Hitting the right notes

Jacob Goodman

Last spring break, Sara Shakliyan sat to the left of choir teacher Roger Guerrero translating questions from Bulgarian into English.
The interview, which was being filmed for the Bulgarian National television, was edited, and intercut with footage of the Chamber Singers performing at the Bulgaria Concert Hall.

The trip took the Chamber Singers through Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria and presented a rare opportunity for the upper school accompanist to visit her native country and her family while being part of The Music of America in the Frames of European Music Festival.

“It’s not a usual destination for people,” Shakliyan said. “But it has a great heritage of choral music. We knew there was a great audience to appreciate it. The performance was pretty phenomenal.”

Shakliyan was born in Plodiv, Bulgaria to a family of musicians, her father a violinist, and her mother a pianist.

She started playing piano at age 5, and by age 10, she was performing with orchestras.

“I was focused on music, and I knew I wanted to do that,” Shakliyan said. “Looking back I think I maybe could have done something else, but it’s such a sacrifice that you have to start at an early age and follow through. I know the other art forms are also hard but drawing or acting, you could start it a little bit later, I suppose, but with music you have to start when you’re a child.”

She later attended the Bulgaria State Conservatory in Sofia, where she received a bachelors degree in choral music and piano performance.

After school in Bulgaria, Shakliyan decided to pursue further education in America partially due to the difficulties of being a professional musician in her home country.

“Music education is very strong in Bulgaria, so we come very well prepared,” Shakliyan said. “It’s the realization afterwards that’s hard because Bulgaria was a communist country until 1987. So my generation graduated at the time of the transition. It’s really difficult. If I had stayed now, even in the country’s capital, I would only make, maybe $300 to $400 a month.”

She came to California in 1998 to obtain her masters degree in choral music at USC.

She continued into a doctorate program and received her Ph.D. in choral music in 2004.

While in Los Angeles, Shakliyan met her husband Jairo Mendez, who is an active duty soldier in the United States Army.

She toured around the country with him for the next few years, staying wherever his military assignments took him, in California, Virginia and Hawaii.In Hawaii, she worked with the Hawaii Theatre for Youth as a musical director. She was in the education department of the Hawaii Opera.

In 2005, Shakliyan’s composition entitled “Sednalo e Djore dos” was published by the Santa Barbara Music Publishing company.

The song was premiered by the Harvard-Westlake Chamber Singers at the American Choral Directors Association National Convention.

Shakliyan’s first daughter, Alba, was born in 2006. When Alba was 10 months old, Shakliyan’s husband was deployed to Iraq. Shakliyan decided to return to Bulgaria so she wouldn’t be alone.

“You know you’re in the game, and so you have to play it. I have the kids so it’s not so emotionally difficult, but he doesn’t have anybody,” she said.

She returned to Los Angeles in 2009 and joined Harvard-Westlake as an accompanist for Guerrero, who she had worked with during her time at USC. Her husband had received an assignment to Los Angeles and came with her. Shakliyan has also been an accompanist for the Southern California Honor Choir for the last five years. She is also a counselor at Idyllwild summer arts camp.

“It’s imperative that the younger generation is involved in arts,” Shakliyan said. “And here we have such talented kids. On an everyday basis you can see transformations because music is able to bring out so much of each individual. I don’t know what the right expression is, but it’s really transcendent. And you can see young people during a performance and they’re transcendent.”

In 2012, Shakliyan’s husband was sent to Korea. Their second daughter, Nairi, was born in 2010, and Shakliyan decided to stay in Los Angeles with her two young daughters.

“It’s really hard,” Shakliyan said. “It’s good because we have a mutual understanding of the kind of job he does and the kind of job I do. He knows that I love working at Harvard-Westlake. We said ‘okay, we’re going to go through this. And now he’s doing his last year in Korea and then he’s done because things have to settle. One of us has to follow the other. The girls miss their dad.”