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May 1, 2006

Pianist's May 7 senior recital is culmination of four years' work

By Jennifer McNulty

Leah Parker remembers begging her parents to let her stop taking piano lessons. Today, as she prepares for her senior recital, those memories bring a smile to her face.

Photo of Leah Parker

Leah Parker graduates in June, but will stay at UCSC to get her master's degree.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"Those lessons were the best gift they ever gave me," said Parker, who will perform May 7 at 3 p.m. in the Music Center Recital Hall. Her concert is free and open to the public; parking is $2.

When Parker plays the piano, it's as if she is channeling the emotions of the composers, from despair to soaring joy. Her recital selections--pieces by Clara Schumann, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Franz Liszt--reflect her taste in music.

"I like form and beauty in music," she said. "I'm a romantic. I love Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Debussy, too. It's funny, I thought I was really open-minded, but I'm just not into the 20th century. The avant-garde, atonal stuff is lost on me."

Parker, who will graduate in June with a bachelor of music degree, was recently accepted into UCSC's two-year master's program, which will allow her to continue working with her teachers, whom she refers to as "the Russian team": Maria Ezerova, a lecturer in piano and musicianship, and Anatole Leikin, professor of music, both of whom grew up and studied in Russia.

"Maria is very intense. She's so passionate," said Parker, adopting a commanding Russian accent and imitating her teacher's directives to "Play it like this!"

Parker's face lights up and her voice grows in volume when she talks about music. It's as if her small frame simply isn't big enough to hold her enthusiasm. She practices at least four hours a day--in two or more sessions to avoid repetitive motion injuries--and refers to herself as a perfectionist.

"Leah is my most dedicated student," said Ezerova. "She is very, very musical. Her strongest point is her wonderful, precise ear. She has perfect pitch and a great memory. She picks up things very quickly."

Parker is "very active in the concert life of our department," added Leikin, noting that she accompanies many of her fellow students in recitals and competitions and enjoys playing music with different instruments. "Leah is so good-natured, it's very difficult for her to say no," he said.

Parker, who remembers tagging along to her older sister's piano lessons, started taking lessons when she was 5 years old. By 9, she was playing at her church, accompanying the band, learning to improvise, and mastering gospel and hymns. Playing before the 300-member congregation left little room for stage fright. At 11, Parker was giving lessons to the kids in the neighborhood. Today, Parker has 20 piano students, ages 6 to 13, accompanies the Davenport elementary school chorus, and plays piano for the congregation of St. Stephens Lutheran Church.

"I love kids," she says. "Their imaginations are so unharnessed. I love hearing their ideas about music."

Playing the piano helped Parker cope with the loss of her mother, who died when Parker was 17. "That's when I really started going to the piano," she recalled. "It's so personal, so emotional. I went back to it and haven't stopped. I encourage my students to use music as an outlet to feel better."

Parker finds escape with her horse, a 5-year-old white thoroughbred named Pegasus. "Riding horses has really helped me. I love getting away from all this and going to the beach with her," said Parker. "She is so peaceful, but she's also very spirited."

Parker is one of only a dozen students graduating with a bachelor of music this year. The rigorous requirements include quarterly performances juried by faculty.

"Those evaluations can tear you to shreds," said Parker. "It's a very sensitive thing. I used to cry over the evaluations. They really helped me."

The culmination of four years' work is the coveted senior recital in the Music Hall.

"It's a huge opportunity. It's one of the best halls in the country," said Parker, who has accompanied others in the venue. "People who really want it have to work really hard. What it takes is talent and very hard work and a huge passion for it."

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