July 26, 2007

Physical challenges send Sacramento State
student down new musical path


Post polio syndrome ended one career path for Sandra Noriega, so she’s blazing a new musical trail. Post polio syndrome ended one career path for Sandra Noriega, so she’s blazing a new musical trail.

Download High-Res Photo

Sacramento State student Sandra Noriega was blazing a successful musical career path as a percussionist when a resurgence of the polio virus she had as a child forced her onto a slightly different road. Now she’s stepping in front of the musical ensembles as well as helping other women find success in percussion, a field where men have historically set the beat.

Noriega is in the University’s Performer’s Certificate Program, a post-masters credential for students already advanced in the music field. She also took this summer’s conducting workshop taught by Sacramento State Professor Robert Halseth and guest conductor Mallory Thompson.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1955, Noriega contracted polio shortly afterward. She thought the danger was over, but 33 years later the muscle-paralyzing disease returned in the form of post-polio syndrome. For someone who had explored new territory for women in music, the resurgence of the disease was a stunning setback.

A percussionist working primarily with tympani (kettle drums), Noriega was the first woman to graduate with that specialty from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an institution that started in 1912. “So it took that long for a woman to get in and complete that program,” she says.

A master’s degree from Cal State East Bay followed and everything was looking good until the post-polio syndrome struck in 1988, weakening her grip.

“I was actually on stage performing when I realized this was getting to me,” Noriega says.

With mallets in each hand, Noriega was stretched out to play the bass drum with one hand and the triangle with the other, when she looked up and noticed her left hand was markedly trembling. “It really freaked me out, because I couldn’t feel the shaking,” she says.

The disease’s resurgence brought a halt to any further work on her dream.

“I was on my way to Juilliard,” she says. “I had just gotten the paperwork and was hoping to be the first woman to graduate with a doctorate in percussion from Juilliard.”

A music instructor even before the post-polio syndrome, Noriega continued that career until her daughter went to college. Then Noriega found a new passion, encouraging and guiding other women to follow their musical dreams. “I want to make the music happen,” she says. “I want to enable people. I want to encourage women composers.” She started the Bay Area Women’s Percussion Troupe, a non-profit group, and has other ensembles throughout that area that combine different cultural approaches to percussion.

And now she’s learning to conduct through the post-masters program, the summer workshop, and private lessons. “I admire her guts and her determination and wanting to change fields late in her career,” Halseth says.

Noriega often pushes to tackle pieces even seasoned conductors find difficult, Halseth says. “She’s like The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

And her plans don’t stop there.

“I might start an orchestra if I can find the people to play,” Noriega says. “Why not?”

For more information on Sacramento State’s music department, call (916) 278-5155. For media assistance, call the Sacramento State Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.