager to find common ground is key. What stands out for me is how ultimately, no matter where you are, music makes people really happy. This sounds cliché, but whether I’m performing in Argentina, China, or Spain, audience members give me the same look after a concert, as if they went somewhere and experienced an emotional journey with me. A big part of this is the trust that the audience imparts onto me, the performer; trust that I’m taking them somewhere awesome over the course of the concert. It’s kind of like being a tour guide or a storyteller. 

Q: Who are the people in your life that inspire you the most in your work?
A: My piano teacher, Richard Goode, is a legendary pianist and I’ve been working with him for two years. He guides me towards new possibilities for interpreting the music I play, and even after two years of study with him, I feel like my whole perception of music has changed so much. Mr. Goode has pushed me to interpret in a way that makes rhetorical and contextual sense. The most important quality I’ve learned from him is the value of speaking honestly in performance and practice. It’s finding the why behind getting up every morning and choosing to sit at the piano for hours. Is it for fame and reputation? To prove yourself? Or is it that making sentences with sound is crucial to how you understand the world? It’s an honor to spend one-on-one time learning piano with
Mr. Goode. Even now in his seventies, he is eager to learn every single day. It’s been so inspiring to me to see how someone with such fame can be genuinely devoted to improving as a musician, even after so many years in the spotlight. 

Q: Tell us more about Musaics of the Bay, the mentorship initiative you recently launched here in the Bay Area. 
A: Musaics of the Bay is a nonprofit chamber music concert series that features a few concerts every year in the Bay with really great, top-notch artists from the local community and all around the world. We partner with local, after-school music programs so that kids can get the opportunity to collaborate closely with wonderful artists and hopefully kindle long-term mentorship relationships. Two of our board members are former classmates of mine from CPS, Christophe Rimann ’13 and Thomas Chen ’13. We love Berkeley and we’re close friends, despite the fact that we all moved to New York City at one point for college or grad school. Creating this program is a way for us to honor the Bay Area and provide great music to the warm and loving community here. Above all, it’s a way to connect these wonderful artists to our audiences and mentor the next generation of Bay Area youth. 

Q: Looking back at your own high school experiences, do you have any advice for current students at College Prep?
A: I would say don’t feel guilty if you want to explore other interests. Looking back, I realize that I subconsciously felt like if I deepened my knowledge of the other things I was learning at CPS, whether it was history, Chinese, acting or Intraterm sailing, I was taking time away from what was most important, which for me was the piano. Now I see that having the experience of stepping away from something I was passionate about helped me love it more. I also remember feeling confused about whether I should go to a conservatory for piano or go to a university and have the benefit of a broader education. Thankfully I chose the latter, and even though it took me away from the piano for a few years, I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without that time of doubt. Follow your instincts and take advantage of this time to explore new interests. You might be surprised by what you discover about yourself. 

The College Preparatory School

mens conscia recti

a mind aware of what is right