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Vol.26, No. 06 Oct. 16, 2000

Emily and Julia Bruskin, CC’02, Set Sights on Musical Future

By Jason Hollander

Like many college students, twin sisters Julia and Emily Bruskin play in a band and aspire to be professional musicians when they graduate. The Columbia College juniors are not, however, looking to land on the pop charts. They hope to put on concerts at Carnegie Hall rather than Madison Square Garden, and they are far more likely to be seen someday on PBS than MTV.

The Bruskins make up two-thirds of the Claremont Trio, a classical music group consisting of Julia on cello, Emily on violin and Juilliard student Donna Kwong on piano. The Trio has already played several venues, including Alice Tully Hall and Steinway Hall, and hopes to tour professionally upon graduation.

"We’re going to make a go of it," says Julia.

The students are focused on what they want to accomplish through their music. Emily explains the group’s artistic goal is to "draw people in and help them enjoy and experience the heart of what people are trying to do: communicate." The Trio states that during performances they are concerned with "creating expectations, building and releasing tension, balancing unity and diversity and evoking sensations that are not simply aural, but integrative, evocative and moving."

Pretty ambitious stuff for two juniors who are still besieged with midterms and research papers and long nights spent reading in Butler Library. Surprisingly, the Bruskin sisters are not music majors. Julia studies Eastern European history and Emily is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and behavior. Though enrolled in the Barnard-Columbia Juilliard Exchange, which allows the sisters to take classes at Juilliard, neither wanted to attend a music school full-time.

"I wanted to have a college experience," says Emily. "I have friends at conservatories who feel like they’ve missed out."

Julia agrees. "It’s a very insular world. You meet more diverse people at a place like this."

Both have been able to use knowledge obtained through their courses at the College as a way to better understand music. Julia’s pursuit of history has led her to a greater awareness of cultural influences on composers. "It’s interesting to see what was going on in the world when certain pieces of music were written," says Julia. Emily has benefited from a scientific approach. "I’ve learned about the way you hear in relation to different areas of your brain," she says.

The rewards the musicianss receive from playing far outweigh any challenges that arise from their hectic schedule. The need for musical expression is what propels them to practice after a tiring day of classes and study sessions, often for more than four hours at a time. It provides them the energy and adrenaline to pick up a bow at three in the morning for one last shot at a difficult passage.

"Music can be beautiful, fun, creative, expressive, personal and very, very human," says Emily. "Music has been at the heart of many of the best experiences of my life. The feelings I have known while listening and playing and those I have been able to evoke from others…these have been the high points."

Julia especially thrives in front of an audience. "The best playing I do is during a performance. There’s something about the energy," she says. "We hope people leave our concerts feeling like they’ve been on the same emotional journey we go on when we play."

The sisters know well that the path for classical musicians is not an easy one. "It’s a very difficult lifestyle,” Julia says. ‘Like any sort of artist, you’re always looking for work." The classical scene, she notes, is as competitive as ever. "The market for the traditional concert is dwindling. Musicians are looking for more and more innovative ways to present themselves."

Booking gigs, Emily adds, has a lot to do with "luck, timing and your publicity photo."

Publicity photo? Surely the classical world is immune to such methods of selecting artists. Not so, says Emily. "A lot of promoters will just see your press kit with photo and resume. If they like the photo, it may help get them to listen to your CD."

But the Bruskins do not want to use their age or the novelty of being twins as a gimmick to attract attention. "We want to be taken seriously as mature artists," says Emily. "We want emotional response, but not shock value."

The group’s unique repertoire of music separates them from others. The Trio includes lesser known pieces from two composers—American Ellen Zwilich and Swiss-born Ernest Bloch—among the music they play and are always searching for new and interesting music from emerging or obscure artists.

Natives of Cambridge, Mass., the sisters have already performed in nine countries throughout Europe and the Americas as part of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra which they joined while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. As the children of amateur musicians, Emily and Julia spent much of their infancy listening to classical music through speakers their father set up near their cradles. At age four, the girls began their music education with the Suzuki method, which centers on hearing classical pieces of music as whole, rather than parts, and developing a strong sense of pitch.

The sisters quickly fell in love with their respective instruments, wondering now 16 years later, if their personalities helped choose the instruments they play, or rather if the instruments have come to shape their personalities. Both say their differences in personality are subtle, but best exposed through associations made with their instruments.

Speaking of her sister’s choice, Julia smiles and says, "Violinists are more high strung and they tend to take themselves pretty seriously." Emily says of Julia, "Cellists play baselines. They’re more grounded, more laid back."

After sharing a room for 18 years and now attending the same college, the Bruskins genuinely relish their experiences as twins.

"For us, its been incredibly positive," says Emily. "We’ve never been bothered by people confusing us. We’ve never felt passed over."

Competition is also nearly absent from their relationship. "If I win at something," says Julia, "I almost feel worse that she didn’t win."

Emily nods in agreement. "We’re on the same team."

The Claremont Trio will be performing at Juilliard’s Paul Hall on Nov. 4 at 8:30 p.m.; St. Paul’s Chapel on Nov. 21 at 6 p.m., and at Casa Italiana on Dec. 13 at 6 p.m.