Growing up in Lincoln, NE, Sophia Potter envisioned her adult-self as a veterinarian – assisting ill and injured animals to nurse them back to health. Then, she was sure she would be a ballerina. Once she learned more about career options in school, she became more and more curious about what was out there – marine biologist, neurosurgeon, and so much more!
As a child, music always played a role in Sophia’s life. It wasn’t until she turned 13 that she developed an appreciation for the art. Since both of her parents were major classical music fans, they always jumped at the opportunity to share their passion with Sophia by taking her to live performances all around the country and impressing her with their favorite car-ride game: “Who can identify the composer and composition on the radio first?”
Although she had been playing instruments since age 6, Sophia’s life changed forever at music camp at 14-years-old when she met professional string players who specialized in chamber music. It was in that moment she knew what she would do when she grew up.
Eventually, Sophia joined all three of the all-city youth orchestras available in her area where she learned the ins and outs of playing an instrument and fine-tuned her skills. She recalls her first experience with String Orchestra for KidS (SOKS). However, the most impactful organization was Lincoln Youth Symphony (LYS). One of Sophia’s greatest joys as an adult is serving as the strings coach for LYS and having the chance to witness as a new generation of musicians experience something her childhood-self loved so much.
When it came time to apply for college, Sophia had no doubt in what she wanted.
“I absolutely adored my undergraduate experience at Oberlin College and Conservatory,” she says. “It was the only school I applied to – sorry Mom and Dad – because I knew it was where I was meant to be.”
When it’s meant to be, it’s inevitable. At Oberlin, Sophia was spoiled with unique experiences and made incredible connections with other students and even faculty members. One of the highlights of her college career was the opportunity to perform in Severance Hall in Cleveland, the same place the Cleveland Orchestra performs.
“I had a somewhat unusual experience in my time at Oberlin during my undergraduate degree where I studied with a different teacher every year due to faculty changes,” Sophia says. “It was both frustrating and a unique opportunity for growth. I had to learn how to adapt my techniques, playing style, and learning style quickly. I think that it has made me a more flexible player and teacher.”
During a visit home as an undergrad, Sophia met cellist Gregory Beaver of the former Chiara Quartet. This introduction led to her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where she had the “most significant and powerful” experience studying with Greg.
“More than anyone else, Greg taught me how to teach myself,” Sophia reflects. “This is the most valuable skill a student can learn, and I am forever grateful for him for his kindness, patience, and generosity.”
Flash-forward to today and Sophia is now a successful musician and teacher, impacting the lives of young students from across the state. In 2016, Sophia joined the Omaha Area Youth Orchestras as the Director of Chamber Music Ensemble Programming. Now, Sophia holds this position along with Executive Director of the organization.
“I was so excited when Aviva reached out to me about the opportunity with OAYO, as it combines two of the things that have been the most meaningful to me in my life and career: youth music education and chamber music,” says Sophia. “I have enjoyed coaching all of the groups I have worked with, but a particularly special experience for me was coaching a Youth Symphony string quartet last season. Hearing them perform the Nocturne movement of Aleksandr Borodin’s second-string quartet in May got me a little choked up. I am so very proud of all they accomplished.”
Outside of all Sophia does for OAYO, LYS, and her chamber music group, the Rangbrook Ensemble, she still enjoys quality time with her cello. A couple of her favorite pieces to play are Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” sextet and the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ C-minor piano quartet (Op. 60). But not all the pieces Sophia plays are written by composers who are now deceased. A few of her favorites (by living composers) include “Tibetan Dance” from Bright Sheng’s “Seven Tunes Heard in China,” “Julie-O” by Mark Summer, and “In Manus Tuas” by Caroline Shaw. She says they all use “unusual techniques like slapping the cello, making ugly noises, singing, and I love watching how audiences react to them; it’s such fun.”
After years of experience and an intimate relationship with classical music, Sophia has learned a great deal about what it means to be a musician. For starters, quality and consistency are better than quantity, especially with practice. Sophia firmly believes it’s better to get in 15-minutes of “really concentrated good work every single day” as opposed to day-long breaks mixed with sporadic hours of practice.
It’s also crucial to be kind to yourself in your internal monologue, she says.
“As musicians, we have to be really self-critical in order to improve, which often spirals to unproductive negative self-talk. Talk to yourself about your playing the way you would talk to a friend. You can have high standards and demand the best of yourself while still being gentle and forgiving.”