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Today@Sam Article

International Student Plays By Heart At SHSU

Jan. 24, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

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Smigelskaya playing piano
Junior piano performance major Anna Smigelskaya has overcome language and cultural barriers as an international student from Russia, but her talent and hard work pay off as she stands out among her peers. —Photos by Brian Blalock


In the dimly lit concert hall at the Gaertner Performing Arts Center, Sam Houston State University junior Anna Smigelskaya sits on the edge of her bench, watching her fingers as they move skillfully over the piano keys.

She was preparing for an upcoming concert at the Old Town Theater on the Huntsville Square, one that she played while her fiancé and fellow SHSU music student Austin Hunt and opera singer Melanie Holliday sing.

She says if her piano teacher and mentor, associate professor of music Sergio Ruiz, would let her, she would practice for hours at a time.

Perhaps it is the sheer love of music that spurs her on to practice so much and, more than that, to chase after her dreams of being a pianist, something she is working toward as a piano performance major at SHSU.

Smigelskaya, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, began playing piano at age 6 at the encouragement of her parents.

“I didn’t really have a choice,” Smigelskaya said. “My parents wanted me to be an accompanist, and since both of my older brothers are musicians they wanted me to continue the musical tradition and do well in that area. Both of my brothers are so talented and great musicians, so there was a lot of pressure on me to do as well as them. They have helped me so much and have taught me how to really listen to music and how to succeed in the musical field.”

In Russia, she said that at age 16, students are given a choice whether they want to continue on with high school classes or go straight to working on a bachelor’s degree. She chose to leave school and attend music college, where she studied piano for four years.

A few years after that, her middle brother, cellist Serafim Smigelskiy (Russian surnames have different forms depending on gender), was living in New York City and attending Julliard and helped her look for American schools.

“My brother wanted me to come here, too,” Smigelskaya said. “I was 19 at the time and I didn’t speak any English. We chose Sam Houston because it was at least close to where my uncle lived in Texas, but I didn’t know anyone at all.”

And then she met Ruiz, whom Smigelskaya said was the reason she came to SHSU.

“I called Russia from right here in my office on a three-way call with her brother in New York City on the other line,” Ruiz said. “I knew it would be a great thing if she came to SHSU.

Anna Smigelskaya and Dr. Sergio Ruiz
Associate professor of music Sergio Ruiz has become a mentor to Smigelskaya while at SHSU. After initially viewing her audition DVD, Ruiz also worked to ensure that Smigelskaya had the resources to attend SHSU.

“I had seen her DVD audition tape and I thought, ‘wow, this is world-class playing from just a kid,’” he said. “I showed it to donors in the community who support the arts at the university to sponsor her and helped her find a host family and scholarships. I told her parents, ‘I will treat her like my own daughter.’”

Smigelskaya said it was an extremely difficult transition at first—not only was there a culture barrier, but there was also a language barrier. But she counts her host family, Pat and Ed Griffiths, long-time supporters of the School of Music at SHSU, as some of her biggest encouragers.

“When I came I had to take an international exam and I have no idea how I passed it. By some kind of luck I did well enough to go on, but I still didn’t speak English very well or understand the culture,” Smigelskaya said. “My host family was so wonderful. They helped me learn English, too. My parents still live in Russia, and they came to America for the first time in November, which was the first time I had seen them in three years. It is hard, but we Skype a lot. I don’t know what I would have done without my host family, though. They have done so much to help me. They are like real family now.”

Another family whom Smigelskaya said has been invaluable in her time at SHSU is professor of economics William Green and his wife, Diane. Not only is Green one of many friends and supporters of Smigelskaya on-campus, but off-campus as well—he is the next-door neighbor of Smigelskaya’s host family, the Griffiths.

“Sometimes we have her over for dinner with the Griffiths, and sometimes they have us over to their house,” Green said. “We have gone to so many of her concerts to see her play and have taken her in as a very good family friend. She is such a sweet girl with so much talent and drive. We are very impressed with her.”

Though she still has two more years for her undergraduate degree, Smigelskaya plans to continue playing even afterwards.

“I am definitely going to work on my master’s degree next,” Smigelskaya said. “I went to Julliard to take a few lessons, but I am going to officially audition for graduate schools next Christmas. After I finish one master’s I might do another in collaborative study. I just love studying and I love piano, and I especially want to try different schools and different cities.”

Ruiz said that Smigelskaya is just one example of the cultural exchange happening at SHSU and that she is an “outstanding example of poise, talent and drive.”

“There is a sweetness and sincerity that comes through in her playing, and I think you can always tell a lot about how a person is in real life by listening to them play,” Ruiz said. “She is hardworking, agreeable and willing, but she also really understands the elegance of what she is doing. She is poised in interacting with donors at ‘thank you’ concerts I have held. She is a great ambassador for the university. I am thankful for the upper administration who support this kind of opportunity to allow students like Anna to come and do so well here.”

Whether she is playing on stage at Julliard with her brother or onstage at SHSU, Smigelskaya said it is her love and passion for music that keeps her playing—and a special family tradition passed on to her.

“My oldest brother is an opera singer in Germany and my middle brother is a cellist,” Smigelskaya said. “My grandmother also was a pianist, but in the Soviet Union at the time, they didn’t give her a choice because they said playing piano wasn’t a profitable job. Her father took away her documents for the school and she became a very successful engineer. But she always dreamed of music and hoped that she could pass it on to someone. That dream has come true for her because now all three of us are musicians.

“As a child, I took piano lessons because my parents told me to, but as I got older, I realized that I have just always loved music and I never wanted to do anything but play piano—even though it was difficult to get into schools. I kept trying and eventually got in, and I never looked back. I just kept doing what I love.”




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