Reflecting on Graduation: Theodora Serbanescu Martin ‘17

I was born in Bucharest, Romania. My family was, as one would say, “very creative”: my mom is a visual artist, my dad had studied classical violin for ten years, my grandmother was a classically trained soprano and my great-aunt was a piano teacher. My parents and godparents took me to classical concerts since I was five, and made sure the house was always resonating with the sounds of the good ol’ classics; but I was never really around a piano. When I was seven my godmother had the idea to have me audition for the local music school, and Carmen Simu, who ended up being my first teacher, discovered what she thought was a particularly excellent ear — although she had no room for additional piano students in her studio at that time, so she suggested I check out the next-door violin studio. For whatever reason, I absolutely resisted taking that offer and demanded I still learn piano; and so it began. Driven above all, perhaps, by an ardent love of Beethoven (to whom I sent love letters in the form of paper airplanes when I was eight), I realized within the next year that I wanted to be a professional pianist. My fourth year I started more intensive studies with professor Carmen Enescu, who also taught at the Dinu Lipatti National College of Art, and in fifth grade, my parents and I moved to the United States where I began studies with Hans Boepple at Santa Clara University. By that time, I was sure that my future would center around the conservatory path; throughout middle school and high school, I worked strenuously to prepare for this and performed pieces like Chopin’s First Concerto and Prokofiev’s Second Concerto with orchestras, receiving several awards in national and international piano competitions in the process.

Theodora Serbanescu Martin ’17

After applying to many schools and finishing my undergraduate auditions, I had a curious experience as I weighed my options: most of the programs I’d gotten accepted into were conservatories, and just a couple were universities that I considered not necessarily back-ups — but certainly “alternatives.” Throughout middle school and high school, I also cultivated an interest in writing (anything from essays to music reviews for Peninsula Reviews), and a passion for English and Russian literature. Already by the beginning of senior year when I was looking at potential schools, I was thinking about pursuing a double major with English. In short, the reason I applied to Berkeley was because I knew the Department of English was ranked first in the country; I hadn’t really heard about the music program. But when I did receive my acceptance letter, I suddenly felt an unexpected, immovable feeling that I had to choose Berkeley; an inexplicable force drew me to the campus — which I had never even visited properly before except to hear a couple of concerts at Zellerbach. None of my family members, friends, or even I thought this would have ever been a serious choice, but for some reason, at the last minute, I felt imminent regret — that to choose a conservatory education would mean to give up my other varied intellectual interests; and I was not ready — I still had so much to learn, so much knowledge and culture to funnel into my mind and heart!

Berkeley gave me not only what I had somehow intuitively known it would, but something infinitely above what I would have ever hoped for. I’ll resist the urge to wax poetic about what a rich cultural experience even one day in Berkeley could be, but I can say that I’ve had, from the first moment on our campus, this feeling that I could only classify as “nostalgia for the present” — a heart-wrenching happiness, mixed with a determination that urged me to remind myself to enjoy every moment of it, because I would never feel this way again. (I mean, when else would I get to write poems at the Campanile at night and to smell that gentle mix of night jasmine and the drifting crispness of a San Francisco breeze?) Second semester of freshman year is when I really got involved in performance activities and started channeling my inner Hermione Granger in classes by doing “serious work” — beginning (of course) with the Beethoven course taught by the incomparable Nicholas Mathew, who encouraged me to explore the yet uncharted territory of my musical imagination, and to fulfill all my intellectual curiosities. Meeting the lovely historical keyboards in our department and learning to play them, expanding my already strong musical interests with classes such as James Davies’s Opera course and, as of lately, Prof. Roberts’s jointly taught course “Art & Activism,” becoming a part of the vivacious orchestra community as pianist in the UCBSO, sharing many beautiful lessons and musical moments with the ever-supportive, golden-hearted Martha Wasley, getting headaches from reading Adorno for my “Late Beethoven” graduate seminar, finding what I would classify as “musician soulmates” to play chamber music with, hearing free performances at Hertz and Zellerbach from ensembles like the Vienna Philharmonic and talking to some of the members first-hand, add up to only a small percentage of the array of experiences that have made my time here in Berkeley unforgettable, and my educational self-development so comprehensive and thorough.

Some of my highlights as music major include my performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and my reading of Brahms’s Second Concerto with the UCBSO and the magnificent David Milnes, my four solo noon and evening concerts, the last of which I played on our Regier fortepiano, and the exciting process of designing and teaching for two semesters my DeCal on historically informed performance. Taking the last course the legendary Richard Taruskin ever taught will always be one of my fondest memories, as will my crazy independent study on Brahms with David Pereira, hearing James Davies’s pure and glittering laugh in the Morrison hallways, convincing myself to enjoy the many all-nighters I pulled to write gigantic over-the-page-limit papers for my history courses — and, of course, immersing myself in the over-the-top process of writing my honors thesis on Brahms, which included stuff like gawking at his manuscript in the Hargrove and trying to shield the fragile 155-year old paper from my acidic tears. For this project, I have received a 2017 Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize for Undergraduate Research and feel very thankful to all — professors, librarians, staff, family, friends — who have helped me through this process. Additionally, I am grateful to have been one of the recipients of the 2016 Eisner Prize in the Creative Arts — an honor for which I owe infinite thanks to everyone in the Department.

Outside of music — and the Hargrove, which has become my second home, especially those ML.410.B8’s, which I had started to claim as my own (to the detriment of my constantly overdue library card) — my endeavors as English major and German minor gave me equally rich experiences that I do not have room to write about in here. All I can say is that sometimes I felt like three people in one, trying simultaneously to wrap my head around that un-translated version of Goethe and to finally understand the Genetiv, to get through the first book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene in one weekend because I had “procrastinated” on reading it by practicing Brahms for hours, and to scramble to write most of my overflowing English honors thesis on my man Sir Thomas Wyatt and his impossibly interesting, perplexing poetry in the last two months because I had a concert every month before and I “just didn’t have time.”

Above all, it is the wonderful souls I’ve met in Berkeley who have made my experience what it was — the brilliant, caring professors, some of whom I know will be life-long connections, the patient roommates and best friends, the fellow Music and English majors who were always excellent at commiserating, and even that guy on Sproul who always shouts about global warming and how our education is actually brainwashing rather than enlightening us. And not to forget the squirrels, of course!

It is difficult for me to accept that I have to leave this magical place soon, but at the same time I know that my experience at Berkeley — which has fostered my process of self-understanding — has already equipped me with more independence and self-sufficiency than I already possessed intrinsically. In the fall I will be heading off to Cornell University to continue my studies of music with a Musicology PhD. Currently my most important professional goal is to cultivate a career as performing scholar — to blend equally musicology and piano performance, and to advocate for interdisciplinary work of all sorts. More specifically, I hope to become a Brahms scholar — and yes, to keep performing tons of Beethoven and, well, any and all German Romantic piano music. Whatever I do, I am confident that everything I learned and experienced at Berkeley will give me the strength and knowledge to navigate all that the mysterious future will bring.