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Second choices lead to a first-rate finaleBy Carla Browning, University Relations
After high school, John Plucker planned to go on foreign exchange to France before choosing a college. When those plans fell through his second choice was clear: he applied to UAF.
As valedictorian at Haines High School, if he attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks he could use his UA Scholars award, which provides $11,000 to Alaskan students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class and choose to go to one of the University of Alaska campuses.
"My reasons for attending UAF initially weren't all that enlightened," said Plucker. "But my reasons for staying have been based on the quality of the education I was receiving."
Plucker was 11 years old when his family moved to Haines from LaConner, Wash. His mother taught piano and his dad was a high school and college choir teacher before retiring and moving to Haines. Because his parents were both music teachers, it was a given that he'd take piano lessons, but he was also drawn to brass instruments. He tried the trumpet first, but ultimately found his passion in his second choice--the French horn.
He was familiar with the Fairbanks campus when he enrolled because he had been a "camper" in the UAF Summer Fine Arts Camp during middle school. He had just switched from the trumpet to the French horn and learned many of the basics from UAF horn teacher Jane Aspnes.
Aspnes remembers John Plucker as a young boy with potential. She knew he was counting on an exchange abroad and was surprised to see him back on campus. "In many ways our music department is just the right size to nurture someone like John," said Aspnes. "There are excellent performance opportunities here and a student who chooses to take advantage of them can really flourish."
Aspnes says Plucker was the ideal student, with interest, ability and supportive parents. He just needed direction. He found that and more at UAF. He participated in chamber choir and the UAF Brass Quintet, a scholarship group that helps represent the music department by performing at many social functions. He played in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and toured with the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. While touring in Washington D.C., the brass quintet performed "Horn Smoke," a comic horse opera for brass quintet. He was recently selected as the only horn player and one of nine musicians chosen from hundreds of students across the country as a "Yamaha Young Artist" and will be a soloist at the Bands of America music festival in Illinois through the Yamaha Young Performing Artists program.
"He's adventuresome and creative," said Aspnes. "When you apply those qualities to performance the result is exciting."
At UAF Plucker was able to develop and mature as a musician. He credits the approach taken by the faculty for much of his progress. "For instance, lessons weren't spent counting bum notes, but talking about how music should be. The personal part is what makes the music department so strong," Plucker said. "The teachers care so much more about the specific individual's needs rather than whether they only play the right notes in their lessons." Music is one of several UAF programs with specialized accreditation. For a performing musician there are basically two choices: a performance degree or a music education degree, which channels students toward teaching in public schools.
Even though his exchange to France didn't work out, Plucker still wanted to see the world and he did so by arranging for another foreign exchange. The UAF Office of International Programs helped him plan two semesters in New Zealand through the study abroad program. He was a full-time student at Victoria University in Wellington where he had the opportunity to play with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Central Band and the 2004 New Zealand Youth Orchestra.
Plucker decided to buy a used 21-speed mountain bike for what would be the highlight of his time spent there. For three months between semesters he worked his way around the South Island. During this 1,000-mile trek he worked on a commercial fishing boat and at an apple orchard, and stayed with six different families over the summer.
Once back at UAF, he spent much of his time concentrating on music. When he wasn't in a practice room or performing he played broomball. Plucker says even though he's had plenty of good times, earning a music degree from UAF requires dedication. Plucker graduated in UAF's May 15 commencement ceremonies at the age of 21.
Today, he's grateful for his mother's encouragement when it came to his piano lessons, but it wasn't always so.
"I fought her the whole way, of course," said Plucker. "She used to say that if you learn the basics of the piano then you can learn anything. She was right. Once I arrived at UAF, I found out about the piano proficiency test. It's what you take--and what takes you in the end, if you're not prepared."
Margaret Plucker fondly remembers her son John at the piano and says he never had to "practice" for piano lessons. Dad and mom simply spent regular, happy times with their son at the piano--often playing duets.
Plucker will attend graduate school on a scholarship at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo. There, he'll study with the legendary horn teacher and performer Froydis Ree Wekre. Plucker was one of only three horn players selected from applicants all over the world.
Eventually he would like to play for the Canadian Brass and even teach in a university. He credits his parents and the UAF music department for his success so far, but when it comes to his approach to making the most of the choices he's offered, his philosophy toward life is found in one of his favorite sayings: "Wherever you go, there you are."
"I don't know who said it, but what it means is that life really is what you make it."
UAF photos by Todd Paris.
Horn instructor Jane Aspnes points out a specific passage for Plucker to work on during a lesson.
Plucker poses with his horn in the 880-seat Charles Davis Concert Hall.
"Suitable for Dancing"
Plucker conducts an early spring outdoor rehearsal of the UAF Wind Symphony.
Plucker sits down at a table to eat during the annual scholarship breakfast in the Wood Center Carol Brown Ballroom. At the event, scholarship donors and recipients get to meet and share a morning meal.
Michelle Risse, Plucker and Abbie Stillie join Karen Parrish for a photo after the annual scholarship breakfast. The three students received William R. Wood talent grants for the 2004-05 school year. Parrish is the daughter of former University of Alaska President William R. Wood.