From her head to her fingertips

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Caroline Skrebuenas, 14, of Niskayuna in front of her piano in her living room Friday, August 24, 2018.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Caroline Skrebuenas, 14, of Niskayuna in front of her piano in her living room Friday, August 24, 2018.
By Jeff Wilkin
Gazette Reporter

Some people have songs in their hearts.

Caroline Skrebutenas has songs in her head.

The 14-year-old sophomore at Niskayuna High School has been playing piano since age 6 and has been composing her own music for years.

People have noticed. Skrebutenas recently appeared on the PBS series “Celebration of Music,” a talent-search program initiated by well-regarded teen pianist Ethan Bortnick. Skrebutenas, along with other local musicians, appeared on the local version of the show that aired recently on WMHT.

The program’s musical segments, from 27 contestants, all were recorded on video. People can vote for a single favorite, and the winner from the “Celebration” show will perform on stage with Bortnick during his Oct. 28 concert at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. People also will be able to vote the night of the concert, up until intermission.

All contestants are expected to attend the concert. While only one will win the chance to perform, all will join Bortnick on stage during the finale. Two other Niskayuna students — brothers — are also in the competition:

Lerchen Zhong, 9, who is starting fifth-grade at Craig School, has been playing piano for almost four years. He also plays violin.

Yochen Zhong, 12, goes to Van Antwerp Middle School and has been playing the cello for the past two years.

While not all contestants listed hometowns on the “Celebration” biography page, several other musicians have ties to the Capital Region. Other participants live in the New York City, upstate New York and Connecticut areas.

People can vote for their favorite performer online at celebrationofmusic.com/troy.
Anne Skrebutenas, Caroline’s mother, said she knew early on that her daughter had talent.
“When she was a little girl, she said she heard songs in her head,” she said.

Caroline’s early musical education began with ballet. She was part of a local presentation of the Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker,” and found she really loved the music. That led to piano lessons.

Young Skrebutenas shared her first original song with her teacher, Elizabeth MacFarland, and was asked to play the piece at a recital. Skrebutenas’ first public performance took place when she was 10, when she played her original composition “Reaching Higher” at her fifth-grade graduation ceremony.

Songs travel from her head to her fingertips.

“I fiddle around when I’m on the piano,” Skrebutenas said. “Sometimes, I’ll even land on a wrong note and I’ll say, ‘That sounds cool,’ and I’ll build off of that. So a lot of times, it’s just by accident because I’m just kind of having fun.”

‘Using that gift very well’

MacFarland said Caroline has always been able to come up with musical ideas.
“She’s just very, very exquisitely musically sensitive,” said MacFarland, who lives in Cornwallville in the Catskills and teaches at a Schenectady studio and at Union College. “She feels things very deeply, and she’s able to communicate her ideas.”

Skrebutenas is also improving.

“To be honest, she’s never been all that keen on learning how to read music. She’s very ear-oriented, and that’s a gift, and she’s using that gift very well,” MacFarland said. “Now, it’s starting to come together for her, so she’s actually beginning to really read well, too. I just see her growing into this complete musician, which is really nice.”

Skrebutenas also listens to people famous for their compositions and their careers. Composers Philip Glass and George Winston are favorites. She likes Adele, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, Carole King and Norah Jones.

Anne Skrebutenas said her daughter — in addition to composing and playing — is a quick study when she hears something she likes.

“Caroline can hear a song on the radio and just bang it out,” she said. “She has that kind of natural ear; she’s been doing that since she was 8 or 9 years old.”

Caroline, who also sings in the Ladies First treble choir at school and has played violin and guitar, said friends are sometimes surprised to hear about her piano accomplishments. A lyrical composition, “Awakening,” so impressed the Ladies First choirmaster that student and teacher are working to arrange the piece for the choir’s spring concert in 2019.

Skrebutenas expects there will be more compositions.

“Something I’m really interested in doing is writing for musical theater,” Skrebutenas said. “I’ve definitely been experimenting with writing lyrics and more of a story line behind music. So a goal would be to try to write a musical one day.”

At 14, there is room for other interests. Skrebutenas is also a competitive swimmer and enjoys art, acting, cooking, the outdoors and just hanging out with friends.