Alumni Spotlight on Hannah Nicholas ’06: Following a Musical Path

Kristina M. Jenkins
In 2014, the New World Symphony Orchestra welcomed a new member to its esteemed ensemble, when talented Shipley alumna Hannah Nicholas ’06 joined the string section with her viola.

“I’ve played piano and violin since I was four years old and just kept playing,” says Nicholas, a lifelong lover of music who began playing in preschool and continued to play alongside her siblings, sometimes begrudgingly, all of her childhood.

“There was something internal that made us keep going with it, but at the same time there were definitely many moments I can remember having tantrums and threatening to quit,” she says.

But Nicholas pursued her music through grade school, and thanks to growing up in the Philadelphia area, Nicholas had the opportunity to tap a wide range of instruction and musical groups at a very early age.

She participated in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, youth programs at Temple and Settlement School of Music, played in The Haverford School’s string orchestra and the Main Line Chamber Orchestra, and studied with violinist Paul Arnold, who has been a member of The Philadelphia Orchestra for more than 30 years.

An Individual Path to Success

Although she studied music mostly outside of her grade schooling, Nicholas credits her experience at Shipley, which she attended from eighth grade on, with much of the foundation that contributed to her successful musical life.

“One of the great things about Shipley was that there were opportunities to be on stage at an early age, and that’s something that I do all of the time in my job now,” she says.

Moreover, Nicholas’ time at Shipley helped her develop a strong sense of individuality and imagination, something she sees across the board in the Shipley community.

“My sister Charlotte '09 is also a full-time musician now, and I think it speaks highly to Shipley that we’re both full-time musicians, and I know others, too. We were always encouraged to follow the path that felt right,” she says.

“When I think back, I really am grateful I got to go to Shipley, It helped me become the individual I am now,” she says.

Choosing Music as a Career

After Shipley, Nicholas went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where she ended up concentrating on Middle Eastern studies and largely departing from her musically focused pastimes.

“I had not considered music as a career in high school at all,” says Nicholas, who fell out of the habit of practicing her viola and took the opportunity at Penn to explore her interest in the cultures and history of the Middle East.

In her first year of college, though, the musician missed her practice, and Nicholas challenged herself to apply to summer music festivals, seasonal retreats where classical musicians play full-time for several weeks.

Nicholas was accepted into the renowned Aspen Music Festival and attended the eight-week intensive program during the summers between her freshman and sophomore years.

“Aspen was really incredible and opened up my musical world, because I had never done anything like that before,” says Nicholas. “All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people who were in conservatory or who were full-time semi-professional, pre-professional, and professional musicians.”

Once she was immersed full-time in the world of classical music, Nicholas came to understand that music actually could be the career for her. “I think that was the door for me,” she says, “it made me realize I could consider doing this full time and see what happens.”

Learning from a Master

After her pivotal summers in Aspen, Nicholas completed her Bachelor of Arts in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Penn and went on to pursue her music career with an artist certificate at San Francisco Conservatory, before applying to Masters in Music programs at such schools as The Julliard School, Yale University, and New England Conservatory of Music (NEC).

“For my Masters I was really selective about where I applied. I only wanted to go to the best possible programs for me, which at that point meant picking a really high level school and a school with an incredible viola teacher,” says Nicholas.

The talented Nicholas was accepted to all three of her selected schools, but only one school, NEC, employed one of the most famous viola soloists in the world, Kim Kashkashian. The chance to study with Kashkashian made Nicholas’ choice of graduate programs straightforward. “There was no question,” she says. “To turn down that opportunity was not a possibility.”

The two-year Masters program at NEC was enlightening for Nicholas and opened her up to playing in large groups and with a conductor, a world of music she had not known before, having largely worked solo, in small groups, or in a chamber setting.

At NEC, Nicholas played in two orchestras: the Philharmonia, under conductor Hugh Wolf, and the school’s conductorless orchestra, which only included a little more than a dozen musicians. “That was a life-changing experience for me,” Nicholas says of the conductorless group. “We worked without a conductor, we just had an artistic director, and that was incredible.”

A Future in Music

Even with her rich experiences at NEC, Nicholas was uncertain about her musical future. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she says, when she thought about her post-graduate school steps. “I actually didn’t think I wanted to be in an orchestra at all.”

But when the opportunity arose to audition for the New World Symphony in Miami under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, Nicholas took the chance.

“There was just something very appealing about it, and it felt like the right thing to do at the time,” she says.

After a successful audition, Nicholas joined New World in September 2014 and has settled in to her life in Miami as a full-time professional with one of the country’s top ensembles.

“I was worried when I came to New World that everyone would be really focused on orchestral styles—which is great and I have learned a ton from my peers here—but the most amazing thing about this orchestra is that there are people in it who bring very different musical styles to the table,” says Nicholas.

Forging a Personal Style

In addition to her place in New World, Nicholas keeps pushing herself to grow as an artist by learning new music, musical styles, fostering her love of Middle Eastern music, and even getting into pop music.

“Something I value a lot is keeping your ears open and always exploring,” she says. “If you’re willing to spend the time and delve into different styles, it’s extremely valuable in your own playing.”

Recently, Nicholas completed a residency in Persian and Eastern Music Traditions at The Banff Centre with an eclectic group of high-level musicians from all backgrounds. The residency brought together masters from India, Lebanon and Iran and interesting contemporary musicians, and Nicholas felt lucky to be there. “It may be one of the most life-changing musical experiences I’ll ever have,” she says.

Over on the other end of the musical spectrum, Nicholas is also a founding member and the lead female vocalist of the up-and-coming crossover band The alt Default, a trio of classically trained musicians performing original pop-influenced tunes.

“I’m lucky to have met a bunch of different people who have been great mentors for me in these different styles of music,” says Nicholas.

Moving forward, Nicholas plans to keep on tapping her seemingly endless desire to continue learning and exploring. For her, this stage in her career is only the beginning.

“What keeps me inspired and, ultimately, what I hope will help me launch an interesting and diverse career, is that there is so much more that I want to learn and to be able to do with my instrument, my voice, and as a musician,” she says.

The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.