This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Drew Petersen sits comfortably at a piano, looks briefly at its 88 keys, shuts his eyes, positions his fingers, and plays from memory a complex piece by Frédéric Chopin.
Petersen welcomes challenging adventures, musical and otherwise. He enrolled in Harvard’s Extension School at 14, while maintaining a demanding concert schedule.
“I wanted to find a program with academic rigor and with a lot of flexibility to allow me to work around some of my performances and competitions,” said Petersen, a classically trained, professional pianist who will graduate this month from the School and from a two-year diploma program at Juilliard.
The running joke in his family is that he has never graduated from anything, having jumped among public, private, and performing arts high schools in his search for the right academic challenge, and a schedule that could fit in with his piano playing. Harvard provided the perfect solution.
“I liked the Harvard program so much I just kept going with it, and here I am,” said Petersen, adding that the experience has “drastically improved my quality of life in addition to improving my academic work.”
He completed almost all of his coursework remotely through the Harvard Extension School’s bachelor of liberal arts program. In between studying, competing, and performing, whenever he could he traveled to Cambridge to meet with professors and classmates on his way to his bachelor’s degree with a concentration in social science.
Those visits to campus proved invaluable.
“I feel like meeting the people here really was the best part. … Over the years I think I’ve learned to value the kinds of people who are really, really interested and interesting much more than I would have if I didn’t go to a place like Harvard.”
Petersen also took advantage of Harvard Summer School’s eclectic offerings, heading to Greece for an intensive, five-week comparative cultures seminar. He even lived in the Yard one summer on the first floor of the Matthews freshman dorm while taking classes. The only drawback to campus living: tourists.
“Waking up and having some people peering into your room at times was very funny.”
Petersen can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by music. He loved everything from ringing church bells to the notes he pounded out on his family’s old upright piano as a toddler. “Any music at all made me very interested, very excited, and I just had to know more about it.”
Lessons started at age 5. Less than a year later, he was at Carnegie Hall as part of a young artists program, and at ease in the spotlight. Stage fright wasn’t a problem. “I loved it,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Since then his life has been a rush of concerts and competitions and days spent practicing for upwards of six hours. After graduation, he will fly to California for another competition and prepare for concerts in Florida, North Carolina, and New York.
His goal when playing is to “communicate something that is inexpressible in any other way. That’s a really beautiful thing.” Unsurprisingly, if he wasn’t a musician, Petersen said he would work in another artistic field, or perhaps do something related to psychology. “Anything that allows me to muse on beauty and art, or human capacity to appreciate beauty and art, would probably suit me.”
But for now, the life of a concert pianist beckons.
“That is absolutely what I would like to do, what I’ve been aiming at for a very long time now. It’s very unpredictable, but it’s an adventure,” he said, “and I always like a good adventure.”
To see a list of 2012-13 Harvard Extension School prize and award recipients, visit the Extension School website.