By Steve Holt, Opinion Editor
Mario Santoso had quite a commute ahead of him when he left his hometown to study music in August of 2000: 10,484 miles and 30 hours by plane.
But the distance was an easy sacrifice for the opportunity to study the love of his life.
“Without music, this life would be dry,” Santoso said.
Mario’s hometown is Jakarta, the capitol of Indonesia. Knowing he wanted to become a concert pianist, he conducted an Internet search of American colleges and universities with music departments.
Popping up first on the list was, of course, ACU.
Santoso quickly found out ACU offers half scholarships or more to students interested in playing the piano. He sent an audition tape to the Department of Music and, less than a week later, received an e-mail from assistant professor of music Dr. Gustavo Tolosa saying that Santoso had been awarded a full scholarship.
The junior piano performance major is unofficially the student who has traveled the farthest from his home country to attend ACU, and Santoso said his idea of what Abilene was like turned out to be a little off.
“My piano teacher back then was from Baltimore,” Santoso said. “I thought Abilene would be as big as Baltimore at least. I am from Jakarta, which has 10 or 11 million people. So it was hard, because it was completely different than I thought.”
Tolosa, his current piano instructor, said Santoso seems to have adapted well to his new home.
“He came here three years ago and from the very beginning he was outgoing and very social,” Tolosa said. “In these last three years he has become more professional and learned more about how to interact with other people and musicians.”
Dr. Paul Piersall, chair of the department of music, said Santoso’s musical versatility has meant a great deal to the department.
“He is an extremely talented solo pianist, which gives a great deal to the department,” Piersall said. “But he has also become a willing and capable accompanist, which is needed pretty often.”
Santoso began playing the piano when he was four, and has played with five professional or collegiate orchestras since then: the Jakarta Symphony, the Indonesia and Hong Kong Philharmonics, and the Abilene Collegiate Orchestra. In the spring, he placed fifth out of 105 competitors at the San Antonio Piano Competition for Young Artists. When he returns home every summer Santoso gives a concert and travels around playing solo recitals, more than 50 in his career.
His hero is Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz because he says their styles are similar: Santoso, like Horowitz, emphasizes the bass keys when playing.
However, Santoso said Tolosa has been his biggest influence since coming to the United States.
“He is always supporting me, maybe spiritually too,” Santoso said. “The first year I would tell him, ‘I miss everything in my home.’ And I don’t know how but he would just support me in everything. I feel good over here.”
Tolosa, who grew up in Argentina, said he knows what Santoso went through coming to America for college.
“I guess I can relate because that’s what I did when I was younger,” Tolosa said. “One of the reasons why international students are generally more mature is because it takes courage to get on that plane knowing you are leaving everyone you know and love.”
Even though his mother originally discouraged him from majoring in music, Santoso’s love for music is evident in his squinting eyes and smile when he talks about it.
“My mom at the first had a problem with me to go as a music major. She said, ‘what do you want to do? Especially if you go back to Indonesia and you teach here, what will be the prospect? There is no prospect as a musician,'” Santoso said. “She was just worried about me actually, and she didn’t want me to take music major at all. But I can’t-that’s my hobby.”
“I explained to her that it is better to master a subject which you really like and you are good in, than forcing yourself to ones you do not know or even like,” said Suhadi Santoso, Mario’s father, in an e-mail interview.
Santoso’s mother now appreciates his love for music and supports him, as his father had done all along. The two haven’t made the roughly 30-hour trip to visit Mario since “dropping him off” at ACU in 2000, and Mario remains in the United States for the entirety of the school year. He normally visits his cousins in San Francisco over the Christmas break, but has to wait until summer to see his parents.
“When [friends and I] are eating together in the Bean or something and they just say, ‘I’m going home this weekend,’ I get just a little bit jealous because I am stuck here ’till summer,” Santoso said.
Santoso’s parents call him about twice a week, he said, and they also chat via modern PC-to-phone technology for up to an hour at a time.
“I am the only child, so one of us, my parents’ side or my side, had a problem in the beginning because I missed home a lot,” Santoso said. “I can say maybe they spoiled me too much.”
Mario’s father said that for he and his wife not having their son around made the first few months apart hard for them.
“I was in awe by the great distance which would be separating our son from us,” Suhadi said. “His midnight will be our lonely noon, and the other way around.”
“We flew back to Indonesia without him,” Suhadi said. “We missed the during-dinner chat with him-he is very talkative, no more piano sound from his room, and it is still even hard now especially for my wife who spends most of her time housekeeping.”
But attending college literally on the other side of the globe hasn’t deterred Santoso from succeeding in what is important. In addition to his musical exploits, Santoso maintains a 3.4 grade point average and plays the piano at St. Francis Catholic Church on Walnut Street. He said that being Catholic on a primarily Church of Christ campus has not presented much of a challenge since he’s been at ACU.
“Every single religion is just the same,” Santoso said. “Maybe it is just the way they celebrate the Mass. Whenever we sing in Chapel-the Catholic Church doesn’t have those songs, but it doesn’t matter to me-I just sing. As long as I just praise God.”
A challenge Santoso did face upon arriving in Texas was the language barrier. Speaking Indonesian his whole life and having taken only one year of English, Santoso struggled to understand what his teachers were saying during his freshman year. Since then, however, he has grown accustomed to the way of West Texas and as a person as well.
His father said his biggest change since coming to ACU is the way he interacts with people.
“I can say that he is just an average boy,” Suhadi said. “When he left for college he was still uncomfortable freely expressing his thought or himself to adults.
“When he returned home after he finished his freshman year, I immediately noticed that he managed to lead our way while we were walking together in the mall instead of just keeping pace with mom and me side by side,” Suhadi said. “And he can speak much more confidently with strangers with a straight head.”
Human interaction, Santoso said, is the biggest difference between Indonesians and Americans.
“The first thing I noticed a lot is that they talk directly [in America],” Santoso said. “If they want to say something, it doesn’t matter if it is positive or negative, they just speak. In my country if they want to say something they think ‘Am I going to offend him or her?’ so we just back off and we never tell the truth. [Americans] will not back off from anything.”
In December, Santoso may travel to New York to take lessons from Barry Snyder, Tolosa’s former instructor at Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Tolosa suggested he try to get lessons from some of the country’s best music teachers.
“I told him it’d be good idea to go to New York,” Tolosa said. “A lot of this country’s famous music teachers are teaching there, so I told him he should try to find a way to have one of them listen to him. That may open doors for graduate school, because he wants to do graduate school at Eastman.”
Santoso said that if he has a chance to tour New York City, he will probably just buy some musical scores and classical CDs not available in Abilene.
“I will enjoy myself though,” Santoso said.
Next semester Santoso hopes to perform his junior recital in the Williams Performing Arts Center, which is nearing completion. He will likely do so on a brand new Steinway piano just purchased for use in the new building, and valued at between $90,000 and $100,000.
Mario’s father has taught his son not to worry about the ultimate successes, but enjoy the journey of life and leave his worry to God. Mario’s journey has allowed him to immerse himself in his greatest talent and passion.
And this will almost certainly bring him eventual success, even if it takes him around the world again.