Unconventional summer in store for piano students

Leah Rankin | Staff Writer

The Piano Program at the School of Music is, in a word, unconventional. As piano students introduce themselves to each other and faculty through a private “Play-In” today, they embark on a summer program that will allow them the opportunity to learn adventurous approaches to making music.

Rebecca Penneys, accomplished pianist and professor at the Eastman School of Music, believes in teaching music by connecting the
mind and body.

She firmly believes in obtaining the “maximum result with minimum effort,” which for some students means bouncing to the tempo on an exercise ball. For others, it means attending the weekly Piano Mind Body Tune-up classes that teach holistic methods of playing efficiently while leaving all the worries of performance anxiety and tension behind.

“Music is a real healing place for me,” Penneys said. “If I have an ache or pain, I can go to the piano for 10 minutes and feel better. It’s like a massage.”

Penneys says the structure of the School of Music — also known as the Chautauqua Music Festival — is a welcome change of pace for both her and her students. Because there are no academic curriculum, juries, papers or exams, students can easily find the five hours every day they need to practice.

“I never have to ask anyone to practice here,” Penneys said.

But that doesn’t mean the close to 25 pianists enrolled in the School of Music aren’t going to be busy. As students engross themselves in solo and chamber repertoire, guest artists will visit the school on a weekly basis to teach master classes and give recitals, all of which are open to the public.

Guests this year include young Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk; Omri Shimron, one of Penneys’ former students; and Svetozar Ivanov, a pianist known for combing his music with other art mediums like animation and photography.

Piano students will also be able to hear their mentors perform in a series of faculty concerts. The first faculty recital, featuring pianist Nicola Melville and bassoonist Jeffrey Robinson, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in Fletcher Music Hall.

The summer piano program culminates in a competition at the end of Week Five. A handful of judges will convene to determine a winner, who will perform a concerto with the Music School Festival Orchestra. Last year’s winner, John Marcin, will join the MSFO July 11 for a performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54.

This year’s students have a batch of brand new Steinway pianos and newly refurbished air-conditioned practice rooms.

“It feels like you’re in heaven,” Penneys said.

Penneys noted that about a third of her Chautauqua students return each year. In part, she thinks this is because the lessons learned while practicing an instrument are also lessons for life.

Students are given the space and time to practice in the nurturing environment of Chautauqua, a place Penneys calls “a Disneyland for the arts.”