At 14, Nora Pertz began pestering her mother to let her study abroad.
Her high school piano teacher found a program in Vienna in which Pertz studied piano the summer before starting college, and the Ashtabula, Ohio, native has never looked back. She has studied abroad twice more while at Vanderbilt (Maymester in Italy and a semester in Vanderbilt’s study abroad program in Vienna) and completed an internship at the prestigious Vienna Opera House, the first American to do so. After graduating in May as Founder’s Medalist, the top undergraduate honor given in each of the university’s schools, Pertz is returning to Vienna in September as a master’s degree student in lied and oratorio at the Vienna Conservatory of Music to prepare for a career as a collaborative pianist and vocal coach.
“I don’t know if it was Vienna or if it was my first time abroad, but I fell in love with it,” she says. “I literally wrote in my journal ‘you need to do whatever it takes to come back and live here one day.’ ”
The study abroad program in Vienna was one of the reasons Pertz chose Vanderbilt. Originally a musical arts major pursuing a premed track, she decided becoming a doctor was not in her future.
“Professor [James] Lovensheimer [associate professor of musicology] and I had a talk, and he said do what you love and you won’t regret it,” she says. “And my parents have been completely supportive since day one.” After a year in premed, she auditioned to get into the more intensive piano performance major at Blair and added European studies as a second major.
She immersed herself in German at Middlebury College’s summer language intensive to gain fluency, then found herself in an advanced German class at Vanderbilt, sitting next to a student who asked conversationally what her plans were for the coming semester. She mentioned she would be studying in Vienna and hoped to intern with an arts organization. The student said, ‘You know my mom’s an opera singer in Berlin, right? Send me your CV, and I’ll forward it to her.’
“I say to people that I’m very lucky, and they say, ‘No, Nora, you’ve worked really hard for this,’” she says. “My piano teachers [Associate Professor Amy Dorfman and Associate Dean Melissa Rose] say that to me all the time.
“It’s a combination of luck and preparedness,” Pertz says. “Yes, I was sitting next to this boy who had a mother who was an opera singer in Berlin, and that doesn’t happen every day. On the other hand, I got into that class because I became fluent in German in almost a year, so I worked very hard to get there.”
To get into the Vienna Conservatory’s master’s program, Pertz also worked hard, practicing many hours every day.
“It’s all about how you perceive things,” Pertz says. “I’ve always been lucky enough to study what I love, so it has never felt like work.”
Pertz’s love of piano, opera, European culture and languages all came together around her study abroad. “Vanderbilt really pushed me to think outside the box,” she says, “and to challenge myself to find my passions.”