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Hurricane Katrina Blows DePano Toward Musicology Career

Faith Avilene “Avi” DePano thought she had college all planned out—study graphic design at Loyola University-New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had other plans.

The storm struck the first day she was set to start classes, but DePano and her family fled New Orleans to temporarily settle in Beaumont. Unable to return to New Orleans, she registered for classes at the University of St. Thomas two weeks into the semester.

Five years later, DePano graduated from St. Thomas in May with a bachelor’s degree in music and a minor in theology. In the fall, DePano will pursue a master’s degree in musicology at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University on a full scholarship. The highly competitive program accepts less than five students per year, and DePano will be among the first students to be admitted to the program in two years.

DePano reflected on how Hurricane Katrina’s path of destruction derailed her original college plans but ultimately redirected her to a new college, a new major, new friends, and new career opportunities.

“The first day of school, I was in tears, but I quickly found a home at St. Thomas,” she said. “Mentor/teacher Dr. Brady Knapp encouraged me to pursue music and was instrumental in finding scholarships.”

At first, DePano continued to pursue her interest in graphic design, taking studio art classes at the Glassell School of Art. But her lifelong passion for music kept interrupting.

“I had always wanted to take voice lessons but didn’t have the time or means,” she said. “Soon after I started taking voice lessons with Dr. Knapp, I found it more difficult to concentrate on my art homework. I realized that studio art was a hobby and music was a vocation, so I changed my major.”

Head of choral and vocal studies, Dr. Knapp also came to St. Thomas in fall 2005, improving the quality of the vocal area through more performance opportunities for students, including Opera Scenes Workshop, Pop Singers, and University Singers, in which DePano participated, and contracting guest choreographer/director Debra Dickinson and conductor Courtney Daniell-Knapp.

When the time came to select a graduate program, DePano looked at musicology programs in cities around the country.

“Dr. Ann Fairbanks’ and Dr. Knapp’s courses helped me to blossom and think about becoming a professional musician, which led to a love for musicology,” DePano said. “Without intention and knowledge of context, music is merely noise.”

She said she was inspired to stay in Houston because the city combines both competitive educational opportunities with “an astonishing amount of cultural and fine arts events on any given day.”

Through the rigorous graduate school application, interview, and audition process, DePano said she was continually supported by UST faculty and friends.

“The UST Music Program is a tight-knit family, and the professors truly care,” she said. “Students are given opportunities to perform as undergraduates that many of my friends at other schools do not get until they are at the graduate or doctoral level. Knapp, Dickinson, and Fairbanks work tirelessly to help us become well-rounded individuals, as the skills and discipline honed in Opera Workshop and in the vocal ensembles apply to both music and everyday life. I am grateful that this personalized, comprehensive education has prepared me well for graduate school.”

After graduate school, DePano plans to continue performing, pursue a doctorate, and parlay musicology into making classical liturgical music accessible to all people.