A first-place finish in a national contest provided a coda of sorts for the undergraduate journey of two students in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Bower School of Music & the Arts.
Piano performance majors Jair Zacarias and Arturo Fernandez, who graduated in May and are from Peru, took top prize in the Music Teachers National Association’s (MTNA) Stecher and Horowitz Two Piano Competition finals March 28 in Reno, Nevada.
After advancing from a preliminary video round, Zacarias and Fernandez were among five duos selected to perform for judges at the MTNA National Conference. The FGCU pianists wowed judges with their 35-minute repertoire.
When the dust had settled, in addition to bragging rights against students from the nation’s most prominent music schools, they also won a $5,000 prize in the highly competitive piano duo arena.
“The judges’ comments were ecstatic,” said Michael Baron, professor and head of keyboard studies in the Bower School. “I am very proud of Jair and Arturo. They worked very hard on a difficult program and were chosen from across the country as one of five teams that would fly to Reno for the national finals. The other teams were mostly doctoral students from [well-known music schools].”
Fernandez and Zacarias didn’t know each other until they arrived at FGCU. Fernandez is from Trujillo, and Zacarias hails from Lima. The students received scholarships from the Nisita Fund for Music Excellence, made possible by a $1 million gift from Maurizio and Laura Nisita, with additional support from the Steinway Gallery of Southwest Florida, Carol Avard, and Myra and Van Williams.
“We feel very fortunate to have been awarded the Nisita Scholarship to allow us to study at FGCU and to get to know Mr. and Mrs. Nisita,” Zacarias said. “Without FGCU, our scholarship sponsors and Dr. Baron, we would not have had all of the wonderful experiences we have enjoyed for the past four years.”
The students credit Baron with introducing them to one another and the piano duo world.
“Dr. Baron suggested we get together and work on repertoire for two pianos because he thought our styles would complement each other,” Fernandez said. “Dr. Baron knows this repertoire especially well and has coached us in detail to prepare for competitions and concerts.”
Before obtaining the highest honors on the national stage, Fernandez and Zacarias twice claimed top scores at the Byrd Collegiate Piano Ensemble Competition, a statewide two-person piano contest. They said their similar cultural upbringing helps them “feel music together” as they perform.
“There is a great deal of folk music in Peru that is in our blood. We hear rhythms and phrases in a similar fashion,” Zacarias said.
Fernandez agreed. “We also share the Spanish language, which we believe allows us to hear music in the same way since language is closely related to music,” he said.
But there is more at play than shared heritage, as the students have developed extremely advanced piano-playing abilities, Baron said. “It was possible to give them any repertoire without worrying they would struggle to play the music,” he said. “Because I work with them individually so often and they became friends, it seemed a natural fit for them to perform together.”
The students self-describe Zacarias as “a brilliant but calm player” and Fernandez as “rather explosive and exciting” and agree they “temper each other to arrive at a unified whole.”
As the students contemplate life beyond graduation, they look for additional educational and performance opportunities. “FGCU has prepared us very well for graduate school,” Fernandez said. Zacarias added, “We have full assistantship offers from many top music schools across the country, and we are now deciding which ones to accept.”
Baron said he hopes the students can remain a duo, especially after hearing them praised by the Nevada event’s namesakes, acclaimed pianists Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz. “Now in their 90s, they were at the competition. They told me that they rarely meet two young pianists who play so well together,” he said. “Obviously, we are doing something right at FGCU to first attract these types of students and then to prepare them to achieve such a high level of performance.”