SPRING HILL — Nina Morales pulled her violin from its zip-up case and propped it under her chin. It was the violin that went with her and the rest of the National Youth Orchestra to Russia, the violin she practiced with an hour every day at Springstead High School, the violin she played on audition tapes sent to colleges across the country.
This fall, the same violin will travel with her for her first year at Harvard University.
Nina, 17, will graduate with more than 1,000 Hernando County seniors over the next week and move on to jobs or more schooling. For her, post-high school plans have always included two things: college and music.
She applied to about a dozen schools, including prestigious names such as Yale, Duke and Harvard. She thought they might be out of her reach. But on a windy day at the end of March, she woke up from a nap to an email from Harvard. Not only did she get in, but the school offered her a full scholarship.
"I had to read it like five times," she said in an interview Monday. "It was crazy. I wanted to jump up and down, and I think I cried a little with my mom."
Her mother, Fe, smiled, remembering the day. After Nina's father, Jonathan, was laid off from his job at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, her parents were unsure of how they would afford to send her to college.
"You don't know the joy. We're so grateful," Fe Morales said. "Any possibility is laid out for her."
Nina's application included the numbers — an unweighted 4.5 grade point average and 14 Advance Placement classes during her time at Springstead. But in the essays, she wrote about her other passion: playing violin.
She started at age 5, taking lessons on a violin a fraction of the size of her current one. When she felt confident enough to play for an audience, she brought her violin to Grace Presbyterian Church in Spring Hill, where she honed her performance skills.
In high school, she joined Springstead's orchestra, led by Richard Dasher. In his 25 years of teaching, Dasher says, he's never taught a student as accomplished as Nina. "She was first chair from the first day she came in freshman year," he said.
Dasher encouraged her to apply for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, a summer program sponsored by Carnegie Hall in New York City.
She applied and was accepted last year. She spent the summer traveling to Washington, D.C., and London, as well as St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia. The group played some of the most difficult orchestral music available, Dasher said, including Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major.
He remembers watching a video of the orchestra performing and seeing Nina.
"She was just nailing it," he said. "You just watch her for a moment and you're really aware that this is something special."
Springstead principal Susan Duval had a similar experience watching Nina play at a school concert. She was a freshman at the time, and Duval's only interaction with her had occurred when Duval worked as a crossing guard and would see Nina cross the street after her parents dropped her off. Even then, she could tell Nina was outgoing and mature, an "old soul," she said.
"She just caught my eye being this bouncing, bubbly, smiling young lady," Duval said. "She just sparkles."
At Harvard, Nina said, she wants to join musical ensembles and take lessons. She said she doesn't want to pursue music as a career because of the industry's instability. Instead, she intends to major in biology and pursue oncology.
But she's not too attached to that plan. "I'll take as many diverse classes as I can just to see what else is out there. I just want to try everything."
On Monday, her mother watched as Nina played the first few notes of Ashokan Farewell, a waltz used in Ken Burns' PBS documentary The Civil War.
She leaned in and out of the notes, her hand moving back and forth to create vibrato as her fingers curled over the strings. A half-smile formed on her lips.
For the moment, Harvard could wait.
Kathryn Varn can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114. Follow @kathrynvarn on Twitter.