Sec. Rice Takes Stage at Aspen Music Festival

This weekend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got a taste of her life that almost was.

Onstage at the Aspen Music Festival and School, Rice, once an aspiring concert pianist, performed in public for the first time since becoming America's top diplomat.

Playing in a quintet with current students at the festival, Rice performed a variety of a challenging selections, including one from German composer Johannes Brahms that Rice admitted she has struggled to learn for years. She also performed a piece by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.

Rice is an avid classical music fan (in addition to an admitted penchant for 1960s rock group Cream), and calls herself an "unabashed devotee" of Brahms. Rice says she still finds time to practice piano weekly and plays monthly with a chamber music group.

"I do keep up my piano," Rice told reporters in 2006. "It's very important to me."

It was after attending this same festival 36 years ago that Rice decided to abandon her dream of becoming a concert pianist.

As a 17-year-old sophomore at the University of Denver, Rice was a music major with big dreams, who had started learning to play the piano from her grandmother at the age of three.

"I could read music before I could read. And I was absolutely certain that I was going to end up playing at Carnegie Hall," Rice said onstage prior to her performance on Saturday.

Her first appearance at the Aspen Music Festival, however, quickly changed a young Condoleezza Rice's mind.

"After listening to some of the 11- and 12-year-olds play, who could play from sight everything it had taken me all year to learn, I thought, 'you know, you're going to end up playing at Nordstrom or a piano bar, but not Carnegie Hall,'" she said.

The experience convinced Rice to abandon her musical ambitions, but it also left her without a major.

Her parents, perhaps after spending so much money on piano lessons, were less than pleased with their daughter's new lack of direction.

Last fall, Rice recalled that encounter with her parents during a speech at the Cornerstone School in Washington D.C.:

"Me:'Mom and Dad, I'm changing my major.'

"Dad: 'To what are you changing your major?'

"Me: 'I don't know. I'm just changing it.'

"Dad: 'You're going to end up a waitress at Howard Johnson's because you don't know what you want to be.'

"Me: 'I would rather be a waitress at Howard Johnson's than teach piano. After all, it's my life.'

"Dad: 'Yes, but after all, it's our money. Find a major.'"

Fortunately, Rice wandered into an international politics class taught by former Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, the father of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

Rice was inspired and decided she wanted to become a specialist on the Soviet Union.

This spring, during a speech at a Peace Corps conference, she recalled her parents' reaction.

"I went home and I said, 'You know, I want to be a specialist on the Soviet Union.' And my parents kind of rolled their eyes and thought, 'right, so a specialist on the Soviet Union, great, at least sounds like a slightly better career path than you were on.'"

The rest is history. Rice went on to pursue her master's and doctorate degrees. She joined the faculty at Stanford University before serving in President George H. W. Bush's White House as a Soviet expert.

She would return to Stanford, eventually becoming provost for six years. It was at this time, Rice says, that she started studying the piano seriously again.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush tapped Rice as one of his main foreign policy advisers. Rice served as President Bush's National Security Advisor during his first term and became the 66th Secretary of State in 2005.

It's clear, however, that Rice doesn't regret the decision to change career paths.

"There was one day when [former Soviet leader] President Gorbachev had been here in Washington and President [George H. W.] Bush asked me to accompany him back out to California," Rice once told an audience.

"We were taking off from the South Lawn in Marine One, the helicopter, taking Gorbachev -- just Gorbachev, his wife, and me -- out to Andrews Air Force Base to go to California. And it hit me; I'm really glad I changed my major."