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Dr. Nancy Uscher ’74

Dr. Nancy Uscher '74
Dr. Nancy Uscher ’74

When the performance major from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music received a postcard from Stony Brook in 1972 describing a new master’s assistantship program that included playing in a string quartet, she sent it back right away. The young viola student from White Plains couldn’t foresee the path on which that one step would lead her. But she knew that the opportunity to study with world renowned faculty such as Paul Zukofsky, Gil Kalish, Bernard Greenhouse and Julius Levine was one she couldn’t pass up.

“Out of the blue I got a call from Paul Zukofsky of the Department of Music, one of the most engaged contemporary musicians at the time, who was teaching mainly violin,” says Dr. Uscher, who was recently inaugurated as President of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. “He invited me to audition with him and Gil Kalish in New York City.”

After the audition she was accepted on the spot, and Zukofsky became her teacher for the next two years.

“My years at Stony Brook were pivotal, partly because of Paul and partly from playing in the string quartet,” Dr. Uscher says. “It was a generous and wonderful opportunity. It helped form my thinking and shaped my choices for the future. It’s at this stage in my life that I understand the impact different places and people have had on my growth as a musician. From Stony Brook I went into New York City life and immediately aligned myself with contemporary musical groups then forming.”

After receiving her master’s degree in 1972, Dr. Uscher enrolled part-time in the doctoral program at NYU and freelanced as a professional musician. She then spent two decades traveling and performing in orchestras and festivals around the world, including the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy. Dr. Uscher later joined the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra as co-principal violist and also played with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

“It was glorious to see the world through the eyes of a professional artist,” she says. “The joys were the incredible experience of making music, loving my colleagues and having a very exciting life. But these were short projects and lacked continuity, until I got to Jerusalem.”

“I cherish the fact that I had to go through that stage, which was both brilliantly exciting and very scary. I feel that I’ve been able to relate well to students who have their lives ahead of them, because I myself have gone through both the uncertainty and the rewards of being an artist in the world.”

Dr. Uscher transitioned to an academic career in 1992 and spent 12 years at the University of New Mexico in a variety of positions, including Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department. She was Provost (Chief Academic Officer) at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles for seven years before accepting the position as President at Cornish College of the Arts.

As a master’s degree student at Stony Brook, she was once assigned to learn Milton Babbitt’s Composition for Viola and Piano — an extremely difficult, mathematically based piece.

“Paul insisted that I get out of my comfort zone, which is what often happens as a precondition to a powerful learning experience. Being connected to that piece changed things for me. It was so difficult that I would practice for hours every day for months. But the feeling of accomplishment remains a very strong memory for me.

“Learning is not necessarily comfortable,” she continues. “The new is hard, and it’s the unknown. The experience of learning the Babbitt piece captures the role that Stony Brook played in my life. I could then move forward in a much better way as a professional musician. That is what education can do.”

Dr. Uscher’s parents were a major influence in her choice of career. Because of their great love of music they took her to rehearsals of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood from an early age. “As a four-year-old I would be awakened in the middle of the night to drive up from the suburbs of New York. We’d be there in time for rehearsal and then have a picnic lunch. This was a ritual that happened several times during the summer, and it made quite an impression.”

As chief administrator of Cornish College, Dr. Uscher relishes the opportunity to influence and inspire young students in the way Stony Brook influenced and inspired her.

“What I want for them is to know that they can actually change the world. I want them to have confidence, to feel that they matter, and make meaning of their lives.”

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