Bernardo Scarambone, award-winning piano professor in the Eastern Kentucky University School of Music, knows the challenges and triumphs of leaving your home country to study in another.
These days, Scarambone shares the benefit of that experience with his students. His passionate, above-and-beyond approach to teaching has attracted several talented students from his home country of Brazil.
Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Scarambone began learning to play at the age of 13 – a late start for a pianist. However, he remained undaunted by the game of catch-up ahead of him. He vividly recalls the work he put into sharpening his skills in those early days:
“I lived on the first floor, two blocks from the beach in Rio, and I remember practicing while my friends would pass by on their way to the beach in the morning. And at night, I would still be practicing when they would return from the beach. Not fun, but I had to do what I had to do.”
The tireless practice fanned the flames of his passion instead of burning him out. Scarambone recently received the Steinway Top Teacher Award for “hard work and commitment to teaching and inspiring young people in their study of piano music.”
Scarambone came to the U.S. in 1998, and did not speak English at the time. “The beginning was tough, but luckily I came to study music, and I would communicate with my teachers through the piano and lots of wrong words!” he said. He confessed that it was difficult to assimilate to the culture, particularly adjusting to exclusively American concepts such as free refills, money-back guarantees, and paying sales tax. Eventually, however, he found his place. “You don't have an option to fail, so I kept going.”
After earning his doctorate, Scarambone became passionate about teaching, holding faculty positions at several universities before coming to EKU in 2010. He is honest with his students about what their chosen career path entails. “Being a musician is not easy,” he declared. “Many people still do not know what it takes to be one.” He compared the experience to that of being a professional athlete with one chance, a game, to prove him or herself. “All the years of practice will be judged by one single performance. Does not matter if you are sick, hungry, or not having your best day – you have one shot to deliver it.”
His students are often high achievers, but Scarambone’s expectations of them are surprisingly simple. “I expect them to be honest with me and try their best,” he said. “Sometimes I can see their potential before they can see it for themselves, and it is my job to show them." He always approaches his students with humility and mutual respect: “We are all musicians, but in some cases I happen to have a little more experience and should share it with them.”
The qualities Scarambone sees in his piano pupils encourage him. “I am really proud of all of them,” he said. “The courage that it takes to pick music as a career is remarkable, and the drive that moves them forward is inspiring.” He shared that he is most proud of them when they use their musical talent to help the community, or when they perform well in a recital. He finds it especially gratifying when students know how well they played.
Gabriel Fernandes, one of Scarambone’s former Brazilian students, can attest to his mentor’s wisdom as an instructor. “He was always trying to push me to the limits of my capacity with a challenging repertoire,” he said.
Scarambone’s devotion to his students goes beyond piano lessons. Fernandes recalls many long drives to and from concerts and competitions with the professor. Because of Scarambone’s support, he has earned several piano awards.
He received first place in the Blue Grass Young Artist Division and honorable mention in the Blue Grass Chamber Music Division for a piano duo with Gabriela Anibali, another of Scarambone’s Brazilian recruits, both at the Music Teachers National Association in 2013.
Scarambone is at least partially responsible for bringing several Brazilian students to EKU. “Recruitment is a big part of our job as music teachers,” he said. “When students pick where to go, they will, of course, look into the overall experience at each university, but the decision normally is made based on the teacher. Students need to feel comfortable with the person they will be in close contact with for four years.”
Fernandes is one of those students. He met Scarambone when the professor gave a concert at a music festival in his hometown of Recife, Brazil in 2009. “A little after the music festival was over, (Scarambone) put an announcement on the festival's website about scholarships for studying music abroad,” he said. “I contacted him and asked for the list of documents and exams needed for the process.”
Fernandes then became one of Scarambone’s first recruits to EKU: “Sometime around June 2010 he called me saying that he had accepted a job offer at EKU, and asked whether I wanted to join him. Then I ended up applying for EKU and got there in the Fall of 2010.”
International students like Fernandes are close to Scarambone’s heart. “When international students come to the U.S. and achieve such success, we can see two important things,” he said. “First, the support they received from their families, from the School of Music and how EKU supports our music program so they can be here and develop their art.” He went on to credit the students themselves, noting their “willingness to learn, to develop their full potential and to work hard.” He seems to see in them the same inexhaustible work ethic that brought him to where he is today.
He also sees in them his struggles. Maybe that is what moves him to such compassion and admiration for international students. “I always try to be open and honest about what it takes to move to a different country and offer as much help as possible,” he said. “From picking them up at the airport to helping with groceries; from cooking familiar meals to creating opportunities for them to adapt.”
Fernandes experienced that kindness firsthand. “He was sort of my father during the first few weeks I was there,” he recalled, having since returned to Brazil. “I had no car, of course, but he often gave me rides to the supermarket and places like that. He helped me a lot during the adaptation period.” He also remembered that Scarambone was the one who picked him up at the Lexington airport upon his arrival in Kentucky, and took him to buy a bike to ride around campus.
Scarambone’s personal investment in Fernandes has made a lifelong difference. “These types of experiences end up shaping your character,” he reflected. “It’s not just a career-specific thing, but a learning for life.”
The beloved instructor was happy and humbled to receive the Steinway Award. Steinway CEO Ron Losby said of Scarambone, “Through your commendable and rare efforts, you help students lay the foundation for a lifetime of musical and artistic expression.”
He keeps the award in a special place in his studio as encouragement to continue bettering himself as a professor. True to his humble, student-centered style, Scarambone shifted the credit for his achievement: “I owe it all to the students and their hard work.”
— by Madison Harris, Student Writer, EKU Communications and Brand Management
Inset photo: Gabriel Fernandes