Piano student Kelsey Carlisle receives annual Presser Award from School of Music

Each year, School of Music faculty select a rising fourth-year student as the recipient of the Presser Undergraduate Scholar Award. For 2021 recipient Kelsey Carlisle, the honor comes on the heels of a school year shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, making the recognition especially meaningful for the undergraduate pianist.

Funded by a Presser Foundation grant, the annual Presser Award is designed to encourage and support in a special way the education of a music student who exemplifies high academic and musical accomplishment, leadership and citizenship. The recipient is one who has grown individually and who has contributed earnestly to the success of the School of Music.

Here, Carlisle looks back on his six years of study at UNCSA (he's a 2018 graduate of the High School Program), his growing list of accomplishments and what he's looking forward to in his senior year and beyond.

Presser Award recipients are chosen by School of Music faculty. Can you reflect on what it means to you to be selected for this award?

Young musicians want to be able to find success in their career and fulfillment within themselves, but — especially at this stage — we also want to earn the respect of our peers and our teachers. After all, our faculty are the ones who have been able to make a living and a career out of playing music.

A year of playing for empty concert halls and muted teachers on video calls makes you wonder if anyone is really listening. This shows that they are.

Kelsey Carlisle

Knowing that my academic, civic and musical achievement does not go unnoticed is inspiring, to say the least. A year of playing for empty concert halls and muted teachers on video calls makes you wonder if anyone is really listening. This shows that they are.

How does the award help your studies?

It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a toll on working musicians, especially those of us who rely on gigs as a major source of income. This award takes some of the stress off by providing assistance in paying for basic things like gas, food and other living costs that can be distracting in the pursuit of a degree. It will allow for more freedom to focus on academic and artistic pursuits.

How did you discover UNCSA? Why did you choose to study music here?

I learned about UNCSA through a few people in my hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, who enrolled in the High School Program here. I decided to do the same, and here I am six years later! In high school, I had the opportunity to do my solo study with both Eric Larsen and Dmitri Vorobiev. Not many people have been around UNCSA as long as they have, and not many people understand the culture of UNCSA like they do. Their tutelage along with the tight-knit community of students are what brought me back for college. As I enter my final year, about to leave the place where I grew into an adult, I cannot imagine being anywhere else.

Can you share some things you've learned as a student at UNCSA?

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a student at UNCSA is the value of collaboration. When we’re in elementary school we’re graded on how well we play with others, and that skill is vital in music. Not only does UNCSA have a fantastic collaborative piano program led by Allison Gagnon and the rest of the collaborative faculty, but we are also able to network and make connections that will allow us to work and perform together for the rest of our careers. That is a value that can be lost at a bigger university, but is a top priority at this institution. 

Oh, and don’t spend all your Bonus Bucks on Pringles and Sour Patch Kids in the first week back on campus.

Do you have a particular project that has been a favorite of yours during your time here?

My favorite project I’ve taken on in my time at UNCSA is learning George Gershwin’s "Concerto in F." Gershwin is my favorite composer, and one day I suggested — half-jokingly — to Dr. Vorobiev that I could learn that piece as my first concerto, and he challenged me to do it. I began working on it in the spring semester of my senior year of high school, but every year, something would come up and I was not able to play it in its entirety. Finally, this past year, I was able to do just that in the annual concerto competition.

Even though I didn’t win, it was the end of a four-year journey, which is much longer than I’ve worked on any other piece. Being surrounded by a composer’s musical thoughts and dealing with my own problems through that piece every day for four years taught me more about myself than anything else in my academic and artistic career.

Kelsey Carlisle playing piano

Carlisle performing

What are you most looking forward to in your senior year?

I’m extremely excited to begin putting together my graduation recital, where I’ll be playing multiple underappreciated pieces by underappreciated composers like William Grant Still, Florence Price and Nikolai Kapustin. 

What I’m even more excited for, though, is taking on a teaching role in the new Maurice Duruflé Academy of Music, where our mission is to educate the new generation of musicians in a way that challenges them to inspect music philosophically, and emphasizes collaboration over competition. In doing so, we raise students who, instead of copying well-established truths in music, develop mature interpretations and approaches that are uniquely their own.


About The Presser Foundation

The Presser Foundation was established in 1939 under the Deeds of Trust and Will of the late Theodore Presser. It is one of the few private foundations in the United States dedicated solely to music education and music philanthropy. The Presser Foundation considers proposals for funding from music organizations working in a broad range of traditions, genres, and styles through general operating and program grants; capital grants for music building projects; undergraduate and graduate student awards; and assistance to retired music teachers. Much of the grant making focus of the Foundation is on organizations and institutions in the 75-mile radius surrounding Center City Philadelphia. For more information: www.presserfoundation.org

by Corrine Luthy

Get the best news, performance and alumni stories from UNCSA.

August 27, 2021