I count four amazing piano teachers in my career: Joanne Feazell, Elizabeth Temple, Barbara Lister-Sink, and Rebecca Penneys. Each gave me different perspectives that in total have allowed me to develop independently. In retrospect, I know that I am very lucky and have them to thank for developing into the pianist I am today. This blog article is about the four overriding principles, one from each of them that has formed me and continues to influence my development.
My first teacher, Joanne Feazell, gave me the basic grounding. Joanne taught at the First Baptist Church in Bristol, VA. The primary concern Joanne focused on with me was communication. She always asked,
What are you trying to say? What do you think the composer was saying? How do you want that to sound?
From that point forward, I always had a reason for pursuing the craft of playing piano – making music – communicating an idea. With that one principle, Joanne gave me my raison d’etre. Not a bad gift from teacher to student!
Like most American students of my generation, I studied at college to learn my craft. I arrived at Shenandoah Conservatory a wide-eyed, naïve young man who demanded an explanation for all things intellectual. That demanding attitude was a result of a deep-seated insecurity that I didn’t have the natural intelligence to compete. Elizabeth Temple inherited this challenge. Gradually working her magic, she started the process of shaping my technique. I learned many things from her but the single most important principle Elizabeth taught me was how to produce sound on the piano – deep, resonate sound as well as light, ephemeral sound and the many possibilities in between. I quickly understood that good sound production married to purposeful communication produces a unique performance.
I left Shenandoah to attend the Eastman School of Music for graduate work and there worked with Barbara Lister-Sink. Barbara is an amazing teacher and pianist whom many will know as the author of Freeing the Caged Bird, a technical perspective dedicated to helping a student develop an injury free technique. Along with her technical guidance, she also taught me the benefit of a clear mind when practicing. She once told me completely off-the-cuff that
If you are the type of person that needs to have a clean kitchen for a clear mind, then by all means, clean your kitchen before you practice!
Of course, the metaphor of a clean kitchen really meant taking care of issues that interfere with concentration. To this day, when I follow the advice, I find my practice is much more efficient and stays with me more easily. By combining the three principles of communication, beauty of sound, and clear mindedness, my playing took a leap forward.
For my doctoral work at Eastman, I was fortunate to be accepted into the studio of Rebecca Penneys, a circle of amazingly gifted pianists. For me, studying with Rebecca was an experience of energy and revelation. I intuitively understood that she existed in a musical world that I wanted to enter but had never figured out how. From the start, she approached me with the assumption that I already knew how to play. In one lesson early on, I prepared a Bach French Suite to play for her. I complained that I didn’t really know how to play Bach, that I had never been taught how to do it properly. After hearing me play, her response changed my life. She said,
Of course you know how to play Bach. It sounds just like what you have played for me. What you really need to do is to trust your own genius so that you can give to the rest of us what you already know!
I was stunned. Essentially, Rebecca had given me permission to express my personal vision of the music rather than to pursue some notion of what it was supposed to sound like. Earthshattering! Was I really allowed to interpret the music? The answer I heard was a resounding yes but not from Rebecca, rather from within my own head. With one simple statement, Rebecca had freed me of my student mind and put me onto a new path of discovering the artist within. I am forever grateful.
Since working in the music profession for 25 years after receiving my doctorate, I’ve seen the ups and downs. Not every performance I give is stellar but thanks to the four great teachers of my life, I possess the tools and understanding to stop, breathe and start again. . . each time with a clear mind and the confidence that I have something to say. Now, that’s a gift worth giving.