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Q&A with Stephen Perkyns, cello

This past summer the Bowdoin International Music Festival welcomed 255 student participants from 27 countries and 30 states, including 17 remarkable Festival Fellows. Sixty-five percent of these participants received scholarship funds from the Festival. In celebration of an incredible 2016 season and in anticipation of an even better 2017 season, we’ve reached out to last year’s participants to reflect on their experience at the Festival and their lives as musicians.

BIMF: What are some of your earliest musical memories? 

Stephen: I come from a mostly musical family. The reason I say “mostly” is because my parents met as musicians, but my mom was the only one to continue to make a career in music. My dad, who is now a senior scientist of a research group, played cello until university. Although he did not play much, he still keeps his cello just in case he ever wants to bring it out and play it again. When I was in preschool, about 4 years old, I would ask my dad to take out his cello so I could play it. When I say “play it,” I mean moving the bow somewhere on the cello while my fingers hovered over the strings and pretending I was making beautiful sounds. 

Once I was old enough for kindergarten I went to an Arts Magnet elementary school. That simply means that they taught music within the elementary school, and part of everyday was spent playing your instrument in either lessons or group classes. Within my first week of kindergarten, they asked me which instrument I wanted to learn. Because of my history of playing with my dad’s instrument, I said, “I already play the cello.” They gave me a quarter sized cello that day, and here I am now!

BIMF: If you could play with any musician who would it be?

Stephen: There is a Jazz-Fusion group called Snarky Puppy. When I’m not listening to classical music, this is the group I am most likely listening to. When I was in middle school, I played jazz guitar with some of my friends just for fun, and I’ve had an interest in jazz since then. Snarky Puppy takes jazz and gives it a whole new spin using unusual instruments for jazz such as electric string quartet.

BIMF: How would you explain your passion for chamber music to a non-musician?

Stephen: Performing chamber music is exactly the same as playing on a sports team. On any sports team, there has to be a connection between teammates in order to be successful. You practice plays in hopes of having that play go successfully on game day. If someone is a little bit off from the game plan, you can drop the ball. However, if everyone is in sync, you can make some truly incredible things happen. Playing a sport can be physically and emotionally draining because of all the heart and effort players put into the sport. People purchase tickets in hopes that they will witness greatness.

BIMF: How do you make a well-known piece of music your own?

Stephen: I try not to listen to recordings and just focus on what the composer has written. It’s almost impossible to play a piece exactly like someone else by just going based off of the sheet music. However, if I get stuck or just don’t like what I am doing, I listen to as many different records as I can. This gets my imagination stirring and I get a better understanding of what is possible with a particular piece of music.

BIMF: What was one highlight of the 2016 Festival for you?

Stephen: I had many opportunities to listen to and perform modern music. Listening to the JACK Quartet perform was mind blowing. Also, the Guinea Pigs in Bow Ties event was a lot of fun. Having only 12 hours to practice and rehearse a piece of music that a student composer worked on for only 36 hours was an amazing experience. It showed me that you don’t need a lot of time to create great music.

BIMF: Whats next for you after the Festival?

Stephen: I still have another 2 years of undergraduate work at Rice University’s Shepherd of Music. After that, I will probably continue my studies at a Master’s program somewhere. After that, I have no idea. Right now, my dream is to be a part of a successful chamber music group, but I feel that I will be just as happy as a member of an orchestra or touring as a soloist.

BIMF: What advice would you offer to an aspiring musician?

Stephen: As long as you practice, it will always get better. Even if you are the most talented player out there, talent only takes you up to a certain point. Even if you feel like you aren’t improving through your practice, you can’t stop. It just means you need to adjust how you’re practicing. Whatever you do, just keep practicing.