Dr. N.A.N.'s Blog

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Archive for Piano in Tow

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

Cowboys, longhorns and pico de gallo

In just a few days, I will be enveloped in the warmth we call San Antonio where I will give a masterclass and play a recital. I’m very excited for this trip because it has been a long time in planning–I can’t wait to meet the young students at the Musical Arts Center of San Antonio and hear them play! Many of them are preparing for auditions, festivals and competitions and I will have the honor of listening to the results of their hardwork.

I will also be presenting a recital under the auspices of Alamo Music Center. Since I am returning to my Texas roots, I decided that some cowboy music had to be part of the program.

And a visit to south Texas in the springtime wouldn’t be complete without some bluebonnet gazing and of course a trip to La Fogata (see my earlier post on this wonderful restaurant).

“Rock stars play guitars, hillbillys play banjos”

Such was the response to my query, “What is the difference between a guitar and a banjo?” from a young man in Oshkosh, Nebraska during “Piano-in-Tow”, Part Trois. Of course, his comment brought the house down and left me scrambling to recapture the students’ attention. I didn’t mind–it was just another memorable moment from my adventures with “Piano-in-Tow”. The Spring 2010 tour focused on schools and communities in the northwest corner of Nebraska as well as west central Nebraska. I logged more than 1000 miles in a rented van and a trailer named Lovely. My Yamaha C-7 was loaded and unloaded 16 times in 5 days but held its tune remarkably well.

Early morning unload in Bridgeport, Nebraska

Although my trusty piano mover would prefer that I just use a digital keyboard, it’s nice to know that the piano can withstand that much upheaval!

This tour had a profound effect on me not just because I met so many wonderful people and students but because I was reminded of why I go to the effort–“Piano-in-Tow” allows me to bring my passions for music and teaching TO the people.


Ahhhhhh, back in the land of warmth and margaritas.  I love coming home.  For me, home is peaceful and warm–year round.  Home means really fresh tortillas, balmy temperatures, the world’s best salsa and the reassuring sound of my parents’ old clocks.

On this visit, I am really busy.  I am meeting with music students at the University of Texas at Austin to share with them my “Piano-in-Tow” experiences, giving an evening performance with Daniel Bernard Roumain for the 180 Group as well as a mid-day presentation at Sul Ross Middle School.  All of this activity will probably interfere with my visit to my favorite nursery–Hill Country African Violets.  HCAV has one of the biggest selections of African Violets that I have ever seen.  They have dedicated a very large greenhouse entirely to violets.  And, then of course, there are the rooms in another building where the proprietor propagates new plants…I will also miss the opportunity to visit the gravesite of a former colleague of my father’s.  Many years ago, we started a tradition of visiting this gentleman’s grave whenever I am in San Antonio.  Part of the tradition is to drive the old green Mercedes out to a cemetery just east of Boerne, TX.  Better than ketchupBetter than ketchup

I have promised several Nebraska friends that I will bring back jars of La Fogata’s Roasted Salsa.  As far as we are concerned, it is the best salsa available!  My mouth is watering just thinking about it…

Spaghettification and other buckyball-like discoveries

My stalwart road manager having a moment...

My stalwart road manager having a moment...

When I submitted my application for the Layman Fund Grant, I included in my project description a list of benefits that could come of “Piano-in-Tow”.  This list included blogging, media coverage and the possibility of an interview with a stray dog.  Well, I didn’t meet any stray dogs during the tour but I did meet some wonderful folk that I would like to mention.  The first person is Heath.

Heath and Penny hawking "Piano-in-Tow" memorabiliaHeath and Penny hawking “Piano-in-Tow” memorabilia

He was the muscle behind Dietz’s Music House piano moving services.  A little background–Heath is a musician by trade who loves cats, physics, books and is currently building a car in his living room.  Heath provided a great deal of comic relief throughout the tour including teaching us about spaghettification.  Who would have thunk?

Then there was Paul H. and his wife Lori and their children–they were the main organizers of my presentations in both Petersburg and Albion and all of them contributed to a very well-organized event.  I will not forget their hospitality nor their enthusiastic commitment to the arts!

And then there is Janet R.

Janet and me

Janet and me

who has been studying with me for over 10 years, driving the 100+ miles from Albion to Lincoln once-a-month.  She met us at Boone Central Middle School in Petersburg (12 miles north of Albion) to attend “PiT” and introduced me to the students.  Her introduction included little-known facts about me such as my love for cats, cycling and reading!  Janet’s words meant a great deal to me.

This is what "Piano-in-Tow" is all about.

This is what it's all about.

Last but not least there were the kids.  Wow!

Students at Columbus Middle School

Students at Columbus Middle School

So many of them enthusiastic about the piano, the music and me.  Two questions they asked at every stop (and sometimes more than once at each stop!) were–“How many hours a day do you practice?”  And, the ubiquitous question, “How old are you?”  I narrowly skirted this last one…


More students at Columbus Middle School

Finally back home where the follow-up details never seem to end.  And, then of course, there is the spring “Piano-in-Tow” tour to start planning.  Sigh.

One of my best moments...

One of my best moments...

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Beatrice

Having had a couple of days to reflect on my performances at the Hevelone Performing Arts Center at the Beatrice High School, I’ve come to the following conclusion:  10th-12th graders are a challenging audience with whom to connect but there is still hope for the future of classical music.  After my performance for band members and other interested parties, I invited students to come up and take a closer look at the piano.

What it's all about...

What it's all about

I was approached by a young man who started asking me questions.  I was immediately impressed with his ability to articulate his thoughts.  I was also impressed with his awareness of the world around him.  I think this young man’s future is bright and I know now that there will be at least one supporter of the arts in the future!

My evening performance at the Hevelone Center was well-attended, mostly by community members.   They were an enthusiastic crowd, perhaps because the first entry on their iPod wasn’t NineInchNails?  Following the performance, I spoke with several people, all of whom were musicians.  I was honored that they shared their personal stories with me–one of the many reasons public performance is so important to me.

Havin' fun...

Havin' fun

I get to meet interesting people from all walks of life whose experiences are fascinating and even touching.  Kind of like a “small eye on America”!

This “Piano-in-Tow” double presentation received a nice write-up in the Beatrice Daily Sun.

And finally, in Penny’s and my never-ending quest for a good cup of Joe, we discovered a nice coffee shop near downtown Beatrice!

It it’s Monday, it will be Columbus Middle School in Columbus, Nebraska.

Do you have any extra energy I can borrow?

Boy, am I’m pooped.  First, Rafaella insisted on waking me up at 6a.m. because she wanted to crawl under the sheets and she always asks by repeatedly tapping me with her paw.  I eventually got out of bed because I knew sleep wouldn’t be forthcoming until tonight…

A piano needs at least 3 legs to remain upright...

A piano needs at least 3 legs to remain upright...

Fast forward to 10a.m. and Penny and I are standing outside of my studio watching the piano movers making quick business out of disassembling my Yamaha in preparation for its trip to Schuyler, Nebraska.  It took some time to convince the movers that the piano had to go on the elevator without a piano board because it won’t fit any other way.  We’re finally on the road around 11:15.  We arrive at Schuyler Grade School just as lunch is being served.  (They didn’t offer us any…)

Ready to go...

Ready to go...

Fast forward to 1:30pm and the piano is upright in the school gymnasium, the speakers are setup, the risers are in place and I’m just waiting for the first bunch of kids to arrive.

Hi! My name is Dr NAN.

Hi! My name is Dr NAN.

They start to show up at 2pm and I start engaging them in conversation, hoping to make a connection with some of them so that they will stay focused on my presentation.  (I think I was somewhat successful!)  My presentation begins and they are active participants, clapping after every piece as well as asking lots of questions.  The microphone that I was given chose to work only intermittently so Penny kept handing me a different one until we found one that worked.

Playing the piano is the easy part...

Playing the piano is the easy part...

At one point during the show, a little girl asked me why I tapped my foot during Jam! I explained that I thought the empty measure needed something.  Somehow, the kids took that to mean they could all bang their feet on the risers so we had about 70 kids tapping their feet at the same time.  Mix that in a gymnasium and you can only imagine the noise.  After the show, I invited students to come look at the piano and they literally descended on the instrument and me.  They were poking around, playing notes, looking inside and causing general mayhem.  This moment might have bothered their teachers but I loved it.  I felt like the Pied Piper.  It was great to be surrounded by so much positive energy.  As the children were filing out, we handed each one of them a “PiT” temporary tattoo.  The tattoos will probably end up everywhere but on their arms…

Before I realized it, the gym was empty, the piano was already on the truck and it was just me and Penny, reliving the past hour.

Me and my wonderful road manager

Me and my wonderful road manager

I offered to find some good coffee for P but we couldn’t find anything resembling a coffee house so had to settle for a convenience store.  We got back on the road and drove through a torrential downpour to Lincoln.  As soon as I got home, I took a nap.  Whew–keeping up with 6th graders isn’t easy!