Rebecca Uejio is only 19, but already she’s considered a budding virtuoso on the grand piano.
She has practiced nearly every day since she was 6 years old, and her work paid off with scholarships and a choice of colleges to attend.
Her decision to enroll at Whitworth College last fall was no fluke. This small liberal arts college in north Spokane is getting a reputation for quality in music.
As a result, Whitworth is attracting more and more top prep musicians, who are recruited to the campus like hotshot athletes at larger schools.
“This was my first choice,” said Uejio, of Honolulu.
Prominence also is growing for Whitworth’s performing groups. Its choir will tour in Arizona and California next month and will return to Spokane for a concert March 28 at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral.
The jazz ensemble has won a series of awards in recent years and performs with top professional musicians. Its director, Associate Professor Dan Keberle, is on a Fulbright Scholarship in South Africa this year.
The number of music majors at Whitworth has increased from 55 to 90 in the past two years. The college plans to increase its full-time music faculty from six to seven next fall and to make room for more students.
“It is one of the finest colleges we have to send kids to,” said Mel Clayton, president of the Northwest Music Educators Association.
Uejio said she was drawn by the small size of the college, which allows more one-to-one contact between professors and students. Uejio receives two hours of private lessons a week, an hour each on the piano and organ.
She said she wants to be a music teacher after she graduates, but she really hopes her piano skills will lead her to the symphony stage.
“You’ll be hearing a lot more from Rebecca,” predicted Associate Professor Judith Schoepflin.
A lot of people already have.
During high school, Uejio earned a long list of awards and recognition.
In a nationwide competition sponsored by the National Guild of Piano Teachers, Uejio outscored everyone else over a 10-year period.
She has the physical attributes to be a pianist - slender arms and fingers that curve gently. She sits upright at the piano. Her hands flow effortlessly across the keyboard.
“She has the complete package. She has what we call musical ability, the ability to interpret and express,” Schoepflin said.
Uejio isn’t Whitworth’s only star, just one of the newest.
Ben Brody, a sophomore, won two prestigious competitions from Centennial High School. They include the top Oregon performer in works by Bach, and two Portlandarea all-star awards for performing arts.
A baritone and pianist, Brody said, “The music department is like a family.”
Former Ferris High School athlete Ben Brueggemeier gave up sports to pursue music.
His father, Paul Brueggemeier, is choir director at Ferris. His sister, Anne, is a music graduate of Whitworth and performs in Spokane.
Like many music students, Brueggemeier wants to teach. His dream is to become a high school choir director like his father.
Among graduates, Frank Hernandez has been selected to perform this summer at the Glimmer Glass Summer Opera Festival in New York and has offers for other opera performances. He graduated in 1993.
Ironically, Hernandez arrived at Whitworth to play football.
There’s a similarity here. Athletics and music both require hours of practice, and both involve the risk of failure or success.
At Whitworth as well as other colleges, the drive for a strong music program is a matter of self-preservation. A program that draws accolades is less likely to face budget cuts in tight times.
It should come as no surprise that colleges compete intensely for the top talent.
Every Pacific Northwest high school music graduate receives promotional mail from Whitworth, and the faculty works constantly with high school music teachers to identify and woo the top talents.
Whitworth now offers 13 endowed music scholarships, and has $62,000 for awards as smaller grants.
Attracting talent translates into strong performances, which in turn draws more talent.
“The word is getting around the Northwest this is a good place to get a music education,” said Professor Richard Evans, chairman of the music department.
Whitworth doesn’t focus solely on music.
Evans said Whitworth wants its music students to develop a curiosity that goes beyond the song sheet. Musicians with a broad view of the world often become the best performers and educators, he said.
Much of Whitworth’s success is due to the skills of its faculty.
For example, Professor Randi Von Ellefson, the choir director, has pushed the concept of a large choir that performs a capella, or without piano accompaniment.
With 90-some voices, the sound is awesome, Evans said.
Ellefson also directs the Spokane Symphony Chorale and the Uptown Opera.
Keberle, who heads the jazz program, has attracted jazz luminaries such as trombonist Slide Hampton, pianist Gene Harris and trumpeter Phil Woods to perform with his jazz ensemble.
The ensemble in 1994 was the top scoring college or university jazz band at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Whitworth performers frequently walk away with one or two awards from the annual Hampton festival.
Whitworth’s music program isn’t limited to music majors. Nearly 300 of Whitworth’s 1,400 students are involved in the college’s four chorale and seven instrumental groups.
If anything, Whitworth’s size may be its drawback. For now, there aren’t enough string musicians to support a full orchestra.
“We haven’t been all things to all people, but what we’ve been is good at what we do,” Evans said.
MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: GRADUATES OF NOTE Among the musical stars to graduate from Whitworth College: Frank Hernandez, ‘93 - A rising opera star, he recently was selected to perform in the Glimmer Glass Summer Opera Festival in New York and has other pending offers. Jessica Bowers, senior - She recently won a Metropolitan Opera audition in Spokane and will be competing in Seattle to earn a chance to try out in New York. Eric Moe, senior - He’s been selected for a prestigious trumpet program at Arizona State University and is an award winner at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Kay Damiano, ‘89 - She is a singer in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater and a leading figure in the arts community in Coeur d’Alene. Kathy MacFerren ‘84 - She founded and conducts the Rainier Chamber Wind Ensemble in Edmonds. John Cooper, ‘87 - He sings with the Spokane Symphony and Bach festival.