Though my parents had enrolled me in English lessons in Georgia, I had to look up every other word in my textbooks to complete my first high school assignments in the U.S. I didn’t sleep very much in those first months, but I soon caught up, finishing high school a year early, and never let my work at the piano slip. After winning a few local competitions, Logan Skelton, a professor at the University of Michigan, took me on as a student and prepared me for the grueling work needed to play at the level demanded at international competitions and conservatory auditions. In my senior year I went to New York alone, and came back with an admissions offer and a full scholarship at Juilliard. Though I had no connections, I became the first person from Georgia ever to gain admission.
At Juilliard, I became a more well-rounded artist, deepening my knowledge of music beyond the piano while continuing to elevate my playing. My professor, Jerome Lowenthal taught me to explore the story behind the music to inform my interpretation. My first serious venture into French music was under his guidance. Through Debussy’s evocative Images, I discovered and fell in love with French art, while Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin sparked my intense passion for the French musical language. Professor Lowenthal planted the idea of studying in France with his stories about his Fulbright year in Paris, studying with the French legend Alfred Cortot.
During my first year of masters, I heard Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, then first lady of France, planned to create exchange programs between three schools in Paris and New York. An exchange between Juilliard and the Paris Conservatoire was to happen in several years, but I was determined to help speed up the process and be a part of it. That summer, at a program in Fontainebleau, Jean-Philippe Collard heard my playing and recommended me to another legend, Michel Béroff, who then invited me to study with him at the Conservatoire. The last minute invitation made possible the first ever student exchange between the schools, and I left for Paris two weeks later.
I soaked up the city and culture that created the art and music that I love while studying at the school that taught both Ravel and Debussy. In Isabel Duha’s famously demanding keyboard harmony class, my heart raced every time I was called, in rapid fire French, to modulate to remote keys, perform complicated chord progressions or improvise in the style of specific composers. Meanwhile, Professor Béroff taught me to hear so much more of the music, tuning my ears to refine nuance and sensitivity to harmony. One semester there was not enough, so I applied to and won the Fulbright to study Messiaen with him the following year.
After years in France, I wanted to go back to exploring new areas of repertoire. The right teacher to bring my playing to the next level was one of my long time idols, Dmitri Bashkirov. After hearing me play for only five minutes in my audition for his class in Madrid, he cut off the audition with barely a word. Thankfully, somehow he had heard enough to accept me into his class with a full scholarship. The following two years were the most grueling and stressful, but also those of intense growth. He expected me to know every dynamic and expression marking in the score and translate them perfectly at the keyboard. The hard work paid off: in my final year with him, he recommended me for an excellence award I received directly from Queen Sofia of Spain. Most importantly, I learned how to teach myself.