Cuban musician builds ties with Brandeis by playing her violin

Photo/Caroline Cataldo

Paula Ochoa

Paula Maria Serrano Ochoa never thought she’d get to leave her home country – Cuba – much less set foot in the United States.

But with the help of Brandeis Professor of the Practice of Music Daniel Stepner, Ochoa did just that, bringing her violin with her for the trip of a lifetime.

“It’s very different here, in so many aspects,” said Ochoa, who met Stepner in January while he was visiting her hometown of Santiago de Cuba along with 20 other American artists and musicians.

“Everyone has a cell phone and there are cars – so many new cars – in Cuba all of the cars are old.”

Stepner attended a concert at Ochoa’s conservatory, Estavan Salas, and was immediately struck by the way she played her violin. Almost instantly, he wanted to extend an offer for Ochoa to visit Brandeis and attend his one-week Bach Unaccompanied Violin workshop from June 19 to 24 at the Slosberg Music Center.

“It wasn’t supposed to be a recruiting trip,” Stepner said. “But then I heard Paula, and the way she played was so dramatic. She has natural music talent and she enjoys performing.”

Ochoa, who is 18 years old, began playing the violin when she was five. She performs everything from Spanish flamenco music, to salsa, to classics like Bach as well as a Latin style called Betances.

To Stepner’s delight, Ochoa liked the prospect of coming to Brandeis, so he began to explore the daunting process of making her trip possible. The U.S. embargo with Cuba is more relaxed now than in it has been in recent years, but the logistics of arranging a trip between the two countries can still be a nightmare.

Stepner used a Brandeis scholarship as well as leftover funds from his January trip to Cuba – which was paid for, in part, through a GoFundMe page, to book Ochoa’s ticket to the U.S.

Ochoa was interviewed at the U.S. consulate in Havana to obtain her travel visa, then reserved her seat on a flight to New York with just two weeks to spare.

Both Stepner and the students at the summer string workshop were grateful to have Ochoa in their company.

She shared her experiences of living in Cuba and took in a slice of American college life.

“Paula has a delightful personality and is a joy to be around and I think everyone enjoyed having her here for this workshop,” Stepner said. “So, there was that interaction across borders. I’m also happy she’s had a chance to see one of the nicer parts of American society, the college campus.”

Ochoa is looking forward to taking what she’s been exposed to in the U.S. to further develop her career as a musician. She envisions becoming a soloist in the future, or maybe even joining Havana’s advanced music conservatory.

“In Cuba, hobbies don’t exist, so this is not a hobby,” she said, holding up her violin. “This is work, this is a career, this is the future, this is all.

“It’s my life, in all senses.”

Categories: Arts, General, International Affairs, Student Life

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