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Katherine Rick, an adjunct piano instructor and staff accompanist. Courtesy | Katherine Rick

A few months before Katherine Rick’s 15th birthday, she received a full scholarship to college.

Her family was visiting Azusa Pacific University for her brother, who is three years older, when she and her mother wandered into the music building and met some faculty members. Rick performed a short concert on the piano.

“I remember asking if she would play an audition for these people,” said her mother, Robin Harris. “She said that she hadn’t practiced in three days because we had just traveled from Russia, but she guessed she could.”

After the concert, the stunned faculty members said she could come for free if she could begin that year. So at the age of 15, Rick became one of the youngest college freshmen in the nation.

Her performance didn’t come from nowhere. Rick, who has served as an adjunct piano instructor and staff accompanist at Hillsdale College since August of 2016, had practiced hard at the piano for years during her childhood in Siberia with missionary parents.

After living in different parts of the U.S. and Canada until Rick was 5 years old, the Harris family moved to Vladivostok, a city in Siberia, for a year. They then moved north to Yakutsk: the coldest inhabited place on earth, where the temperature hovers at 40 below zero and sometimes dips to 60 below zero, for five years.

There, she and her mother began riding horses together. Rick said that because it was Siberia, riding lessons were only a dollar each. She and her mother rode on retired racehorses in minus 30 degree weather.

Harris learned to ride horses during her childhood in Alaska and said she was eager to share it with her daughter.

“I was always nervous for her, my friends thought I was crazy,” Harris said. “They asked, ‘Why are you doing that dangerous thing with your daughter?’ And I said, ‘Because it is so fun! And she loves it!’”

The hobby did not come without its costs. Rick broke her right arm once while riding.

“My piano teacher said, ‘Okay, you can just practice with your left hand for a month,’” she said.

Rick has always practiced piano from within the strict and stern Russian school of thought.

“In America, it is important to affirm the student, you know, the whole participation award thing,” she said. “Whereas in Russia, it is much more about the product you are making and your feelings have very little to do with it.”

Russian piano pedagogy focuses on technique, expression, and reading from the very beginning, Rick said. This is different from they way Americans teach because they tend to deal only with reading from the beginning.

It is also a little harsher.

“A Russian lesson will be the teacher telling you all the things you did wrong,” Rick said. “An American lesson will be all the things you did right, and then a little constructive criticism.”

Harris said that the Russian standards for their students are really high.

“Katherine developed a really strong spine,” she said. “I was the one that was crying at the end of the lesson most of the time. It was really hard on me but I could see that it wasn’t wrecking her.”

She explained that in Russia, pianists are placed on one of three tracks from the start. The top track is the professional track, which she earned from the start. She won third place at her first public performance at the Republic of Yakutia Competition for Young Pianists when she was 8.

“There was this cameraman with a big, loud flashbulb camera crouching around the piano taking all these photos,” she said. “My teacher had specifically prepared me for that by playing the distraction game in lessons where you bang on the piano, you pretend like you are a radio talk show host in someone’s here, or you actually touch the person to distract them. The player’s job is to play without losing focus. And it actually helped a lot when the time came.”

The family’s time in Russia concluded with four years in St. Petersburg, where Rick studied under Natalya Reznik, who put Rick in piano competitions all over Eastern Europe and North America in high school and early college. There, Rick purchased her first piano, an upright czech piano made by Petrof.

“I bought it with my practice money,” she said. “The deal was that the first hour didn’t count. For every half hour after that, I got 50 cents. If I practiced four hours a day, that was 3 bucks.”

After completing undergrad at Azusa Pacific University, Rick received her master’s degree and doctorate from The Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Afterward, she married Hillsdale College Chaplain Rev. Adam Rick, and and the two moved to Hillsdale in August of 2016.

Senior Chandler Ryd, a new student of Rick’s who has little musical experience, said he is excited to learn from such an accomplished pianist. “She is very nice but you can tell that she is really good,” he said. “She goes quickly and I need to be on my toes and ask a lot of questions.”

Rick teaches with a slightly modified version of the Russian model at the college.

“With my students, from the very first note we are talking about how to lift your fingers, how to curve them on the way down, how to use your weight, how to use your wrists, how to translate that weight into the piano,” she said. “From the first two notes of the first piece we play, just a lullaby, we are already talking about how to phrase it with musicality.”

Another reason Rick was happy to move to Hillsdale she said was that there is are opportunities to ride horses again.

“When we moved back to the states it was too expensive,” she said. “When we moved to Hillsdale, one of my hopes was to meet some people who had horses. I went looking for horse-people. I drove to the Hillsdale Auction on a Saturday and met a man wearing a cowboy hat who looked authentic and struck up a conversation with him.”

That man was Guy Russell. He said that he and his wife Deb needed someone to exercise five of their horses. Rick jumped at the opportunity. She said that she has been riding two or three times a week for the last eight months.

“Horses were always something that had nothing to do with music but that i did on a weekly basis,” she said. “It was a non-competitive thing I could do pretty well. It was always a mother-daughter thing.”

It had been 15 years since Rick and her mother had ridden together.

“We rode together as adults for the first time last Saturday,” Harris said. Though Harris hadn’t ridden in 15 years, she said that it was easy to ride the horses. “Katherine taught them how to behave.”

Rick sees her two passions as closely related.

“Teaching a horse is like teaching a four year old how to play the piano. You have to break it down into small bites they can digest easily.”