Like the "Music Olympics"

Like the "Music Olympics"

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Undergrad pianist represents Rowan, entire East coast, at nationals.

There really aren't Music Olympics but, if there were, they would look something like this.

For the fifth time in as many years, a Rowan piano student is representing not just the university but schools all along the Eastern seaboard in a national competition that pits the best against the very best.

The 2010 Music Teachers National Association competition, to be held March 21-22 in Albuquerque, N.M., doesn't offer gold, silver and bronze as its crowning glory but, to an aspiring concert pianist, something even more valuable - a new Steinway piano.

And Oleksiy Ulitin, a senior piano performance major, is playing for all the ivories.

"It's very exciting," said Ulitin, 25, who hails from Ukraine and came to Rowan specifically to study under Prof. Veda Zuponcic. "Almost every year my teacher's students win here in New Jersey and this is the fifth year in a row her students won the Eastern Division."

The Eastern Division competition, held Jan. 9 at Ithaca College in New York, typically features the best students from some of the best music schools in America including the Eastman School in Rochester, Juillaird in Manhattan and the University of Maryland's School of Music. Among those Ulitin bested in Ithaca was a Californian from Harvard.

Ulitin, whose mother taught piano and began giving him lessons when he was just seven, practices four to six hours a day, and sometimes more.

"It really is like sport," said Prof. Zuponcic, a former performer at the world-renowned Moscow Conservatory in Russia where she was also an exchange professor . "The better you are, the more training you have to put in. You're not going to land quads and triples (like an Olympic skater) unless you're putting in major training to make it work."

She said Ulitin's competition program, a 70-minute performance featuring the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, is especially challenging, even for an accomplished pianist.

"You drill over and over and over again so your muscles know what to do," Prof. Zuponcic said.

A Legacy of competitors

While it's impossible to predict how Ulitin will do at the nationals, Prof. Zuponcic said her polite, soft-spoken student possesses the musical ability and other characteristics necessary for greatness.

"I'm not sure one's character is always an indication of what kind of musician he'll be but he has great dignity and warmth and pride and he brings these qualities to his music," she said. "He's a very cultivated musician and gravitates toward composers who require deep thinking and cultivation, technically and musically."

She said Rowan piano majors have won the N.J. leg of the MTNAs 13 times since the program started in 1992. Of those, six have won the Eastern Division competition and three of those placed in the top three at the nationals.

In 2009, Rowan's Aleksiy Ivanchenko, a boyhood friend of Ulitin's, placed 2nd in the national competition; in 2008, Ana Christie, now a Rowan senior, came in 3rd; and in 2007 Alexander Timofeev also placed 3rd.

The national competition features the winners of seven regional U.S. divisions and students from all over the world.

Prof. Zuponcic said success in music, like any competitive field, is extremely difficult to achieve but performing well in national competitions like the MTNA helps students who seek a career in either performance or academia.

"It's no different than Olympic sports," she said. "To get your name out there, to win things, especially to succeed over someone else who also has a reputation, it's very important."

All-Steinway school

Rowan University, which made a long-term commitment to its music program with the purchase of 100 brand-new Steinway pianos in September 2009, joined the ranks of such storied institutions as Juilliard and The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in becoming an All-Steinway school.

"They are the industry standard," Prof. Zuponcic said. "You know you are playing on the very best."