French International Alumna, Alexis Colner, Joins Virginia Symphony Orchestra
This fall, French International alumna, Alexis Colner, joined the Virginia Symphony Orchestra as their harpist. Alexis went to middle school at French International and graduated in 2006. She was in the International Track and took French as a beginning language.
Alexis started playing the harp at age five when she lived in the Netherlands. Her family moved to Oregon and she continued playing through elementary, middle, high school and beyond.
Now working as a professional musician, Alexis reflects on her journey and her time at French International.
High School: Cleveland High School
Undergrad (Bachelor’s in Anthropology): University of Southern California
Graduate (Master's in Music and Harp Performance): The Juilliard School
How is your French now?
I took it all through high school. I placed out of high school French pretty fast. I ended up taking French classes at Reed [College]. I did do a French minor in college too, but it was very time-intensive, so I ended up not finishing it. Although a lot of my music is written by French composers, I know what all of those words mean. That’s the only chance I have to use it.
What was your educational journey after you left French International?
I went to Cleveland High School, my parents wanted me to the IB program. I ended up going to USC for my undergrad. Part of the reason why I picked it was because it’s one of the few universities in the country that has a music school within the university, not just a department. I went in as a harp major and cultural anthropology was my other major. Within two months, I dropped the music degree. I hated my music classes and I was terrible at them. I went from being a straight-A student who was valedictorian to actually failing most of my music classes which I had no idea how to deal with. At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do music anyway and this was proving it wasn’t for me.
I was lucky, the woman who teaches harp at USC was really great at allowing me to still take lessons with her and play in the orchestra and do more ensemble stuff even though I wasn’t officially a major anymore. Normally, you would have to learn from a grad student if you were doing a music minor, so I got all of the performing aspects of a music degree without the academics which worked out really great.
I graduated with an anthropology degree. By the time I got to my senior year, I wasn’t playing much because of all the other academics and I was missing it a lot. I kind of had an existential crisis at 22 years old where I thought ‘Can I even call myself a musician anymore if I can’t just sit down and play my instrument?’ That really freaked me out. I was also feeling like anthropology as a discipline wasn’t the direction I wanted to go.
I took two years in between my bachelor's and master's and I stayed at USC and did what’s called a “graduate certificate” through the music school. It was pretty much all performance stuff. And I was teaching the non-major harp students. I did that for two years. At the end of my second year, I took auditions to do my master's at a music school and ended up at Juilliard in New York for the next two years.
It took me a while to get to the place where I was really interested in pursuing music more seriously. I feel like the fact that I got there on my own as opposed to getting pressure from parents or teachers or anyone else made it stick better. I haven’t questioned whether or not it’s what I want to do which is kind of a luxury in our business.
Where did your career take you?
Before I graduated, I decided I wanted to stay in the city post-graduation and see if I could make a go as a freelance musician playing with small regional orchestras in the area, playing with churches, playing with choirs, that kind of thing. My teacher that I studied with at Juilliard is the harpist for the New York Philharmonic. I was going over there and sitting in on their rehearsals, sort of understudying for her in case she got sick which never happened. It was great to be there and reaffirmed it was what I wanted to be doing with my time.
I was starting to get calls for more full-time professional orchestras to play. Pretty much as soon as that started to get rolling, it was COVID. I packed a suitcase, put my harp in my car, and drove to Portland. I didn’t touch my harp for six months. I didn’t even know if there was going to be a music industry when all of this was over. It was a weird time.
In the fall of 2021, some gigs started to come back. Nothing in Portland. So I just started getting in my car and driving to perform. I drove to New York to do a gig, I drove to Santa Fe to do a gig. Each one I thought could be my last chance to play, so I would always say yes. Once things started opening up in Portland, I started to get more work locally and didn’t have to travel as far.
In January 2022, I started taking auditions again. I tried to do what I was doing in New York in Portland, but it was pretty apparent right away that there’s not enough work in the Pacific Northwest at least not enough classical work to sustain a playing career. I was pretty sure I was going to need to leave, so I was taking all of the auditions that came up.
My partner is a percussionist and he got a job in Dayton, Ohio with their orchestra, so in 2022, we moved to Dayton. I freelanced from there through the holidays.
The Virginia [Symphony Orchestra] audition happened in the beginning of February 2023. I drove out here from Dayton and took the audition. The same day I drove here and took the audition, I won the job. We moved out here in August, so we’ve been here for about a month and a half.
What is your day like as a professional harpist?
My favorite part of this field and one of the things that makes it such a good fit for me is that there really are no two days that look alike. It’s usually some combination of rehearsal, teaching, practice, a concert, or something like that. This orchestra in particular has a new schedule every week depending on what kind of project we’re working on. This week, for example, is opera. All of the rehearsals are in the evenings because that’s when the singers are available. There might be a chamber rehearsal which is a separate project. Yesterday, I went and taught at the magnet high school, and the rest of the day I practiced. Friday there will be a concert and Sunday afternoon we have a concert, so it’s always something different. Practicing is the only constant. I’m always practicing. This weekend, I have another audition for an orchestra in Baltimore, so I’ll do that in my free time between concerts this weekend. It’s kind of chaotic but also fun.
It’s always worth it in the end. The concerts and the feeling that I get when I perform almost always make the stress leading up to it worth it which is why I keep coming back.
What is your favorite memory or something that stands out from your time in Middle School?
For me, it was the teachers. My teachers that I had left the longest-lasting impression. I had so many really amazing individuals as teachers. I can remember them all so much more vividly than pretty much all my high school teachers or college professors. I think the relationships you get to build with them as a student there are really special. I didn’t have that anywhere else. It’s really special. Every class was interesting and different. It was pretty cool. All those teachers treated us like real people with things we care about and opinions. It made a difference.
What are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of my perseverance and getting to this point in my playing career. There were a lot of moments when it would have been easy to do something else and decide that music wasn’t in the cards for me, especially with the pandemic and all the crazy things that happened. I think that having the courage to stick with my conviction and do what I wanted to do is probably what I’m most proud of.
Anything else you want to share?
I just really feel like being at [French International] for those three years probably had even more of an impact than I even realized in terms of giving me the confidence to pursue what I wanted to do. Even though [harp] wasn’t part of my education there, it was such a nurturing and fostering environment that I’m sure it had a big part in who I am. Middle school was where I started realizing it’s cool to be an individual and do unique things. You meet so many interesting and unique people there - students, staff - it’s a really good example. Doing your own thing is a good thing and something you should strive there.