Mentoring Brilliant Young Talent
As Professor of Piano at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Jon Kimura Parker has to strike a balance between his performance schedule and his class. LizPR asks how he does it:
LizPR: How did you come to teaching as part of your career?
JKP: It’s natural to teach the occasional master class here and there while on the road, and I’ve always enjoyed the chance to get closer to a musical community where I am performing.
But taking on a class of students is another matter entirely. Each has particular strengths, specific areas for growth, different responses to different styles of teaching, and a wide range of potential. It’s a huge responsibility as I am really the guardian of their musical growth.
LizPR: How often are you able to meet with your students?
JKP: Actually, the question I am asked most often at audition time is how much will I be around for lessons. The answer is: very regularly. I keep my class to a manageable size and can usually see them each week.
LizPR: But aren’t you often on the road each week?
JKP: In some months that’s true, but the majority of my performing engagements are with orchestras in North America, and I can often travel on a Wednesday or Thursday morning and return on a Sunday night. This makes it possible to see my students regularly. The biggest difficulty of the orchestral schedule is in managing family time, as I hate to be away from home on weekends.
LizPR: How does your approach vary from student to student?
JKP: I try to individualize as much as possible, while still making suggestions that will benefit almost anyone.
Being individual has led to a few unusual lessons: I had one freshman who played wonderfully, but was a nervous performer. As with most musicians, those nerves led to rushed performances. In one lesson, I had her run up and down the hallway outside my studio (we have VERY long hallways at Rice!) and once she was out of breath, I suggested she sit down and play the Chopin Black Key Etude for me, in the same tempo that she had practiced. By simulating the symptoms of nerves, she was able to practice controlling their effects.
I had another student who confessed that she had almost never given a solo performance without a significant memory slip. We took the first movement of the Chopin 3rd Sonata, fiendishly difficult to memorize by any standards, and applied a completely rigorous structural template over it. She photocopied the score and created a new layout on very wide paper that emphasized form, and ignored the niceties of the even layouts in professional publishing. Once she had a true visual image of the movement, we got into all the other little details of memory: unexpected repeated notes, musical ‘forks’ in repeated pathways, etc. When she finally performed this sonata with flawless memory, I felt more pride than I would have in one of my own performances.
LizPR: How does your performing experience add to your teaching?
JKP: I love to be able to use my performing experience in lessons, particularly as a student gets closer to their own performance. At The Shepherd School of Music at Rice we have continual opportunities for performances, in studio master classes, regular studio recitals in Duncan Hall, and each students’ individual Degree Recitals as well.
We work on sound, and how to project into a big physical space. I’ve had extensive experience with adjusting to different pianos and share this information as well. I enjoy public speaking (the majority of students don’t, I’ve found) and I make it mandatory in at least some of their performances, as I’ve found it’s an essential skill. The same principle of not making an automatic diminuendo at the end of a phrase applies to the ends of spoken sentences as well!
If I’m working with a student who is preparing to perform a concerto with orchestra, I often play through the accompaniment with them on 2nd piano. One of my favorite tactics is to play orchestral entries late (which isn’t uncommon in actual performance, particularly entries that come after a downbeat rest) and to shift in and out of unfamiliar tempi. In this situation it’s helpful for the student to realize that what they will encounter on stage is something very different from the cocoon of the practice room.
LizPR: Has teaching changed you as a performing artist?
JKP: Absolutely. Teaching forces you to clarify your ideas. I’m finding that my approach to interpretation grows as I work on more and more music, with more and more students. The piano repertoire is rich in scope, and it’s exciting to teach a work that I’ve never performed; by the time the student is ready to perform it, I’ve almost learned it myself!