A Conversation with Pianist Meisha Adderley Print E-mail
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Written by Radu A. Lelutiu   
Friday, 25 January 2013

A Conversation with Pianist Meisha Adderley

In November 2012, Meisha Adderley released a new recording on the Albany label, featuring music for piano duo written by four Afro-American composers, one of whom is the pianist’s husband, the composer Cedric Adderley. In connection with this event, I chatted with Adderley about her education, views on the future of classical music, and her efforts on behalf of unsung composers and contemporary music.

I began the interview by asking Adderley to tell me when she discovered that she was musically gifted. “I have yet to discover that!” she replied. She began piano lessons at the age of three in Evansville, Indiana. Her older sister was already taking lessons, and her teachers noticed young Meisha’s talents and encouraged her parents to place her in the Yamaha piano program for three year olds. Her parents were very supportive right away, making sacrifices to pay for her piano lessons for the next 15 years. “They were quite amazing. One of the requirements of the Yamaha program was that one of the parents take lessons as well, so that he or she can help the child with homework. So my mother took piano lessons, and to this day she still reads hymns and other pieces for her own enjoyment.” Adderley realized that she wanted to be a professional pianist when she was a sophomore in high school. “I was sitting in class and the teacher asked us three questions to encourage us to start thinking about possible careers: ‘What are you skilled at doing? What do you love to do? What do you see yourself doing in five years?’ My answers to each of those questions were ‘Piano! Piano! Piano!’ I believe it was at that moment that I realized my path was to be a professional pianist.”

I asked Adderley about the teachers who have had the deepest influence on her artistic development. “My first real teacher was Rita Butturi-Roth, who began to teach me when I was 10 or 11. She had degrees in both piano and flute performance from Indiana University, and she played flute for the local Philharmonic. She really lit a fire under me and pushed me to participate in state-sanctioned music festivals, recitals, and competitions. She taught me for the next seven years until I went to college. Next, I studied at Indiana State University with Beverley Simms, who helped cement my technique. She understands thoroughly how the body and hands work, and there are no technical problems she cannot fix. I still work with her as much as I can. After that, I attended the University of South Carolina, where I received a master’s degree and doctorate while studying with Charles Fugo. I learned a lot about interpretation from Dr. Fugo, who has a very special gift for helping students understand how cause and effect work in music. He opened my eyes with questions like ‘Why did the composer write this chord? Why did he write a crescendo here and not here? Why did he place a tenuto here? What type of sound do you want in this phrase? Where does this phrase really end? Look at the big picture and follow the harmonic progression!’ He helped me find my pianistic voice and a palette with which to speak. He also taught me to listen. One of his favorite sayings was ‘You have two ears. Use both of them.’”

After she completed her doctoral degree, Adderley won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, which enabled her to study for a year in Australia, at the University of Sydney Conservatory. There, she received a graduate diploma in piano performance while studying with Daniel Herscovitch. “It was a very intense year because each semester we had to play a one-hour recital from memory of music that we had never studied previously. Herscovitch was an authority on memorization and practice techniques. The conservatory was next to the Sydney Opera House downtown, so many of the students took train rides to school. He encouraged me to study the scores and memorize details on each train ride. It’s amazing how many details you can find in a score during a 10-minute train ride! Herscovitch was also big on visual memory. He would place a score in front of me and let me look at it for a minute or two, then take it away and make me play portions from memory. He also encouraged me to write out the first few measures of a piece I had memorized in exact detail. He would say, ‘If you don’t know EVERY note, and you’re not able to visualize through the entire piece away from the piano, you don’t have the piece memorized.’”

I asked Adderley to share the best piece of advice she’d ever received as a musician. “As you can imagine, I’ve received a lot of advice over the years, but I think the best came from Dr. Simms: ‘Keep playing!’ Long gone are the days when, as a college student with a meal plan, I could spend as much time as I wanted practicing and studying. Oftentimes things get in the way, and at times it’s hard to balance family, work, and other responsibilities. That is when I think of Simms’s words, which remind me of how important piano is in my life.”

I asked Adderley, who serves on the piano faculty of Capital University Conservatory of Music, if she enjoys teaching. “I really do. As a very young pianist I was not sure that teaching would be something that I would enjoy or be skilled at doing. I took several pedagogy classes while at Indiana, and received a certificate in piano pedagogy, which was unusual for an undergraduate program. When I was 19, I taught my first young student and began to really enjoy it after seeing how well she progressed and realizing that I had played a part in her pianistic success. I’ve even taught elementary public school music for four years, and I had a doctorate degree in piano performance at the time! When I got married, I was essentially a trailing spouse and moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where my husband was the chair of the music department at Claflin University. There were no college piano teaching positions available in the area, so I got certified alternatively through the South Carolina Department of Education to teach music in the public schools. It was the hardest work I’d ever done, but I learned the most about myself and about teaching from this experience. Teaching is important to me. I feel that nothing is worth having if you don’t share it. I also feel that it is my personal obligation as an artist to convey to others the things I’ve learned over the years as a pianist. Since I prefer discussion over dictating during piano lessons, I also learn quite a bit from my students. Having to clearly verbalize a concept to a student that may come naturally to me is one of the challenges in teaching. And I love challenges.”

As she is active in piano pedagogy circles, I asked Adderley to share her thoughts on the future of classical music and classical music education. She responded: “I recently attended a conference where Pete Jutras, the editor of the Clavier Companion , was talking about the decrease in acoustic piano sales over keyboard sales. He hypothesized that people buy keyboards because they instantly sound artistic with the added chordal and rhythmic accompaniments and synthesized sounds. He said that people just want to ‘play.’ I agree with him. Non-musicians need to know that anyone can learn to play the piano, and that innate music aptitude is not a prerequisite to achieving a decent degree of proficiency. Piano teachers need to be more open to creative collaborations for their students, such as group piano laboratories for children and adults, chamber music opportunities, and coordination of the piano with band instruments.”

Adderley believes that, for classical music to regain wide appeal, music education has to be reevaluated. “Playing the piano used to be thought of as an individual sport. The view has always been that pianists practice alone and that, unless they play in a chamber music group or with an orchestra, they perform alone too. In my opinion, however, those views need to be reexamined. If piano teachers of pre-college students provided outlets for social interaction, not only for the students but also for the parents, they would probably be more successful in attracting and retaining students. Soccer moms and dance moms look forward to taking their child to practices and rehearsals because they look forward to the social interaction with other moms. Along the same lines, I believe that creative programming is imperative for increasing the number of young audience members. A solution is to expand the boundaries of classical music. One of my goals as a classical pianist is to appeal to both classical music lovers and those who enjoy cabaret clubs and revelry. Cedric will soon be composing percussive piano pieces that make full use of the instrument, particularly through plucking the strings and striking them with mallets. These rhythmic pieces would be intersected with synthesized rhythms and synthesized sound, then performed in cabaret clubs to attract wider audiences to the possibilities of the instrument. Artists need to be more open to creative programming such as this to attract wider and younger audiences.”

I asked Adderley to provide an example of a creative program from her own experience. “I once performed a piano piece by Hannibal Lokumbe titled John Brown and Blue . Throughout the piece, which tells the story of a white abolitionist, John Brown, the composer wrote colors in the score to describe the mood of each section. I collaborated with an elementary school art teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. We had students create color pastel drawings as they listened to my performance of the work during a music class. In a subsequent concert, I projected some of their drawings while I played the work. Had the concert been in the same state and city as these students lived, I would have definitely invited them and their families. What parent would not want to bring their child to see their drawing displayed during a public concert?”

I asked Adderley, whose repertoire includes a lot of contemporary music, including Rautavaara’s rarely heard Second Piano Sonata, if new music has helped her design creative programs. “I may be biased as the wife of a composer, but I do feel a certain attraction to new music. However, this attraction began well before I met my husband. I was an undergraduate student at Indiana State University where there is an annual Contemporary Music Festival that features numerous nationally and internationally known performers, conductors, and composers. Students are able to compete for performance spots at the festival. This is where I first performed progressive 20th-century music. I remember performing a solo piece where I tapped the piano strings with a highlighter pen. I was hooked! Now I like to program at least one 20th-century or contemporary work on each recital along with standard repertoire from the 18th and 19th centuries. The 20th century is well behind us, so it’s about time that we explore its music!” How does she dispel the audience’s apprehension about new music? “With newer works, I find it’s best to talk to the audience about them before playing so that they know what to listen for. They usually tell me that they appreciate this approach.”

Does she think it part of her artistic mission to perform new works and evangelize on behalf of neglected composers? “Absolutely. If new music is not performed, how will anyone hear it and consider it relevant? Sadly, many of the works I perform are still unpublished. In fact, some piano duo works that I’ve uncovered from archives are still in the composer’s original manuscript. I’ve forwarded proposals to academic and commercial publishers with an interest in editing and publishing some of these works. All have written me back saying that it is compelling research but that publishing these works does not meet their current publishing needs. In my view, these works need to be engraved and readily available to music lovers and serious piano performers who will find them to be veritable treasures for listening, analysis, future study, and performance.”

I asked Adderley to explain the background of her new recording. “All the works on the CD were written in the 20th and 21st century by Afro-American composers. Non-jazz piano music by Afro-American composers has influenced the American culture for decades. Nevertheless, this music had lingered in relative obscurity and, in fact, much of it remains unpublished. However, as we move farther into the 21st century, the increased interest in the concert music of Afro-Americans has generated a fair amount of academic research. That said, most of this music remains to be discovered, and that is particularly true for the piano duo works. It turns out that a sizable amount of quality piano duo music has been written by Afro-American composers. Unfortunately, these ill-fated compositions have received little documentation and attention, as they are not readily taught as part of the standard 20th-century American piano literature. For example, William Grant Still has been deceased for 34 years and this is the first recording of his three piano duo works.”

“The idea for the recording began when I was awarded a Floyd/Perkinson Research Grant from Columbia College in Chicago to gather more information about piano duo works by Afro-American composers at their Center for Black Music Research Library. I spent a whole week there gathering information and scores. In my research, I found out that a recording of piano duo works by Afro-American composers had never been made in the history of the recording industry. I won a Summer Research Grant and asked Stacey Holliday, who was one of my colleagues on the piano faculty at Claflin University, if she would be interested in recording a demo CD with me to send off to record companies. I ordered the William Grant Still piano duo works and called Dolores White for her scores, and we started performing them. I designed press kits for us and sent the demo off on a whim to Albany Records. We heard back from them almost immediately with a very favorable nod.” Adderley expressed her deep admiration for and gratitude towards Susan Bush, the president of Albany Records. “With the label, she has created a global voice that readily embraces new music.” As it turns out, Albany Records’ enthusiasm for her recording was well justified: Adderley’s CD is the only disc issued by the label in 2012 to win the Aaron Copland Fund music recording grant.

I asked Adderley whether she or her partner Holliday played the claves and maracas in White’s Rhythm of the Claves ? “Good question. We both did! At one point in the middle of the piece, the players are required to play the piano and the claves at the same time. We had to hold one of the claves in our lap, and tap while playing the piano with the other hand. White writes it out so that it’s clear who should play which and when.”

In parting, I asked Adderley about her future projects. Are there more recordings in the works? She responded: “Since completing my Floyd/Perkinson Research Grant project, I have found many more excellent piano duo works written by Afro-American composers. I’m determined to see that these scores will not collect dust in archives, so I hope that this will be the first of many CDs with Albany Records. Maybe this will turn into a life-long project. I am currently looking for a new piano duo partner, since Stacey has relocated to sunny Florida.”

PIANO DUO PROJECT Meisha Adderley, Stacey Holliday (pn) ALBANY 1383 (51:53)

WHITE Rock-a-My Soul. Rhythm of the Claves. STILL Summerland. Kaintuck. Scherzo. SMITH Mirrors. ADDERLEY Allegro Giocoso

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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