2023 graduate Lauren Jackson Coplan reflects on the journey of her graduate school experience

Seven hours and 441 miles separate Lauren Jackson Coplan’s Nashville, Tennessee, home from the UNCSA campus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The 2023 graduate made the staggering commute nearly weekly for the last two academic years as a student in the School of Music’s Master of Music in Piano program. Ahead of Commencement, she reflects on her beautiful, exhausting, and meaningful time as a Fighting Pickle:

“I’m surprised by how much I felt a part of things,” Coplan says of her non-traditional student experience. “I thought I’d just be this mom who couldn’t figure out how to use her cell phone,” she adds, laughing, “but I felt respect from my peers. I was never made to feel different. We’re all just students together.”

Lauren Coplan with her daughter Samantha and mother Shirley Gilpin. / Photo: News of Davidson

Lauren Coplan with her daughter Samantha and mother Shirley Gilpin. / Photo: News of Davidson

Indeed, Coplan has been a student since her toddler years. The child of two musicians, a flutist and a trumpeter, Coplan first studied violin at a very young age before declaring that she was “actually a pianist” at the age of six. “I can still see my first piano teacher’s fingers pressing the keys and just melting at the sound and tone,” she says. “I wanted the feeling of getting that tone, and I knew there would be work involved to get there. I liked that.”

Beantown to Music City

Coplan, who earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University School of Fine Arts, first enrolled in graduate school at Mannes College of Music nearly 30 years ago. The expense of the program soon became a deterrent. She stepped away from taking coursework but stayed on as a faculty member for 13 years while also building a business offering private piano lessons. Aware of the advantages an advanced degree could provide in terms of teaching income and wider, paid performance opportunities, Coplan was planning to re-enroll in the program when her then-husband suggested a move to Nashville. 

She followed along to support his new career opportunity, but they later divorced. When the thought of graduate school again entered her mind, Coplan was a single mother. Positive that earning a Master in Music degree would not only benefit her but now also create stability and opportunities for her daughter, Coplan remembered UNCSA. 

Music City to the City of Arts and Innovation

A North Carolina native, Coplan grew up in Davidson. Her parents are both retired principal musicians from the Charlotte Symphony. Elaine Richey, a (now retired) violin professor at UNCSA, was friends with her family. “I attended a few concerts at Crawford Hall as a kid,” Coplan recalls. “I grew up with this legend, this mystic feeling of (U)NCSA just an hour away from my hometown.”

She planned to move home to North Carolina with her daughter. Familiar with the School of Music’s strong reputation, Coplan was eager to study Russian techniques with Dmitri Shteinberg. She auditioned and was accepted. Crucially, she received scholarship support — including a graduate assistantship — that would make her dream of completing an advanced degree attainable. 

When a new custody arrangement stopped her move out of state, Coplan — encouraged by her daughter, parents and friends — stayed the course. She would commute across state lines and time zones, following a similar schedule each week.

Coplan's weekly routine was:

On Sundays, Coplan got everything in order for the week and tried to get to bed early. Her alarm buzzed at 1 a.m. sharp for a 2:30 a.m. departure. “I then drove straight to campus for an 11 a.m. class at UNCSA,” she explains. “Tuesdays were busy with class, and I would try to stay late to practice until 2 or 3 a.m.” Often, she drove an hour to stay with one of her parents overnight. Occasionally, she stayed at a Best Western near campus that graciously offered her the same discount extended to traveling nurses. 

Wednesday mornings included back-to-back classes, followed by Performance Hour. “I’d then get on the road by 3 p.m. to get home and tuck my daughter into bed,” says Coplan. She used the many hours behind the wheel of her Prius wisely, memorizing music for classes and performances and making calls that she suspected would require a long hold time. Her private studio pupils in Nashville moved their lessons to the weekend to accommodate her schedule.

Time well spent

The best weeks were ones when Coplan’s daughter, on a break from school, joined her in North Carolina. She was present for one of Coplan’s favorite performance memories: “It was fun to have my daughter attend Performance Hour with me,” Coplan says. “I received a standing ovation and she was able to see this whole hall full of kids hollering [for me]. She filmed a video!”


Editor’s note: Performance Hour is held weekly in the School of Music, allowing students from any music studio an informal opportunity to perform for and receive feedback from their peers.

Another highlight of Coplan’s time in the School of Music has been working with two high school pianists through her graduate assistantship. “I taught them alongside my professor, and I observed their lessons. Then, I held a weekly session with each of them where I was teaching,” she explains. “At first, I was worried that my approach was too different [from Dr. Shteinberg’s], but he did not want me to hold back.”

Her relationship with Dr. Shteinberg, as a professor and mentor, is also important to Coplan. “Sometimes we need someone to tell us exactly what has been holding us back that we never realized or wanted to face,” she says of his mentorship. “We need someone we can trust who will be fully honest with us. There aren’t many teachers willing to do that.”

Looking ahead

Much of Coplan’s journey came full circle when she was asked to speak at the 2023 UNCSA Scholarship Luncheon. The degree she began decades ago, which ended due to financial burden, will now be complete thanks to the support of generous donors.

“Two words don’t say enough, but to begin with—thank you,” said Coplan to donors at the luncheon. “Your generosity has made it possible for me to attend UNCSA.” Coplan continued, explaining the impact that the Master of Music degree will have on her life:

Lauren Coplan speaking at the 2023 UNCSA Scholarship Luncheon. / Photo: Wayne Reich

Lauren Coplan speaking at the 2023 UNCSA Scholarship Luncheon. / Photo: Wayne Reich

“While I am proud of my years of work in the arts so far, credentials also matter. Earning this degree will provide my daughter and me with more security. My job prospects have already opened up considerably as interested employers eagerly await the completion of this degree… I have already booked several prominent performance engagements, and — unlike in the past — these are not unpaid concerts. For the first time, I am a headliner with a contract and a competitive fee.”

Reflecting on the last few years is not without difficulty for Coplan. “There were plenty of discouraging moments,” she says,” because it was just so much to juggle.” But she has in spades what some others lack: perspective. Perspective that has been hard-earned from many years of lived experiences. “When I encountered a setback, I always knew it would be okay. I have had so many ups and downs in life that I can always keep things in perspective. There’s an advantage to knowing you can always believe in yourself.”

I’m surprised by how much I felt a part of things. ... I felt respect from my peers. I was never made to feel different.

Lauren Jackson Coplan

After Commencement, Coplan plans to continue teaching, performing and leading clinics but is also interested in public speaking and leaning into what opportunities living in Nashville affords her.

“When we’re students, we find out what we don’t know, and we find holes in our backgrounds to fill in. Or maybe foundations that were not as strong as we thought,” says Coplan. “But we also discover what we’re good at… our strengths. I’ve found out so much about myself during this experience. I’m excited to pull from what I do best and what’s most unique about me.”

by Hannah Callaway

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May 02, 2023