A "piano boot camp" — but with something extra — draws a select group of young pianists each year who gather not just for music master classes but also for lessons on everything from dance to philosophy.
Robin McCabe, professor of piano at the University of Washington, recalls little acts of subterfuge by piano students during her days in postgraduate studies at the Juilliard School.
“We had great practice pianos, all Steinways, two floors of them. Students raced to get to the best ones, and if you got one, the room was yours as long as you stayed there,” she said. “But if you were gone more than 15 minutes, according to Juilliard’s rules, another student could hijack the room. So if you wanted to get lunch, you’d leave all your sheet music open on the piano and put a spare pair of shoes down by the pedals. It would look like you’d just padded off to the restroom.”
So it’s no wonder McCabe thought it would be nice to assign designated practice rooms and times for the talented young pianists participating in this July’s innovative Seattle Piano Institute, held on the UW campus.
“It sounds trivial about designating rooms,” she says. “But SPI students have always thanked us. They don’t have to hunt for a room or bribe some trombonist to go away.”
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Eliminating such hassles for serious piano students is part of the idea behind SPI, which is described by three-time participant Hyun Su Seo (now pursuing her master’s degree in music at the University of Southern California) as a “piano boot camp” — but one with something extra.
Founded in 2010 by McCabe, who joined the UW faculty in 1987 and served as director of the School of Music from 1994 to 2009, and fellow UW professor of piano Craig Sheppard, the annual institute offers one 10-day session for 17 advanced students ages 16 and up (a group known as Session One). A second group (Session Two) for 12 kids ages 9 to 15 runs for four days. (Both sessions are full for this year.)
Application to both is by video audition, and is open to any pianist anywhere in the world. Among this summer’s students are pianists from China, Ireland and Bulgaria.
This season, Session One, which begins July 8, culminates in a UW Meany Hall showcase recital free to the public on July 18. Session Two, which begins July 18, has its free showcase in the UW School of Music’s Brechemin Auditorium on July 21.
Both past and returning students praise the institute for broadening their horizons as well as strengthening musical foundations.
“They taught me how to understand the details of music, how to read scores and, most importantly, how to practice efficiently,” says Biguo Xing, who was studying at the Central Conservatory of Music Middle School in Beijing when, at 16, she arrived in Seattle for the 2016 SPI.
“And we can learn from other students by observing the daily master classes, which is also a chance to perform at our highest level when facing audiences.”
For McCabe, the institute was a dream project that took a long time to come together.
“Robin and I had both been thinking about starting some sort of an institute for young pianists for at least 15 years,” says Sheppard.
The institute started under the auspices of the UW’s professional and continuing education program before becoming a nonprofit.
The institute has two goals: one is to immerse promising young musicians into an intensive experience of lessons, master classes and the (perhaps unnerving) opportunity to perform for an audience.
The other goal is to remind students — despite all their hard work — that there’s more to life than piano.
Part of the institute’s rigorous learning process, especially in Session One, comes from the fellowship of students who arrive from different points in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Because playing piano is largely a solitary endeavor, it helps to be surrounded by peers who share the same struggles and can offer mutual support.
“The bonding between the students is truly remarkable,” McCabe says. “They play for each other, try out passages for each other, cry on each other’s shoulder when arriving at an impasse. They all know it takes courage to submit to a public master class and express themselves on stage.”
“I felt a sense of community, asking others for valuable input and opinion,” says Nicholas Tagab, who participated in the institute in 2011 at age 18, then came back the following year and has been a volunteer since. He begins doctoral studies at the UW next fall.
“That connection transcends age and experience,” says Michael Krikorian, who was 28 and in the middle of working toward his doctor of musical arts at USC when he joined the institute’s 2016 summer program.
“The students are all over the map in terms of their progression in life, education, career, etc. But everyone comes together out of a deep love and respect for music and the craft of piano playing.”
But it’s the institute’s second goal, the one about stepping away from the keyboard once in a while, that is so intriguing. An important component of the SPI summer experience is interdisciplinary education, turning to UW resources and faculty beyond the School of Music. Among these activities are lessons in astronomy, philosophy, art, dance, physiology, aesthetics.
What does any of that have to do with tickling the ivories?
“Sitting in a practice room and playing a piano is only part of life,” says Sheppard. “We try to give the kids different perspectives. We’ve had gamelan [Javanese percussion] orchestras, where the kids get to play the instruments. Body movement. Exercises. All this has been very very popular.”
“We got to visit the university’s planetarium and saw the constellations,” says Seo. “We’ve had acting lessons, lectures on bizarre art. Those may not be directly related to piano playing, but they certainly expand our brain. The best kind of musician is a well-rounded one.”
“One lecture I really remember was on beauty in art, by Professor Ronald Moore [from the UW Department of Philosophy],” says Tagab. “What I took away is that every artist in any discipline should give every work a chance and try to find beauty within it.”
This summer, Session One will take a movement workshop led by Alethea Alexander and Paul Moore from the UW Department of Dance. They’ll also sit for a roundtable discussion with Dr. Frederick A. Matsen III, an orthopedic surgeon from UW Medicine. Matsen will talk about the impact of playing piano on the body.
Session Two will have a gamelan session and other adventures between piano lessons.
“We wanted this place to be unique, and to open students’ minds a little bit in different areas,” McCabe says. “It makes for a more ecumenical person, with a better chance of a healthy life.”
Seattle Piano Institute Showcase Recital (Session One students), 12:30-3:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 18; Meany Hall for the Performing Arts, University of Washington; free; 206-543-4880, seattlepianoinstitute.org.
Showcase Recital (Session Two students), 2-3:30 p.m. Saturday, July 21; Brechemin Auditorium, School of Music, University of Washington; free; seattlepianoinstitute.org).