For pre-med honors student, music performance is good medicine

“When you are getting started, you sound like a dying moose.”

That’s what Penn State Schreyer scholar Kalila Steen says about playing the French horn. Since starting to play the instrument 12 years ago, Kalila has put the animal out of its misery and now makes beautiful music.

“The horn itself is a gorgeous instrument,” Steen said. “It can be romantic, heroic, menacing, and more.”

As a member of Penn State’s symphonic band, philharmonic orchestra, and horn ensemble, Kalila has plenty of opportunities to experience the diverse personalities of the horn. She especially loves playing and listening to songs from the German Romantic Period.

“There is nothing more enjoyable to me than being in the middle of an ensemble and listening to everything that’s going on around me,” she said.

Much as she enjoys performing with a group, Kalila will find herself on stage alone soon.

For her honors thesis, Kalila performed an hour-long solo recital. The other portion of the thesis is a written analysis of the Beethoven Horn Sonata and the natural horn, which is a type of French horn without valves.

“I’ve played the horn since I was 10 years old, and I’m thrilled to culminate my musical experience with my April recital,” Steen said.

But -- surprise -- Kalila is not majoring in music. She’s pre-med and graduating with a 4.0.

The conductor of Penn State’s Symphonic Band, Dennis Glocke, said that Kalila “has managed to more than hold her own with the music majors who make up more than 90 percent of the band.”

Kalila’s private horn professor Lisa Bontrager agreed. “[Kalila] is a serious and talented musician,” she said.

Kalila, who will be one of the College of Science’s student marshals this spring, also is serious about her research in biochemistry and molecular biology. Two summers ago she worked in a lab at Weis Research Center at the Geisinger Medical Center in her hometown of Danville, Pa. She researched protein activations and their affects on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The summer before that, she worked at the same hospital in clinical research. She studied about 500 patients who suffered hypothermia and presented her findings to the head of surgery and anesthesiology at Geisinger. Because of that rewarding experience, Kalila might be interested in pursuing a career in clinical research. “But I want to keep my horizons open,” she said.

Professor Bontrager has her own ideas for Kalila. “I’ve been recommending a few specialties that I’d like her to study,” Bontrager said. “She’ll be a fabulous physician, and I’d like her to be mine someday soon!”

In order for that to happen, Kalila will need to go to medical school. She’s already been accepted to a few schools and is halfway done with the interview process for others, Bontrager added. Fortunately, Kalila is not going through the application process alone -- her identical twin sister, Talora, is applying to medical school, as well.

“We have the same thoughts,” said Kalila Steen about her twin. “It’s almost unfair if it’s my sister and I and a third person.” Talora goes to Pitt where she plays clarinet (Kalila chose horn so she didn’t have to compete with her sister for first clarinet) and is a biology major.

Outside of the interviews and horn practices, Kalila has kept herself busy as a leader in student organizations. She served as president of the Eberly College of Science Student Council where she acted as a link between the college’s dean and the students. Kalila headed a committee to recommend how almost $250,000 in information technology funds would be allocated to the college. Kalila also was the treasurer of the Chabad Jewish Student Organization. In that position, she helped organize a Jewish Life Festival rock concert for the Penn State Jewish community, featuring a Hassidic rock band from Los Angeles.

In her senior year at Penn State, Kalila still enjoys one of the perks of the honors college -- living in Atherton Hall, one of the honors residence halls. “Atherton is an extremely convenient place to live, but I have stayed for four years because of the close-knit community,” she said. “It’s a great way of getting to know people within the small Schreyer community.”

The honors college has done more than provide Kalila a place to live. “Without Schreyer, my music career would have ended in high school,” she said.

Being an honors student, Kalila could take certain music courses and trips she might not have had access to otherwise. For example, Kalila went on the London Study Tour, one of the honors college’s signature courses. This trip allowed her to see British theater, which was an enriching experience for Kalila. “Being exposed to a variety of art is important to me as a musician and as a person,” she said.

Another way Schreyer Honors College helped Kalila was by providing her with the Academic Excellence Scholarship, which is awarded annually to Schreyer Scholars admitted into the honors college as freshmen. The scholarship allowed Kalila to buy a high-quality French horn. “I simply would not have had the money to buy my new Holton horn without the scholarship,” she said.

And that horn has been put to good use. Kalila has practiced on it for hours to prepare for her thesis and orchestral performances, and to just relieve stress.

“Playing my horn is sort of like controlled yelling,” said Steen.

But it’s melodious yelling, which is much better than the sounds of a miserable moose.

For more information about the Schreyer Honors College, visit or contact Chris Arbutina, college relations coordinator, at



Kalila Steen Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated January 10, 2014