Sisters tell music students about music biz

Violinist Madalyn Parnas, left, and her sister Cicely, who plays the cello, gave students a starkly honest perspective on the lives of professional musicians during a Q&A session at Niskayuna High School on Friday.Photo by Rebecca IsenhartViolinist Madalyn Parnas, left, and her sister Cicely, who plays the cello, gave students a starkly honest perspective on the lives of professional musicians during a Q&A session at Niskayuna High School on Friday.<br />Photo by Rebecca Isenhart
Violinist Madalyn Parnas, left, and her sister Cicely, who plays the cello, gave students a starkly honest perspective on the lives of professional musicians during a Q&A session at Niskayuna High School on Friday.Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Violinist Madalyn Parnas, left, and her sister Cicely, who plays the cello, gave students a starkly honest perspective on the lives of professional musicians during a Q&A session at Niskayuna High School on Friday.
Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Students in Niskayuna’s music program are often immersed in music, making their instruments into integral parts of their identities, their daily schedules, and even their social circles. But when it comes to making a career out of their musical hobbies — which regularly take up more time than the average part-time job — they often have mixed feelings.

Their music teachers know this, and they also know the best answers will come from young people who have already made the choice to venture into professional music. That’s why the district invited Cecily and Madalyn Parnas, sisters who perform solo and as a classical duo, to field inquiries during a recent band practice at the high school.

The sisters, who are both in their early 20s, grew up in Stephentown, Rensselaer County, where they were home-schooled so they could spend a maximum amount of time studying music. Now, they travel around the United States and Europe for solo and duo performances. They returned recently for a show at Proctors, and paused their practicing to address a group of students not much younger than they are.

The cover of the Parnas sisters' latest album, entitled "Now."Photo provided.

The cover of the Parnas sisters’ latest album, entitled “Now.”
Photo provided

On Friday afternoon, Jan. 9, they sat in front of a room packed full of band instruments and inquisitive high school students. The glamorous outfits and perfectly coiffed hair of their album covers and classical performances were gone, replaced by soft hooded sweatshirts that matched plenty of students’.

As questions began to flow, the sisters held nothing back.

“I still, almost every day, think about quitting,” Cecily admitted. “Being self-critical, feeling like a failure, is an everyday thing for me.”

Madalyn echoed her sister’s blunt confession that going into music as a profession is tough, all-consuming, and frequently unglamorous.

“Being a musician is not a profession,” Madalyn said. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s really an all or nothing kind of thing.”

Mackenzie Litz, a senior at Niskayuna High School who plays the upright bass, was one of the musicians who absorbed the sisters’ honest responses during band practice that afternoon. She said the visitors’ viewpoints didn’t always resonate for her.

“They talked about how much they hated practicing,” she recalled. “I kind of like practicing.”

Litz said she plans to study music for pleasure, but isn’t considering making a career of it.

Still, she said, meeting the sisters encouraged her to engage in personal reflection about her own playing.

“They talked about where they draw their inspiration from,” she said. “That was something I thought about a lot — who inspires me to make music.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Cicely said her favorite band is Radiohead, because it reminds her to constantly reinvent herself.

Though their presentation revealed the difficulties that come with professional music, the sisters’ ultimate message was that, for them, the work is worth it.

“What I keep coming back to, as my truth, is that the music is phenomenal,” Madalyn said. “It confirms for me that this is what I’m meant to do.”

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.