In many ways, Serena Harnack is a typical teenager who loves Uggs, shopping and amusement parks.
With a violin in her hands, however, she's anything but typical.
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Serena HarnackAge: 14
Hometown: Glen Ellyn
School: St. Francis High School
Who inspires you? Violinist Rachel Barton Pine
What's on your iPod? Paganini, the Beatles, Pink Floyd
What book are you reading? "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck
The three words that best describe you? Outgoing. Shopaholic. Adventurous.
The 14-year-old from Glen Ellyn is beginning to make a name for herself in the Chicago area, earning solo performances with several symphony orchestras.
This year alone, the freshman at St. Francis High School in Wheaton won Northern Illinois University's CSA Sinfonia Concerto Competition and the Young Artists Auditions for the DuPage Symphony Orchestra, with whom she performed March 16. She took the Youth Concerto Competition for the Fox Valley Orchestra, with whom she'll play April 28.
She also placed fourth in the Robert Stanger Young Artist Auditions for Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, and received honorable mention in the final round of the West Suburban Symphony's Solo Competition.
Her repertoire includes difficult classical pieces like Paganini's "Concerto No. 1" and Handel's "Messiah," fiddle tunes like "Orange Blossom Special" and even disco songs like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."
"I think it's pretty amazing that the violin can produce so many different sounds and styles," said Serena, who studies at the Academy at the Music Institute of Chicago, a prestigious elite training center for young musicians.
"Pretty much all the pieces I played, I really liked. Even if you don't like something, you still have to play like you love it, or else you're not convincing anyone," she said.
"I'm really emotional when I play. I feel really connected. I'm really speaking to the audience when I play."
Winning the DuPage Symphony Orchestra competition is a rare feat for a high school freshman, said orchestra conductor Barbara Schubert.
"I was very, very impressed with her level of skill and her musical maturity. She's a very fine musician -- she's well prepared and she's very poised," Schubert said.
"She was a delight, very cooperative. She's a charming young lady."
Serena started playing the violin at age 4, following in the footsteps of a musical family that includes her pianist mother, Mandy Bajik Harnack; father Steve Harnack, who plays the guitar; and her late maternal grandfather, who also played the violin.
Her parents own a music store, Park Ave Guitarz in Lombard. They also play together in the disco band 7DEEZ, occasionally joined by Serena.
Serena is one of two scholars among the Academy's 28 students, said Academy director and conductor-in-residence Jim Setapen.
"You only have to hear her play for 30 seconds to realize that she's a born performer," he said. "She has turned out to be a really model student at the Academy because she's good at everything."
Serena has perfect pitch and is confident without being cocky, he said. She excels at music theory and ear training, and also plays the flute, the viola and the piano, he said.
Serena plays in a trio called Trio Giocoso, one of six groups from the Academy that will be competing in May at the prestigious national Fischoff Competition in Indiana.
"She rises to any challenge that we give her," Setapen said. "She came to us as a very talented person, but she has grown in the last years in her musical maturity. And she's just a joy. She's socially very comfortable."
Serena said the highlight of her career was appearing on classical radio station WFMT's "Introductions" in October 2010.
"That was live, and it was just me. It was pretty special to have your own slot. When we heard it the first time (in a rebroadcast), it was really special," she said. "I have myself on my iPod; I downloaded from iTunes."
Serena and her mother joke they spend half their lives on the road -- eating meals in the car -- because of Serena's packed music schedule.
There's twice-a-week lessons in Evanston with her main teacher, Almita Vamos, and her technique teacher, Hye-Sun Lee. There's a student performance workshop every other Friday in Winnetka. On Saturdays, Serena goes to the Academy in Winnetka, and on Sundays she occasionally performs at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, St. Petronille Parish in Glen Ellyn and St. Francis in Wheaton. On top of all that, there's always extra rehearsal before competitions and performances.
"In the car I listen to my iPod. Usually I listen to what I'm working on," she said. "During the drive home, I watch the video of my lesson (that her mother tapes)."
Serena says she's hard on herself but is not obsessive.
"At camp last year, some people would stay up until 5 a.m. practicing. I'm not like that, but if something's wrong, I'll fix it."
She doesn't get nervous for performances, and the few times she's ever messed up a note, she recovered very quickly.
"I always get excited (when I perform). I don't think I've ever got nervous for anything," she said. "I play so much better in front of audiences than by myself."
Serena is unequivocal about her future -- she wants to attend the famed The Juilliard School in New York City, which she visited a few years ago during a trip with Wheaton College's Vivaldi Strings group, and become a professional violinist. "I couldn't see myself doing anything else," she said.
Setapen said Serena unquestionably has a shot at making her dream happen. She's mastered her craft so that her performances are always reliable. "When you reach Serena's level, you play pretty much the same -- on a bad day, you play 85 percent of your best."
Over the years, Serena has had to give up a lot of activities to focus on her music.
"Gymnastics, dance, ice-skating, cheerleading -- everything is on Saturday," she said. "It's a big sacrifice. Obviously, it's worth it, but it's a lot of things I have to miss."
Her mother said it can be a struggle to juggle Serena's musical commitments and its expenses, but it's well worth helping her daughter pursue her passion.
"There are times it's so surreal. All the stress for me, the money, the anguish, the joy and everything, for it to come to fruition," Bajik Harnack said.
Despites all the accolades, Serena remains humble, said Kerri Roselli, who serves in the music ministry at St. Peter in Arlington Heights. Serena will be playing there before the 7 p.m. service Friday.
"I think her music reaches people in their hearts, not their minds," Roselli said. "She expresses so much."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call (847) 608-2733.