Keene State College graduate, virtuoso hitting all the right notes

NASHUA – When Jacob Huggins first picked up an instrument – a guitar – he was just 14 years of age. The guitar has now been sidelined by his prowess for piano and he’s never looked back.

A native of Hudson, New Hampshire, Huggins has many heroes. Adam Darrell of Darrell’s Music Hall in Nashua is one of them.

“The whole Darrell family,” Huggins added.​

But another stands out for him: Professor Yovcho Krushev.

“He was playing one day at Darrell’s and my ears couldn’t believe it,” Huggins said. “You could tell this was a professional playing. Not only the virtuosity, but he was doing gymnastics on the piano keys. The quality of the sound was amazing. His art is amazing.”

Huggins could have sworn that Krushev was playing on a grand piano, but he was actually playing an upright.

“The sound was incredible,” Huggins said. “I had heard people from big-name schools play but this gentleman was beyond that. And now he’s taking me to the next level of playing.”

This is a far cry from how Huggins, just 14 years old, began his musical journey.

“I wasn’t taking lessons but I enjoyed it on my own time,” he said.

“I decided that I was going to go to school for music. My parents, being good normal parents, suggested that I pick another major. But ultimately, I decided I wanted to give this thing a shot.”

Huggins said he had “no clue” as to how to read music. He felt like he had bit off more than he could chew, but the summer before becoming a freshman, he knew he needed to be able to read some sheet music.

“Keene State didn’t have a lot of prerequisites,” he said. “I took the prerequisites from U Mass Lowell, where I applied and didn’t get in, and applied those to Keene State and that’s what ended up happening. And I got in.”

He also had to change from acoustic to either jazz or classical guitar. Classical it was.

“I had to buy a new nylon string guitar and had no idea how to play it,” he said. “I auditioned for people at Keene State and they go over so many things – aural skills, you have to match pitch – all this stuff and looking back on it now it seems to basic. But at that point in my life it was a nightmare. I had no idea how to do any of these things.”

Huggins wanted to be a classical guitar performance major. But his professor at the time, said “We can’t allow you in. You don’t know anything.”

Undeterred, Huggins would officially change his major to music composition.

“But when you go there, you have a primary instrument, which was guitar and I had to start learning how to read music,” he said. “I was becoming proficient and I was passing with flying colors.”

During winter break of his freshman year, Huggins heard what he considered to be “very attractive classical piano music.”

“I heard Chopin’s, ‘Fantasy Impromptu,'” he said. “When I got back to school, I thought I want to try to play this piece of music. I wasn’t thinking that I’d change my major. But I wanted to learn how to play that piece of music.”

No matter what instrument a student chooses with their major, the college requires that they be proficient. Huggins didn’t know yet, but he was born to play piano. He finished his first semester of Functional Piano but was struggling very hard with playing piano.

“Reading music was making more sense, but as far as moving my fingers, it was probably just so bad,” he recalled. “But that piece of music made me ask the question, ‘Why not? Why can’t I play that?’ That was the attitude that I had. No matter how long it took.”

Huggins remembered spending hours (“Every waking moment”) and he was making progress without the help of a piano instructor.

“This was a pivotal point,” he shared. “I was in Functional Piano 2 and my instructor for the class was Cheryl Sharrock. We all had our electric pianos and she was listening in on my continuing to learn that piece of music. She knew I was a guitar major but didn’t realize that I was played the piano. And I didn’t consider myself a piano player, either.”

Sharrock approached Huggins and was intrigued and impressed by his playing.

“You should very much consider changing your instrument,” Sharrock then asked Huggins.

Huggins was walking on air, knowing that Sharrock thought that he had such promise and potential to change his instrument to piano.

“I was studying classical guitar and doing very well,” he said. “I thought I should take her comments into consideration.”

Huggins made the decision, the right decision, and focused on piano. He had to re-audition now that he changed instruments. He finished learning the Chopin piece and learned a second, Rachmaninoff’s “Preludes in C-sharp minor.” He found a good piano teacher, who helped him with the fundamentals for a couple of months.

“I auditioned with the head of the piano department, Matthew Odell,” Huggins said. “He now teaches at Julliard. I can’t remember if I was nervous or not. But it went fine and Odell said, ‘Welcome to the piano department.'”

Huggins still played guitar but it was no longer his primary instrument. And he wanted to be a performance major, not composition. Again, he re-auditioned, this time for many of the piano faculty.

“I had to play a Bach piece, it was so hard,” he remembered. “And they make you do scales and arpeggios. There were other pieces. It was to showcase that you could play different styles of music. And I screwed up and I was so pissed. I figured I wouldn’t be a performance major but they were looking at the bigger picture.”

Huggins made the cut, and he never looked back. He did his junior year and senior year recitals. He caught up and graduated on time in 2018.

Fast forward: Huggins now was a college graduate and unemployed. As a student, he used to frequent Darrell’s Music Hall on Main Street in Nashua.

“They were doing the street piano thing,” he said. “I sat and played and there were two men sitting on the bench. Then there was a camera and a microphone in my face and the next thing I knew, I was on ‘Chronicle.’ I didn’t’ even know what ‘Chronicle’ was.”

Darrell’s turned out to be a lucky charm for Huggins. He knew he needed a steady paycheck and interviewed with Adam Darrell to work at the music hall as a piano teacher. And it just so happened, they had an opening.

“Before I knew it, I had 15 or 20 students,” Huggins said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Huggins also began selling pianos which helped him know all about how pianos work.

But Professor Krushev made a huge impact on Huggins; the professor is currently training Huggins to be a qualified concert pianist.

“Every Tuesday he comes into Darrell’s and he sits down to play piano,” Huggins said. “He’s internationally renowned. Here he is in Nashua, New Hampshire. Incredible.”

Lauded by Sviatoslav Richter as a “truly unmatched musical talent,” Professor Yovcho Krushev is a Bulgarian pianist, composer and educator whose international career started at the Viotti International Music Competition in Verchelli, Italy, where he won 2nd Prize. Next, he placed 5th at the Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow, after being called to participate on a month’s notice.

Maestro Krushev has performed over 1700 concerts and recitals in America, Europe, Asia and Africa and his repertoire spans from the Baroque to contemporary music. He has received every professional award in Bulgaria and in 2008 became the only Bulgarian pianist decorated by the President of the Republic of Bulgaria with the Highest Level of the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the highest national award for culture and the arts.

“He’s taught me so much,” Huggins said. “And more than anything, I have learned that if you want something, just work for it.”