Acclaimed pianist aims to spread the ‘language of peace’

A portrait of Rebecca Penneys. Her gray hair is combed back from her face and she’s wearing a coral top. She stands in front of a manicured green hedge.

Retired from academia, Rebecca Penneys continues to perform and educate.


A CHILD PRODIGY, pianist Rebecca Penneys has been immersed in music since she began playing by ear as a toddler.

It’s a powerful language, she says.

“It’s a language of peace, and I’m definitely an advocate of peace on earth,” she says. “Music makes you smarter. When you play an instrument, it changes your thinking. The whole idea is that civilization then can go forward in a more peaceful way.”

She has spent decades working toward that end, both performing and teaching. And, while she officially left the classroom in 2017, retiring to St. Petersburg, she has continued educating and supporting student artists through USF.

In 2013, she launched the Rebecca Penneys Piano Festival, a three-week, tuition-free collegiate piano festival hosted each summer at USF. It draws up to 40 aspiring artists, selected from about 200 applicants, from all over the world. Participants attend private lessons, master classes and concerts — all led and performed by a who’s who of pianists.

Recently, Penneys established the Rebecca Penneys USF Music Fund, which provides two-year assistantships to five music master’s degree students who perform in a chamber music ensemble. Known as the Rebecca Penneys Graduate Collective, it consists of two pianists, a violinist, a violist and a cellist.

It’s a format Penneys is fond of. In 1974, she founded the New Arts Trio chamber ensemble, which won the Naumburg Award for Chamber Music in 1980 and 1982 and was the trio-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution from 1978-2012.

“That’s why I’ve included other instruments. I couldn’t see myself just helping pianists since I still have a chamber music series in New York state. Chamber music is so wonderful to play,” she says.

School of Music Director David Williams says the assistantships are great for everybody.

“It’s great because the students are on assistantship and their duties are to perform in this group. They’re getting an education and a really great experience out of it,” he says. “And it’s great for the School of Music because we’ve got some really talented students who represent us — and Rebecca — in the community and performing on and off campus.

“Everybody wins in this arrangement, and it’s because of Rebecca.”

While most assistantships in the school offer 10 hours a week, the Penneys assistantship is twice that, which makes these spots especially attractive and has helped the school recruit talented musicians from all over the world.

Rebecca Penneys and the five music students her assistantships help support stand in front of a floral mural inside the USF School of Music building.

Penneys, fourth from left, met with students in the initial cohort of the collective, including, from left, cellist Kosuke Uchikawa; violist Joven Aquisap; violinist Gabriel Mendoza; pianist Veerle Winkelmolen; and pianist Ting Yu (replaced by Ji Hae Yun in spring 2023).