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Catholic physics professor balances his career with music

Dr. Juan Serna is as passionate about playing the violin as he is about the science he teaches to students at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Christmas Eve 2005 at St. Mark Church was his performance debut in the small southeast Arkansas town. He played a recent concert at the school that also featured another member of St. Mark's.

Published: November 18, 2006   
Linda Webster
Physics professor Dr. Juan Serna (right) and Vanessa Waite, parishioners of St. Mark Church in Monticello, pose after a Nov. 4 rehearsal.

MONTICELLO -- At 7:40 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, the standing-room-only crowd in the historic Harris Recital Hall at the University of Arkansas at Monticello grew quiet. The crowd was far too large for the room, and the scheduled program had been delayed slightly while members of the music faculty hauled in benches for additional seating from the building's main foyer. Still more audience members lined the walls and sat on the floor.

For most of those waiting for the performance to begin, the attraction was Dr. Juan Serna, sitting quietly on the stage with his violin tucked under his left arm.

Serna is a second-year assistant professor of physics whose passion is violin performance. As a child in Medellin, Colombia, he studied privately and played in a variety of orchestras. He entered the doctoral program in physics at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and began playing with the Northwest Arkansas Symphony. Then, in 2005, he accepted an appointment to the physics faculty in Monticello, bringing along his violin.

While the university has a strong band and vocal music program, stringed instruments are rarely heard in schools and churches around Monticello. There is no local or regional orchestra. To keep up his skills, Serna often played in his faculty office to an orchestral accompaniment broadcast from his computer. Members of the math and physics faculty have found his impromptu hallway concerts riveting. Several faculty have musical backgrounds, singing in local choirs, so their appreciation of his virtuosity was genuine.

Serna debuted locally as a violinist during Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mark Church in 2005 when two of his sisters visited from Colombia, and the family was asked to play during Communion. The congregation was stunned by the quality of music shared by the family members on violin, guitar and piano.

Since last Christmas, Serna has played for the Monticello Music Club and at the First Methodist Church as well as during Holy Week at St. Mark, always to the immense satisfaction of audiences who seldom hear classically trained violin soloists.

But Tuesday night was different. Few students had heard Serna play and only one member of the trio was a professional musician, so there was sense of novelty about the program. Although the three had made a few appearances in the community, again at the Monticello Music Club in October and at the First Methodist Church, these were short performances of one or two selections where audiences seemed thrilled at the sound of Serna's violin.

Serna comes from an accomplished family. His father is a physician and a sister is an OB/GYN. Another sister is making a career in contemporary music. Serna, himself, mixes science and music, describing how he visualizes the music in three-dimensional shapes or a laser movement in space.

The evening's program would feature Serna and the other members of faculty trio, then introduce a group of four clarinet students after an intermission, a student quartet featuring another St. Mark parishioner, Vanessa Waite.

Waite is not a music major but began studying the clarinet in 1996 as a sixth grader. All of the children in her family have mastered at least one instrument, from flute to trombone to French horn. Waite enjoys playing her clarinet as a break from her early childhood education studies. At least once a month, she gets home to Conway to spend time with friends and family.

"My family likes to get together and play board games, and my friends and I like to watch movies," Waite explained.

A member of St. Joseph Church in Conway, Waite also enjoys the smaller size of St. Mark in Monticello because she has met so many of the parishioners.

"I feel like my faith has grown a lot since I have come to college," she added. "I know this is the time when a lot of people lose their faith but having a good church and church family truly has helped keep my life on track."

The lights finally dimmed in the Harris Recital Hall. Serna raised his violin. The crowd, already quiet in anticipation, seemed to stop breathing as he played the solo opening notes of a Grieg composition arranged for three instruments. Forty minutes later, the crowd was on its feet shouting "Bravos."

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