21-year-old music grad leaves college with no regrets and lots of lessons
A lot of children take piano lessons, but not every child begs their parents for lessons like Marta Kersulis did. At age 7, after watching a skilled musician perform, she was mesmerized by the instrument – and insistent on learning to play it.
“I was so fascinated by what you could do with piano, especially because it’s just one person, but you can create an orchestra of sound,” she said. “You have so many different voices and harmonies, and it’s one person, two hands.”
There was one more reason Kersulis was so taken with the music. She had spent much of her young life in a hospital after being diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia several years prior.
“I went through 2 1/2 years of chemotherapy, and after that I could finally do things besides being stuck in a hospital,” Kersulis said. Piano quickly took priority among her new activities, and she found she enjoyed it just as much as she’d expected.
Now a graduating senior at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Kersulis’ love for music, and particularly for the piano, continues to grow. This final semester has been especially pivotal for the Pierre Laclede Honors College student, who commutes to campus from Waterloo, Illinois, and is double majoring in music performance and theory.
There was a time when Kersulis considered making music more of a side thing as she thought about her future. Shortly before her senior recital at UMSL’s Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center earlier this month, she took a moment to recall that turning point – and the people whose influence encouraged her to stick with her first love.
“When I was in high school, a lot of people were telling me to not do piano in college, because if you love someone your advice is not, ‘Go be a musician,’” Kersulis said with a laugh. “It’s, ‘Go get a job that’s consistent.’ And especially since I loved biology, everyone told me to do biology and do music on the side.
“But I just knew that wasn’t right. And when I met Alla, she really opened my eyes to what you can do with music.”
Taking advantage of UMSL’s dual enrollment program during her teen years, Kersulis got about 30 college credit hours under her belt taking classes through the Department of Music as a home-school student. Then she enrolled full time and started studying with Alla Voskoboynikova. Kersulis is confident she made the right decision.
“She changed the way that I play piano and helped me develop as a person and as an artist, because she started focusing on the actual music,” Kersulis said. “So she’d say, ‘What’s the character of this piece? How do you create color? How can you create better technique, better artistry?’ All these things are connected, and it comes from her background, which is the Russian piano school. That’s a certain approach to learning piano that is just very effective.”
Voskoboynikova also opened Kersulis’ eyes to all she could do with a music degree in terms of a career path.
“I learned more about teaching, and how you could teach privately, teach in the university, and I learned a lot about accompanying,” said Kersulis, who already has a studio of about a dozen students of her own as well as several weekly gigs at local churches. “There’s a huge need for piano accompanists in every university, high school and elementary school, as well as professional groups.”
On top of all that, Kersulis’ ultimate goal is to earn both a master’s degree and a doctorate in piano performance. She just submitted graduate school applications to universities in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Washington DC and says her hope is to teach at the collegiate level as well as perform.
Being connected to a university or conservatory can be key in a lot of ways, offering a wide variety of opportunities for artists.
“Musicians have had patrons throughout history, and sometimes they’re churches, sometimes they’re institutions and sometimes it’s private people,” Kersulis said. “Right now it’s kind of shifting back to universities. It’s really good to be connected with orchestras and singers and operas – that’s kind of your way to network.”
She’s practiced that network-building, too, at UMSL, from stage managing an opera production under the guidance of Stella Markou to joining the University Singers – her first experience in a real choir.
“It was really fun to start kind of with nothing in choir and just learn, and then gradually gain experience and then start helping other people,” Kersulis said. “And then last year they needed someone to step in and be choir president, and someone nominated me. You can’t offer to do it – you have to be nominated. And it was almost unanimous that they wanted me to do it, so that was exciting.”
When asked what she’s cherished most during her time on campus, the 21-year-old soon-to-be UMSL alumna didn’t hesitate with her answer: the faculty.
From Voskoboynikova and Markou to Jim Henry, Zachary Cairns and others in the music department – plus Rob Wilson in the honors college, for whom she served as a teaching assistant – Kersulis describes each of them as having an impact on her in big ways.
“Those people have all just been really instrumental, no pun intended,” she said with a smile.
The fruits of Kersulis’ labors at UMSL have been especially obvious this semester. Just a few weeks ago she won first place in the UMSL Concerto Competition, and she also took home top honors in the Missouri Music Teachers Association’s statewide competition earlier this year.
Kersulis didn’t go into either contest expecting to win anything, but she has noticed her piano playing changing a lot in recent months. That may have something to do with it.
“What has been inspiring me lately is playing for people,” she said. “I love playing for audiences. And that sounds like a cliché thing – a lot of people say that, because you’re expected to say that. But for a long time I didn’t – I didn’t like playing for people. It was just kind of something you had to do. It hasn’t been until this past semester that I’ve really enjoyed performing.”
And that feels good, she added, as she closes out her time in the Department of Music – an entity she describes as “a hidden gem on our campus.”
“I would encourage more people to check out the music program here,” Kersulis said. “A lot of people know UMSL for business and optometry and criminal justice. But in the music department, we have a lot of great professors and ensembles, an opera program every year, and a lot of great students, and it’s a really great place for musicians to become skilled but not get in a lot of debt.”
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