By Hannah Amante
Cal Poly Pomona professor Nadia Shpachenko learned to play the piano at the age of five, but was exposed to music even before then. Her mother was a piano teacher and brought her students home for the first few years of Shpachenko’s life.
“We didn’t have a babysitter, so she sat and taught while I stayed there and listened,” said Shpachenko.
Her mother gave her piano lessons for about 10 years.
Today, Shpachenko is a renowned concert pianist, as well as an associate professor in the music department at CPP and adjunct professor of music at Claremont Graduate University.
“She is one of the best teachers I have ever known,” said Iris Levine, chair of the music department at CPP. Levine was a part of the search committee that hired Shpachenko six years ago.
“People almost underestimate her because she’s a professor here and we see her every day,” said Matthew Borgialli, a second-year chemical engineering and music student. “But she’s a world-class performer.”
It was at the age of 14 that Shpachenko decided to put everything into her passion for piano. From her hometown in Ukraine, she went to train with famous piano professor Victor Derevianko in Israel for three years. She received her undergraduate degree in piano performance at Longy School of Music in 1997.
Throughout her career, Shpachenko has played at multiple famous venues, such as the Hall of Columns in Kiev, Ukraine and Carnegie Hall in New York. She has entered and won prizes in several well-known competitions. She has won numerous awards, such as the Outstanding Graduate at University of Southern California, where she received her Masters in Music and Doctorate of Musical Arts in Piano Performance.
“She is someone people want to go to see because they feel so fabulous when they walk out of a performance of hers,” said Levine. “It’s like you have been washed over with this beautiful sense of all kinds of emotion in the music-making.”
Shpachenko said every performance she gives becomes her new favorite performance.
“I kind of live in the moment, you know,” said Shpachenko. “Every recital to me is very special.”
She especially enjoys the connection she is able to make with an engaged audience,
“I always try to talk about these pieces beforehand, just to introduce them,” she said. “Just that connection you have with the audience that’s just right, when you know that they’re there paying attention, that they’re enjoying it, that each person is imagining something different”that’s my favorite moment.”
Shpachenko often premieres new works by composers and especially enjoys unique, contemporary pieces.
“When I have a really wonderful, exciting work and I perform it for the first time, that’s always a very special feeling,” she said.
Shpachenko said she has many favorite composers that it was hard to choose just onebecause she is still discovering new composers.
She listed Russian composers Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. She also admires Robert Schumann and Ludwig van Beethoven.
“I really love every piece I’ve played of Beethoven,” Shpachenko said.
Shpachenko said that she is inspired by imaginative people, and that she is fortunate to work with many of them, citing Peter Yates, who she performed with last Wednesday, as a colleague who “challenges me to learn new things.”
“My husband inspires me tremendously,” Shpachenko added. “He is an extremely talented person who has so many interests.”
Shpachenko’s husband is a recording engineer who used to work for NASA in robotics. He now does robotic theater at Pomona College, and has also started composing music.
Shpachenko won a national award at age 13 for a piece she composed, but has not had time to write music lately. She plays about 15 recitals per year and teaches master classes all over the world, in addition to teaching full time at CPP.
When asked what her hobbies are, she said, “My children,” with a big smile. “I wouldn’t even call them a hobby; I would call them my whole life.”
Shpachenko is the mother of twin 19-month-old boys and likes to spend every minute she can with them.
“She is the Energizer Bunny,” said Levine. “Just yesterday she was saying, ‘Oh, I have to prepare a whole new concert for next week.’ For some people it would take six months to prepare this concert. And it’s not that she gives it a week; it’s that she gives it her all.”
In addition to giving herself to music, Shpachenko gives her all in the classroom as well.
“Her teaching strategy is really different for each student,” said Borgialli. “She really tries to bring out the best in her students by noticing their strong points.”
Shpachenko’s favorite moments as a professor center around when her students do their best work.
“I love when they surprise me by doing better than I thought they could,” she said. “I’m lucky that it actually happens quite often. I require a lot of my students and they rise to the challenge and that’s really rewarding.”
Her advice for aspiring concert pianists?
“Keep making your craft better and just enjoy the experience because we’re so lucky to do something that is so special and so rewarding, and just gives us this wonderful purpose in life and pleasure,” said Shpachenko. “So just never forget that no matter how hard life can be sometimes, let music really be the driving force in your life.”
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