Dr. N.A.N.'s Blog

News, views, and how the world skews from San Antonio, Texas

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Creating a Musical Legacy

This past April, I gave a talk to the members of the San Antonio Music Teachers’ Association. The title of my address was “Creating a Musical Legacy”. Here is an excerpt:

Good morning!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with you today. As an introduction, I would like to share a little of my background and how I came to San Antonio. For 16 years, I served on the piano faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. While there, I taught pianists at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, coached countless musical ensembles and advised hundreds of students in my role as academic advisor. I was also actively performing as a member of the Clinton-Narboni Piano Duo.  Our Duo enjoyed a great deal of success–we played concerts here in America as well as Europe and recorded four cds over the course of 5 years. As a solo artist, I have also played concerts around the country and abroad, recorded a cd featuring the solo piano works of Jean Françaix and recently participated in a teleconference with young students from the Coupland, Texas Independent School District. On that occasion, I talked about and played a set of variations by Beethoven.  By far, that was the most unusual performance I have given because the entire event was centered around a laptop!

I always knew that Nebraska was my temporary home. I had enjoyed many successes at UNL and in the Midwest but my heart belonged to Texas. In 2011, I decided it was time to move back to San Antonio. So, I put my LIncoln house on the market and started looking for employment down here. My official moving day was September 22nd, 2012, when my partner and I drove a large rental truck with all of my worldly possessions (including 2 grand pianos) 875 miles south.

The idea for this lecture came to me long before I was asked to speak for San Antonio Music Teachers’ Association. I have been thinking about my musical legacy ever since I turned 40 when I began taking stock in my accomplishments and my long list of goals yet to be fulfilled. As I mentioned, for many years, I enjoyed a very successful career with my former duo-piano partner but we eventually dissolved the partnership and I found myself struggling to find gigs. It was at that time that a friend of mine suggested I create my own performance opportunities by taking my piano out on the road. Sort of, “If the people can’t come to you, you come to the people.” And thus, “Piano-in-Tow” was born. The mission of “Piano-in-Tow” was to bring live, classical music to rural areas in Nebraska and surrounding states where access to live music was very limited. A major draw for audiences of “PiT” was the fact that I brought my own piano to concerts. Most towns and villages that I visited did not have a grand piano. They were lucky just to have an old, out-of-tune upright housed in the church basement!

Not only did “Piano-in-Tow” give me many opportunities to perform, it also helped me to reach and develop new audiences. As I’m sure you all know, classical music audiences have been dying for over the past several generations. As our world has become more technologically advanced, sitting and listening to unplugged music can’t compete with the allure of video games, twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.

I would like to paint a picture for you of what “Piano-in-Tow looked like:  During four week-long trips between 2008-2010, I rented an 18-passenger van that I used to haul a friend’s homemade trailer housing my piano. This trailer was unique–it was very large and since it was meant to be a hunting trailer, my friend had painted the exterior in a camo-motif and named her “Just Lovely”!  With the help of my trusty piano mover and driver, I toured the Midwest playing and teaching in school gymnasiums, fellowship halls, libraries, even a barn turned museum! My audience members ranged from 5 to 90 years old.

One particular experience I won’t soon forget was in Ogallala, Nebraska. (For you geography buffs, Ogallala is about 280 miles west of Lincoln at the edge of the sandhills.) I was giving a performance presentation at the local K-12 school and was talking about American music. I asked the audience of young people if anybody knew the difference between a guitar and a banjo. The answer I was looking for was something about banjos having only 5 strings and guitars having six. Some young boy raised his hand and said,
“I know the difference between a banjo and a guitar– hillbillies play the banjo and rock stars play the guitar.”

Now you may be asking yourself what does “Piano-in-Tow” have to do with creating a musical legacy? The answer is simple–I figured if I was able to reach even just one person and ignite their interest in  classical music, than I had achieved my goal.

Although I have never thought of myself as a defender of musical culture, I have spent most of my life trying to create and sustain a reluctant public’s interest in classical music. Even with the success of “Piano-in-Tow”, I knew if I were to die tomorrow, my musical footprint would be small.  What else could I do to positively impact the world?

The ironic thing is that when I was younger, I didn’t view teaching and mentoring as part of my musical legacy. I guess I considered interactions with students just part of the job. But, as I was making plans to move to Texas, I realized I would be leaving behind a very important part of me. Although I had given a lot of myself to these students in Nebraska, I too, had benefited. These relationships had been mutually enriching. They allowed me to gain a better perspective on who I was and who I wanted to be as a musician and a teacher.  I also came to recognize that teaching wasn’t just about sharing musical ideas or solving technical problems. A good teacher must also be a part-time psychiatrist!

For most of the 16 years that I taught at UNL, my office was on the third floor of the music building. (I had been banished to the practice room floor the second year I was there.) The other piano faculty offices were all on the second floor. Of course, the second floor was much quieter than the third floor where all of the students spent most of their time. I discovered that in spite of all the noise and chaos on that top floor, there was an advantage to being housed up there–my studio was much more accessible to the students. If my door was open, I was almost never alone! Students would just saunter in, looking for conversation or chocolate or advice. These informal gatherings allowed me to develop nurturing relationships with students, both pianists and others. I still cherish many of the relationships that I forged while my door was open.

Did you think when you started teaching music that your job description might include teacher, mentor and therapist?  Successful teachers must first gain a student’s trust. We must be sensitive to body language and other subtle cues from our students. How else do you tailor your teaching style to your students’ individual learning styles? How else do you coax a student to express his or her innermost feelings to an audience of strangers? The privilege of teaching carries with it an enormous responsibility. As teachers, we have the opportunity to be a tremendous positive or negative influence on our students.

As an example, my first “serious” teacher was very influential on my musical development. At the time, I didn’t recognize this because she was a task-master and could be downright mean. There were times that I dreaded my piano lessons. For an 11-year old struggling with her own identity, learning how to play the piano could be very painful. Some of my other teachers were even more unkind, sometimes bordering on cruel. These interactions I experienced shaped my resolution as a teacher to always be kind, to never lose my patience and give encouragement even for the smallest accomplishments.

We as teachers have the unique opportunity to ignite and hopefully sustain our students’ interest in the arts. We must take this responsibility seriously because how else will we save classical music from becoming a dinosaur?

I challenge all of you to examine what is important to you about teaching music. I realize that not every student comes to his or her lesson willingly! But even those students can learn something because studying music has many side benefits.

It is so easy to focus on the problems we encounter during lessons but what we need to keep in mind are the benefits that our students gain beyond the musical proficiency itself.

  • Students learn discipline and patience.
  • They learn to accept criticism.
  • They learn the importance of setting goals.
  • They  develop problem-solving skills.
  • And, as many studies have shown, playing music opens the mind to all kinds of learning.

As music teachers, we are the mentors and cultural ambassadors for our art. I believe that that is the legacy we must all share in creating.

I would like to leave you with a quote from a parable by La Fontaine called “La Laboreur et ses Enfants“. My father used to recite this to me at the end of every one of our phone conversations while I was a doctoral student at Peabody.

Travaillez,  prenez de la peine:

C’est le fonds qui manque le moins.

Roughly translated it means:

Work hard, take the initiative,

Your foundation is just the beginning.Image