From Sri Lanka to Carnegie Hall

Harsha Abeyaratne BA/BS ’89

Harsha Abeyaratne BA/BS ’89

On a mild day in December 2012, Harsha Abeyaratne stepped off the train in New York and began the final leg of his journey to Carnegie Hall. Along the way, festive city dwellers bustled under the shimmer of holiday lights. Anticipation, he knew, would soon give way to reality: his debut piano performance at one of the nation’s most prestigious music venues.

“I stepped through Carnegie Hall’s historic entryway and thought about all the great artists who had walked there before me,” he says. “I was excited, yet intimidated.” A few hours later, after a stressful dress rehearsal, he donned his tuxedo, strode out in front of the audience, and sat down at the piano to perform. He felt his confidence return as he played a robust 85-minute program of Muczynski, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.

Abeyaratne is an accomplished musician and associate professor of music at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. He teaches piano and music theory, gives private lessons, and judges high-level piano competitions. Performing, he says, adds depth and richness to his repertoire. In addition to performing in the States, he’s been a soloist at notable venues in China, Sri Lanka, and Italy.

Abeyaratne’s musical journey began when he was a child in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “My mother was a gifted musician,” he says. “She began teaching me piano at age 4.” He continued playing until he turned 16, when he “traded music for sports, science, and other high school activities.”

When it came time to apply for college, the lure of a pretty girl from his neighborhood led him to Lewis & Clark. “It didn’t work out with the girl,” he says, “but it was a win academically.”

Abeyaratne credits Greg Caldwell, then international student advisor, for helping him secure a financial aid package and making him feel welcome.

As was the custom in Sri Lanka, Abeyaratne intended to study science, then return to his home country. His plans changed, however, under the tutelage of then music professor Ann Miller. “I was majoring in chemistry, but my father encouraged me to take piano lessons,” he says. “Ann was supportive and appreciated my musicianship. She taught me invaluable techniques for tackling technical issues.”

During his senior year, Abeyaratne was accepted into an honors chemistry program that would likely have guaranteed a full scholarship to graduate school. His passion for music, however, had regained a strong foothold. With Miller’s encouragement, he changed course and pursued a second major in music. He later went on to earn his doctorate in music from Ball State University, where he studied with noted pianist Robert Palmer.

Currently on sabbatical, Abeyaratne is recording a classical CD set for release in February. Still untitled, the album may pay tribute to his mother in its name.

At his cozy home near campus, Abeyaratne’s ongoing love affair with music is reflected in the refurbished 7-foot Steinway grand piano prominently featured in his living room. “I try to play for four hours, five days a week,” he says. “But I touch the piano keys every day.”

—by Pattie Pace