First-year gets taste of Sweet Briar at BLUR

| July 12, 2013

When Briana McCall starts her first semester at Sweet Briar in just over a month, she’ll already be ahead of the curve — thanks to BLUR. As a participant in the College’s Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists, McCall didn’t just get to know the campus, she also made friends with Sweet Briar professors and students.

Briana McCall ’17 during a BLUR voice lesson with Marcia Thom.

“I already have people that I know I can trust and go to with any questions or problems I may run into down the road,” she writes from her small hometown of Moscow, Idaho, which is “not pronounced like ‘Moscow, Russia,’ ” she adds. “The ‘cow’ is more like ‘co.’ ”

The three-week camp ended last Sunday, but there are plenty of great memories to treasure for the 18-year-old.

“My favorite part about BLUR was voice lessons with Marcia Thom,” she says. “I absolutely adore her. I had voice lessons three times a week, and for my final performance I sang a classical Italian piece called ‘Verdi Prati,’ which was a pretty big deal for me because I have very little classical voice training, let alone Italian.”

Thom, who teaches voice and piano at Sweet Briar and directs the choir, was impressed with the young vocalist.

“I have rarely seen a student her age with so much natural talent,” she said. “She was an extremely enthusiastic student and embraced the challenge [of singing a classical piece] with all of her energy. I very much look forward to working with her in the fall.”

McCall originally signed up for BLUR’s newly formed music track, but because several other music students dropped out before the camp started, organizers decided to close the program.

“We could not achieve the kind of critical mass in the classroom that would ensure that students would get exposed to other talented musicians their age,” said BLUR director and assistant professor of creative writing, Dave Griffith. “So, I called Briana and one other student remaining in music and asked them if they would come to the program in their second choice of discipline.”

Briana at her high school graduation with parents, Rick and Erin, and brother Erick.

For McCall, that second choice was creative writing. Lucky for her, Griffith arranged a special schedule to accommodate her passion for singing, as well.

“I was still able to meet with Marcia, which was fantastic,” she says, adding that she also enjoyed being in the writing program.

Overall, Griffith thinks it’s a solution that could — and should — become more commonplace at BLUR.

“Much like Sweet Briar’s B.F.A. in interdisciplinary art program, BLUR students are encouraged, through collaborative art sessions and electives, to explore the ways that the arts inform one another,” he says. “In Briana’s case, getting additional training in poetry helped her to gain a better understanding of the ways poets use rhythm and form to create emotionally and intellectually moving work without musical accompaniment.”

That interdisciplinary, collaborative focus fit McCall perfectly — after all, she has so many interests that when she began high school, her biggest challenge was narrowing down her long list of hobbies and activities.

“I was one of those little girls who did everything,” she remembers. “I did gymnastics, ballet, jazz, ice skating, horses, girl scouts, 4-H, pony club, soccer, band, sewing, swimming, you name it.”

Briana during a tournament on instructor Sarah Stanton’s horse Vinnie.

Growing up in the country, McCall began taking riding lessons when she was 7. At 9, she got her first horse. When her family’s house burned down around the same time, they were forced to relocate to Moscow. McCall attended a Catholic elementary school, then transferred to public schools and spent her last two years of high school taking online classes through the Idaho Distance Education Academy, where she was speaker of her class.

During her freshman year of high school, McCall realized she couldn’t continue to do everything — if she was going to be successful academically, some of her hobbies had to go.

“I started cutting out activities and focusing on what was most important to me: horses and music.”

But by music, McCall doesn’t mean just one thing.

“I am a singer/songwriter. I play guitar, and I also play clarinet and saxophone,” she says. “Next year I hope to work on my piano as well.”

Briana was one of several students who performed during an open-mic coffeehouse between BLUR and UVa’s Young Writers Workshop.

Her family, she adds, has supported her in everything she’s done.

“If I want to try something new, they will make sure that I am able to do so — a gift that I will never be able to repay them for.”

When it came time to choose a college, however, her dad wasn’t crazy about Sweet Briar. He thought it was too far away.

“Mom and I dragged him to go visit, and when he got there, he realized that Sweet Briar was the school for me,” says McCall, who had first heard of the College from her riding instructor Sarah Stanton, a 1989 alumna.

“Many people ask why in the world I would go to a women’s college,” she admits. “It’s not a big deal to me because I know I will be more focused on my studies, and I am a very social person, so I’m not worried about being stuck in the ‘pink bubble,’ as some girls like to say. I love the small town feel of Sweet Briar and the class size. Sweet Briar tailors to your personal education, and I am not a number at Sweet Briar, I am a name.”

In addition to small class sizes and individualized attention, Sweet Briar stood out to McCall because of its riding program and the music department. The prospective Honors Program student also received a scholarship, which sealed the deal for her.

For now, she plans on double-majoring in business and music, and she also wants to pursue a Leadership Certificate, as well as try out for the riding team. But nothing is set in stone.

“I change my mind all the time, so who knows what I will end up doing,” she says. “But it will be along the lines of music, business and creative writing.”

Janika Carey

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Category: A Landscape for Learning, Academics, Admissions, BLUR, Creative Writing, Music