“When I entered Rice, I never dreamed about this kind of opportunity.”
That’s Rice graduate student Clara Saitkoulov, the first Rice graduate student to play the 1687 ‘Kubelik’ Stradivarius violin, on loan to Rice from Peter Naimoli.
The news was first announced in December, and after much planning and paperwork, Saitkoulov has been able to practice and perform on the priceless instrument.
“It was like a dream come true,” she said. “For every violinist, this is the Holy Grail, so this is such an opportunity, and the way this violin made its way to me is such a coincidence.”
Saitkoulov attended the Paris National Superior Conservatory and then studied for a second Bachelor’s in Munich. In Munich, she knew of the conductor who had owned the Kubelik previously. She never dreamed she would be one of its next caretakers.
“I found the loops in the story amazing,” she said.
Born in Paris to two musicians, Saitkoulov began her musical journey at age six. “Not necessarily extremely early,” she said. “But I remember from the first lesson that I knew this was what I wanted to do in my life. Now I see kids at that age and I think, six is still young, how can you be so sure of what you want to do?”
But growing up with so much music around her, her journey makes complete sense. Both her parents are touring musicians and acclaimed teachers.
“I always had the sound of the strings practicing at home from very early in the morning,” she explained. “My ears were already accustomed to it. I did not know you could do something else [for work]. In a musician’s life, the boundaries between personal and professional are almost non-existent. Friends were always coming over, rehearsing and playing - this was normal,” she said.
So a continuation of her studies in music seemed an evidence. When she was finishing up her degree in Munich, she got a call from her sister, in graduate school at MIT.
“Why don’t you come and study in the U.S. next?” she asked. So Saitkoulov flew to the U.S. for a visit. A former classmate took the step of introducing her to Cho-Liang Lin, professor of violin at Rice.
“We both happened to be in New York at the time - another coincidence,” she said. “I played for him and said that I’d like to study with him at Julliard, but he told me, I live in Houston, and there is this wonderful university called Rice University you should visit. It was clear from day one that Rice is where I’m meant to be,” she said.
Saitkoulov said the transition to Rice was easy, despite the vast difference in the cities she’s lived in.
“I have visited many places,” she said, “but the magic with Houston is that you feel so welcome, and there are so many people from all over the world here. People told me - it is twice as far away from home than New York, but I never had the feeling that I was far from home. From the first day I came with my suitcase, I just felt I was home.”
This sense of support and community is what makes Rice unique to Saitkoulov, who said that at the Shepherd School, she got all the opportunities she was looking for.
“It’s a great strength of this university - you get huge opportunities if you want them. At Rice I got all the help and support that I needed and I am extremely grateful for that,” she said.
Saitkoulov’s advice to students exploring their grad school options is to follow their hearts.
“If you have a dream - if you want to study abroad or go to a specific school or if you feel like your heart is called by a place - if you really want it, you can do it. Never think something is out of reach,” she said.