Playing to her strengths

Art History & Visual Culture Global Commerce Music
May 5, 2023

Ellie Blasko ’23 steps onto the stage in a darkened Sharon Martin Hall, her hot pink dress popping against the blue-lit backdrop, just as she planned.

She walks briskly to the Steinway grand piano — she hurries when she’s nervous — flashes a smile, and throws a quick wave to an audience she can’t see in the stage lights.

It’s the sort of gesture you might make when you want to be friendly but don’t want to call too much attention to yourself.

There is no ducking attention for Blasko tonight. This is her senior recital, the pinnacle of four years studying piano at Denison.

She sits at the piano and, without a word, dives into Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso. Within seconds, the audience members she cannot see are graced with artistry so assured as to be disorienting. Can this really be the same person who just moments earlier gave them that nervous half-wave?

Her disarming, down-to-earth persona returns whenever she pauses her playing.

“Um, thank you guys all for being here tonight,” she says at one point. “I can’t see anyone. I hope there are more people here than just my parents.”

For 50 minutes, she plays from memory: Mendelssohn and Mussorgsky, ragtime and Black spirituals. Her fingers leap, conjuring majesty and melancholy, bombast and beauty.

When she finishes, she waits graciously for the applause to subside and the standing ovation to end.

“So, thank you guys for coming,” she says, beaming. “And my mom brought cupcakes!”

‘Moms always know’

Her mom also brought Denison to her attention.

Blasko was 17 years old then and almost certain she was headed to a music conservatory several hundred miles east of Granville. In what she describes as a surprise move, her mother told her she had arranged for interviews and an audition at a school called Denison.

Blasko grew up in the Youngstown area, and the last thing she wanted was to stay in Ohio for college. But she agreed to give it a shot. She took an immediate liking to the faculty, especially Sun Min Kim, an assistant professor of music and internationally renowned pianist who clearly “got” Blasko’s sense of humor.

“We clicked, like instantly,” she says.

Kim, then in his first year at Denison, liked her too. But he says he didn’t expect to see her again.

“She seemed pretty set on moving east, and it was a pleasant surprise for us that she made up her mind to come here,” he says.

The summer before her first year, Blasko says, “I learned a whole Mendelssohn concerto for funsies, because I really, really wanted to impress Dr. Kim when I got to Denison.”

A week after her senior recital success, Blasko sits at another piano in a practice room in the Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts, reflecting on her four years at Denison.

She graduates May 13, 2023, as a triple major in piano performance, global commerce, and art history/visual culture. After graduation, she heads west to Beverly Hills, where she landed a job as a brand ambassador for Steinway & Sons, that famed maker of pianos, some of which can cost more than twice the price of the average Ohio home.

But if the piano has been part of Blasko’s life since before grade school, it is only one part. That, she says, goes to the heart of why she cherishes her time at Denison and appreciates her mother for nudging her here.

“I feel like moms always know,” she says. “I’m just learning that now.”

She has nothing against the traditional music conservatory route she once planned to take. But she suspects she would have burned out on that path. At Denison, she says, she received conservatory-quality instruction for piano, but so much more.

“Her personality translates to her playing,” Kim says of Blasko. “As a person, she’s fearless and fierce and very passionate.”

She worked as a collections intern at the Denison Museum and as a senior docent and arts coordinator with the Office of Admission. She threw discus for the track team and performed with various musical ensembles. She learned Mandarin Chinese. She joined the college chapter of Habitat of Humanity, the Mortar Board College National Honor Society, and the Delta Delta Delta Fraternity for Women.

Last summer she interned with Christie’s Auctions in Rockefeller Center, a dream internship for someone who describes herself as a fashion-forward diva fascinated by the luxury industry.

“It was like working in The Devil Wears Prada,” she says.

If all this gives the impression that Blasko is a wee bit — to use her word —fancy, rest assured that impression is inaccurate. She also lives for the black bean crunchwraps at Taco Bell.

And she rides a RipStik. Unfamiliar? Imagine a skateboard, but with half the wheels and twice the instability.

At the start of her junior year, Blasko told friends she could descend Bancroft Drive from East Quad to the Mitchell Center on her RipStik.

“I bet I can bomb this hill,” she told them. “I’m gonna smoke it. I’m doin’ it.”


“Didn’t go well.”

The fall chewed her up, badly injuring one knee and bringing an end to her track career. Her mother drove down from Youngstown and repossessed the RipStik. But she still made it to the Eisner Center day after day, where for some time she could be found practicing piano with her injured leg straight out in front of her, propped on a chair.

From classical piano to bluegrass

You can hear all of this, Kim says, in Blasko’s music.

“Her personality translates to her playing,” he says. “As a person, she’s fearless and fierce and very passionate. A lot of young pianists, they’re afraid of doing something big. When a particular musical piece is demanding or challenging or really difficult, they shy away from it because it will take a lot of sacrifice, time, and energy. But Ellie is the kind of person who loves to embrace it. She really works for it.”

And if her personality away from the piano is an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, her playing can be, too.

“She has huge sounds, and the energy that comes from that is enormous,” Kim says. “That makes her playing exciting.”

Kim is a graduate of an elite music conservatory. He knows some students excel in that environment, he says. But others, with disparate interests and strengths, can be well-served by a liberal arts curriculum that doesn’t confine them. Blasko is that kind of student, he says.

“That’s the power of a liberal arts education,” Kim says. “If you go to a conservatory, you are narrowly focused on one thing. Let’s say you’re a piano student and you want to branch out to bluegrass — that’s frowned upon. Here we actually welcome that because we believe in collaboration.”

Yes, Blasko, the piano player, decided she wanted to join the bluegrass ensemble and started playing the upright bass. During her final semester.

On the cusp of leaving Denison, she says she’ll always be grateful for the motherly wisdom that led her to Granville.

“Being able to do more than just piano has made me a way, way better pianist,” she says. “I’m really happy that I chose to come to Denison. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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