ND's first harpist lives life to fullest
For the past three years, a unique musician has echoed the willowy sounds of the harp throughout Saint Mary's and Notre Dame, successfully transforming an artistic hobby into a respectable philosophy of happiness.
Alexis Belis, a senior in Lyons Hall, is a pleasant young woman who simply glows with a contentment concerning the life she chose, as a student, as a harpist and as a scholar. With a busy 21 years already behind her, Belis is now planning for a future just as busy and just as satisfying.
Foundation of music and chocolate
Though Belis was born in Morgantown, W. Va., she identifies Hershey, Pa., the town with the obsession for chocolate, as her hometown. As the oldest of four children, she grew up watching cartoons just like other kids, her favorites being "Space Ghost" and "Transformers." She also played tennis, took up skiing at the age of three and, in the great tradition of little girls, took piano lessons.
By learning the piano, Belis continued a family musical tradition that would also keep her three siblings musically involved.
With a piano-playing father and a piano- and banjo-playing mother, music clearly was an essential part of Belis' early years. Eventually, though, Belis came to desire something new and refreshing, which is where her current musical focus began.
"People always ask [why I chose to play the harp] and I can't come up with a very good answer," Belis said. "I've always been uncomfortable playing the piano. I never liked it very much, so I came up with the biggest, most impractical instrument for my parents."
This, of course, was the harp.
But Belis found some difficulty in jumpstarting her harp-playing career. Beginning at the late age of 16, she first had to convince her parents that she was serious about playing the harp. Belis said that it took about a year until she actually began taking lessons seriously.
This was in part because there weren't great opportunities for either harp lessons or harp rentals in Hershey. Eventually, her parents rented a harp from Chicago and drove one hour to Harrisburg, Pa., to take Belis to a suitable harp instructor.
Soon enough, though, Belis found herself ready for college, when a lucky Catholic University in the Midwest fell into her lap.
"I can't give the typical response because I don't have any relatives here and I didn't choose it for the football," said Belis about her decision to attend Notre Dame. "It turned out the other schools I was looking at didn't have a harp teacher. Then I talked to Mrs. [Suzann] Davids, [who] studied with Salzedo ... When I heard that, I was very excited."
Belis's life reveals qualities of the typical Domer. Though she admittedly did not come to Notre Dame for the football, she still loves attending the games. And when springtime comes, she is the first to find a spot under a tree to read or relax. Her favorite spot, in fact, is a tree just outside O'Shaughnessy Hall that comes to full bloom in spring.
In the meantime, Belis juggles a rigorous schedule of art history and music classes, her music ensembles and her individual practice.
As a member of a harp ensemble and the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra, Belis has her work cut out for her. As with all music performance majors, Belis must perform a recital next semester. She's been working on her recital music for about a year, and Belis looks forward to the important performance.
"It will be wonderful," she said, without a degree of arrogance.
The lack of arrogance in her attitude is what is most striking about Belis' personality. Considering that she is currently being presented with great career opportunities, there should almost be a built-in bungalow in her psyche for arrogance, but with Belis, humility is a noticeable virtue.
The advantage of opportunity
During the summer following her freshman year, Belis attended the Salzedo Harp School in Maine, which, along with the method she studies, was established by Carlo Salzedo. Considered a prestigious center for learning among harpists, it is remarkable, though not surprising, that Belis would attend. That's not to say the first summer, and each subsequent summer, was not challenging.
"I was practicing the same amount in one day that I had been practicing a week at school. So, you progress a lot faster," Belis said. "Then you get these big blisters and callouses on your fingers ... They really hurt."
Currently, Belis has a medium-sized, white blister on right index finger, adding to the charm of her dedication.
Her summers in Maine also allowed her to take lessons from Alice Chalifoux, the head of the Salzedo school.
"She's like a female Yoda," Belis said, comparing the woman she considers her role model to the Jedi Master. "She's smaller than I am and she has this little puff of white hair on her head. Her mind is so ... she catches every wrong note and every little thing wrong in your hand position. During a lesson, it's so hard to get through a whole piece of music because she picks everything apart. But it's really good because it makes everything better.
"I hope that I live to be 91 and beyond and have a mind as good as she has."
The pride Belis exudes concerning the Salzedo school and Chalifoux covers up the intense workout she puts herself through each summer.
"We usually practice five or six hours a day. It's very intense. It's all harp," Belis said. She also mentioned that some days, one could practice up to eight hours, giving the school an almost occupation-like feel. But Belis insists that practicing the harp does not seem like a job.
She also seems to insist that the invitation she has received to study with art history Professor Robin Rhodes in Greece is no big deal. But considering the amount of time that went into choosing her post-graduate plans, it certainly seems a big deal.
"I had a really hard time deciding if I wanted to do graduate work in art history or music," she said. "I'd like to do classical art and architecture, eventually, like Greek architecture and art. [But] I want to continue playing, hopefully with an orchestra wherever I end up."
Harpin' out in Maine
Following her first summer in Maine, Belis was able to convince her parents to buy a harp. Considering that concert grand harps cost about $25,000, Belis surely presented a strong argument, committing herself to the harp as some people might commit to the love of their life. But Belis always recognized the importance of understanding parents.
"I was very lucky to have my parents take it seriously that I wanted to play," Belis said.
She soon declared her major in harp performance, becoming the first Notre Dame student to have such a major.
Once committed, though, Belis found it difficult at times to get the most out of the harpist's life. When practicing one of her recital pieces this past summer, she reached a point of aggravation that required some action.
"It got to the point where I was playing it really, really slow, and I couldn't see ever getting it up to tempo," she said. "I was extremely frustrated, so I threw it away for about three months. Then I got it back out and suddenly it went better.
"Every time I start a new piece of music, I think I go through that frustration, like, `I'm never gonna be able to play that.'"
Notre Dame and Saint Mary's adjunct faculty member Suzann Davids, Belis' harp instructor, understands the effort Belis puts into her music.
"She works very hard, and that's primarily what counts," she said.
Belis has also found that making a harp ensemble has been a difficult task throughout her stay here at Notre Dame.
"We've been trying to do harp ensemble for the past couple of years," she said. "This is the first year we've finally been able to get it together."
This weekend, the harp ensemble will be performing the prelude at the Vespers Mass Saturday at 5 p.m., and at the Sunday 10 a.m. Mass. Both performances will be at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
"I'm very excited that we're playing in the Basilica," she said. "I've been waiting a while for this."
Alexis the spy
Despite the seeming monotony of the harpist's life, there is much more to Belis than meets the eye.
"She's very earnest with lots of integrity," said Davids. "She's interested in a lot of different things ... very well-rounded."
Especially when looking at her small frame and reticent body language, one would never guess that she has a black belt in tae kwon do, with some knowledge of Kung Fu.
Though Belis has never needed the martial art for its measures of self-defense, she still warns not to approach her suddenly from behind.
Another hidden desire, matched well with her mastery of tae kwon do, is her wish for a secret life. With "Get Smart" as her favorite television show, and her personal collection of James Bond films (her favorite is Sean Connery), she notes that "I always wanted to be a spy." Indeed, her cover would be amazingly well-guarded: The quietly deceptive harpist with killer instinct.
Belis also calls herself a skier, a tennis-player, an ultimate-frisbee newbie, a Mel Brooks fanatic, a dessert connoisseur, a dining hall grapefruit juice drinker, the older sister to two Backstreet Boys fans and, of course, a chocolate-lover.
A motivating perspective
Ultimately, the Alexis Belis story hinges on an extraordinary perspective concerning personal choices and decisions that will impact one's entire life.
Belis has not always studied the fields which interested her the most, art history and music. She came to Notre Dame as a physics major, and then continued as a science pre-professional major. Soon, she realized that her education had to be something more personal.
"I [have] found two things that I really enjoy," she said. "Whereas I took all these science classes my freshman year and half of my sophomore year, I never enjoyed a single one of them. There was no motivation to study or to do work.
"I remember going to tell my organic chemistry professor [that] I was on chapter six and we were on like chapter 26 in the book and I hadn't done any of the problems. It wasn't that I wanted to do bad. I just didn't care. He spent an hour trying to give me a pep talk on it. Then I realized, if he was so enthusiastic about organic chemistry, then that's obviously why he was in that area. I had other things that I was more interested in."
From Belis' experience in choosing a major, she discovered that personal satisfaction is key to personal happiness. Getting to know Belis, one realizes that this is a rare personal hallmark for young people today.
"I would suggest to anyone to try as many different things as possible and to choose something that you enjoy, not just something that your parents want you to do," she said.
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, September 8, 1999