A legacy of excellence: An interview with John and Nancy Weems

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Through their teaching, John and Nancy Weems have instilled in their students a love for music and a commitment to artistic pianism. In addition to a long-standing record of top awards in local, district, and state Texas Music Teachers Association competitions, John has taught winners of the National MTNA Baldwin Junior Achievement Award, the National MTNA Yamaha award, and other national and international competitions. His influence is broadened by his coaching of piano teachers, as these teachers impart John's principles to their students.

Nancy is the Madison Endowed Professor of Music and the Piano Area Coordinator at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. Her students have won prizes in the MTNA Collegiate Artist Competition, the Corpus Christi Young Artist Competition, the Nena Wideman National Young Artist Concerto Competition, and the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition. Nancy has performed, taught, and given master classes throughout the world, and her current and former students now teach and perform, expanding her impact.

Nancy received the University of Houston Teaching Excellence Award in 1995, and in 1991 the Texas Music Teachers Association named Nancy the Outstanding Collegiate Teacher while John received the Pre-College Teaching Excellence Award.

In their answers below John and Nancy share some of their story and core beliefs. 

What were your musical experiences during your pre-college years?

Nancy: Both of us were raised in relatively small towns where our musical experiences were somewhat limited during our early years. My hometown had a population of fewer than ten thousand people, and though there were few opportunities to attend classical music concerts, I was extremely active in our local school and church music programs, both of which became important and lasting influences in my musical education and experience. I was particularly involved in the choral programs at both my school and my church—I grew up singing constantly! And as one of only a handful of skilled pianists in our small community, I was routinely asked to accompany choirs at school and at church and perform for community events such as the Rotary Club meetings every Thursday. I was even asked to provide music for all of the weddings and funerals in our town! Of course, my wonderful private piano teacher, Sue Robbins, was a source of constant inspiration and encouragement. She became a lifelong friend, and I will forever be indebted to her for encouraging me to pursue my dream of becoming a professional pianist.

John: My earliest musical experience was also as a singer! As a young boy, I had a beautiful soprano voice and I absolutely loved to sing! When my voice changed, I turned my musical interests to the piano and particularly, to the clarinet, which became my instrument of choice during my pre-college years and even for a portion of my college studies. I was extremely involved in the band program during high school and achieved high honors as the first chair clarinetist in the All-American Band. Like Nancy, I was also raised in a small community where classical music concerts were few and far between! So, both of us had a great deal of "catching up" to do in college. But the strong and constant encouragement of our early music teachers in our respective school music programs was a huge influence in spurring us onward in our musical aspirations.

How did the two of you meet?

Nancy: Well, we met in a practice room, of course!! We were practicing next door to one another in the practice room area of Baylor University School of Music, where I was a freshman and John was a junior. Both of us were practicing the Chopin Scherzo in B-Flat Minor, and John was aggravated that I was playing it so much better than he was…..so he threw open the door to my practice room and said, "Who ARE you, anyway???"

John: No!! I was playing it twice as fast as she was, and I just thought that maybe I could help to give her some advice about how she should practice it to make it better…haha!

What lessons did you both learn during your early teaching years?

Nancy: I think that all of us are afraid that someday, our very first piano students will reappear and sue us for malpractice…I had so much to learn! But the most important thing I learned is that we must instill a love and respect for the beauty and artistry of music from the very beginning lesson and at every advancing level of repertoire. As a young teacher, it is easy to become impatient and make serious mistakes in choosing repertoire that is too difficult for the student to master with total understanding and artistry. As a collegiate teacher, I often see the result of this tendency when a promising undergraduate student appears and declares that he/she has absolutely no interest in working on a Chopin nocturne or a Haydn sonata because it is too "easy." Of course, it takes only one serious lesson for students to realize that this is absolutely not the case! During my early teaching years, I learned to value a more thoughtful and detailed teaching approach that emphasizes gradual development of musical artistry and patient, long-range goals for the development of each student.

John: One of the most important things that I learned from my very first years of teaching is the importance of creating a firm physical foundation for the young piano student and the critical importance of integrating basic physical motions with musical sounds and ideas from the very beginning of piano study. Even the simplest pieces in the method books must be viewed as opportunities to explain how the physical movements of our hands and arms are involved in producing very particular types of sounds and musical shapes on the piano. The importance of good body posture and good hand and arm position when seated at the instrument must be stressed from the very first lesson, along with how these may affect sound production. Basic principles of forearm rotation, along with in-and-out movements of the arm, can be introduced early and can be successfully absorbed by beginning piano students. It is important to link these physical instructions with how the movements connect to the musical shaping of a phrase or to the production and control of tone and dynamics. I learned that I can afford to be extremely detailed in my instruction to youngsters in the most simple of pieces in order to create this physical/musical integration and the foundation for success with much more difficult repertoire in future years of study.

John, you teach in a studio in your home? Can you tell us some details about your teaching space?

John: Yes! I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to design a wonderful teaching space in our home. Nancy and I worked with an architect to create a beautiful space with a small raised stage for two grand pianos and adequate seating space suitable for a small audience for performance classes and recitals. We also made certain that the room was soundproof so that Nancy could keep her piano in another area of our home and we would be able to practice and/or teach simultaneously. With two active pianists in one household, I don't doubt that having an independent studio space has helped us maintain a happy marriage! 

Nathaniel Zhang works with Nancy Weems

You both are known for the excellence of your students' playing. How do you instill that desire and attainment of such high standards?

John and Nancy: As for attaining high standards, we believe that most students will rise to the level of the teacher's highest expectations IF they are given the proper musical and technical tools to reach their goals. One of the most important things that we teach is how to practice effectively and creatively in order to solve problems and achieve a successful performance. It is crucial to give students a very clear picture of exactly HOW they should be practicing in between their lessons—specific ways of practicing problem passages, practicing for memory security, for technical ease, etc. Once a student realizes that he is actually achieving success in conquering his pieces, then his enthusiasm for practicing will increase dramatically. One success will lead to another and another and another. The attainment of each musical goal along the way breeds confidence and energy to reach higher and to go further.

Also crucial is the creation of many opportunities for students to perform their pieces for one another in performance classes and other venues before a competition or concert so that they can gain confidence and security. Having regular group performance classes is an important way of keeping students at their best. They always put extra effort into performing well for their friends, and they all gain inspiration from one another. High standards are contagious!

Nancy, what overall goals do you have for your college piano majors?

Nancy: As a collegiate teacher, I hope to produce an environment where musical excellence in any performance is respected as the highest form of accomplishment. I stress the importance of hard work and excellent practice skills, and I take equal pride in one of my least advanced students performing a successful jury exam as I do with my most advanced student winning an international piano competition. I believe that my own attitude is crucial to maintaining the desire for musical achievement in ALL of my students, regardless of the level of their talent or their musical background. It can be difficult to create such an environment in a typically competitive collegiate setting, but this is of utmost importance to me.

In fostering such an environment, I hope to create students who will respect music, respect themselves, and respect others—pianists who will become productive, effective, encouraging teachers at all levels and who will not only maintain a high degree of musical artistry, but will also be able to interact and communicate effectively with others as they take their place in their professional communities. Regardless of whether they become concert performers, college professors, or independent studio teachers, this is the ideal for which they should strive in order to have a successful and happy musical life. Admittedly, this is a lofty goal, but certainly worth striving towards every day that I teach!

John, I know piano teachers study with you to improve their own teaching skill. Can you share some of your goals and strategies for this coaching?

John: As I mentioned earlier, I believe in the importance of developing an integrated physical/musical approach beginning with the simplest of method book pieces. I have found that after years of perfecting their own highly advanced piano skills in college, many young teachers need to be reminded of the careful step-by-step process necessary to teach beginning piano students successfully. Many teachers in our area have asked me to guide them through the process of taking simple method book selections and"choreographing" the pieces to demonstrate how I would teach specific physical motions and relate those motions to musical sounds, shapes, and ideas on the piano. I find that many teachers are, at first, reluctant to be quite so specific in their technical instruction with young children for fear of stifling creativity. But, actually, just the opposite is true! The first step in learning any new skill is imitation, and it is only after this initial period of imitating that true creativity can begin to emerge. In other words, it is only after learning to speak a language well that one can become a true poet in that language!

I am so pleased and honored to share my successful experience and teaching approach, and many of the teachers who have worked with me have now had great successes of their own. That makes me very happy! As someone who has been in the teaching profession for many decades now, one of the most satisfying things for me is the possibility of passing along the skills and methods that have worked so well for me over the years in the hope that some of these ideas will continue to work for others.

John, how do you involve parents in your students' lessons and practice?

John: In teaching younger children, it is imperative that the process include the triangle of teacher-parent-child. It would be absolutely impossible to expect a young student to absorb and to remember everything that is presented in the private lesson, so I encourage the parent to be present and to videotape the lessons. Then, they are able to supervise the student's practice at home between their lessons and to ensure that my instructions are understood and followed. Also, having the parent present in the lesson ensures that they will fully understand my expectations from week to week. This certainly helps the students to advance more quickly! As a student becomes more independent over the first several years of study, I usually ask the parent to sit in my waiting area instead of in the lesson room. I have found this important in gradually developing a stronger teacher-student relationship as the student becomes older and more independent. The presence of only one authority figure in the room, rather than two, is much less intimidating for the student! And of course, practice gradually becomes a student's own responsibility and something that needs no parental supervision at home. Ideally, students will eventually practice because they desire to do so—not because their parent is requiring them to do it.

However, even with more advanced students, I cannot possibly overemphasize the importance of family support for a child's musical studies! The parents of my students offer tireless encouragement, financial and emotional support, and enthusiasm for the accomplishments of their children and without them my task as a teacher would be difficult or impossible. The study of classical music and the perfection of playing an instrument can be a time-consuming and strenuous process and one for which our students often receive little public recognition, unfortunately. Unlike the heroes on the football field, our piano "superstars" often go unnoticed by the community at large. So, the constant support and encouragement of parents and teachers can go a long, long way in keeping our students moving forward. 

Steven Dong works with John Weems

Nancy, one of your students, Kenny Broberg, just earned a silver medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Can you tell us more about that, and about how you prepared him for such an incredible achievement?

Nancy: Needless to say, I am incredibly proud of Kenny's accomplishment in winning the Van Cliburn silver medal! As a teacher, there is nothing better than to witness an amazing student achieve his dreams! This is such a high achievement for Kenny and one for which he worked steadily and with determination for many years. This award will bring him a wealth of wonderful opportunities to further develop his artistry and to share his immense talent with the world.

I was honored to be Kenny's teacher during his undergraduate studies at the University of Houston Moores School of Music, from which he graduated just last year. During his first year of college study, it was obvious to me that Kenny was definitely on the road to a concert performance career, so it was crucial that he study a wide range of music that could become his "core" repertoire as he began to enter major competitive events. I wanted to make certain that he acquired everything that he needed in order to enter something like the Van Cliburn Competition. We began entering many smaller events in order to perfect his repertoire as well as to gain experience dealing with public performance and the necessary ups and downs of the competition environment. But, through it all, the emphasis was always on fully developing the depth of his musicianship and artistry, his technical command, and his personal musical voice. I tried to provide Kenny with as many opportunities as possible and many others in the Houston musical community stepped in to offer him encouragement, opportunities to perform, and financial support. I will be forever grateful to all those who recognized his unique gifts and helped him along the way. He is a deserving and genuinely committed young artist who will make his mark in the world of music for many years to come.

What advice would either of you give teachers who are helping prospective piano majors prepare for college auditions?

John: For students who are serious about majoring in piano in college, I first have them research the audition requirements for the schools in which they might be interested. Audition requirements can vary quite a bit from one place to another, so it is important to begin planning early to make sure that the student has the appropriate repertoire ready to go in plenty of time. Many schools require pre-screening recordings to be submitted by December, so it is important to get everything prepared. Inexperienced students can often need a lot of help in preparing audition recordings, and they may not realize that the quality of their audio or video recordings can be a factor in the success of their auditions! If they do not have proper equipment or access to a top-notch instrument, teachers should certainly play a major role in assisting them with these arrangements.

As for preparing for the live auditions, it is important to give students ample opportunities to perform their programs in front of small audiences. So, plenty of studio classes or other types of performances will help immensely with confidence and security.

Anyone who has performed publicly knows how difficult it can be to play in front of a small jury or committee—sometimes even more so than playing in front of a larger audience! So, everything we can do to give them experience beforehand is invaluable.

Nancy: One of the most important things to remember is that most college teachers are looking for potential, not for absolute perfection, in a freshman-level college audition. The repertoire should be chosen to show a student's musical and technical strengths. Most likely, a committee will be much more impressed with a beautifully prepared performance of appropriately chosen repertoire, rather than a sloppy audition of too-difficult pieces that only displays a student's weaknesses. It is not so much about WHAT is played that really matters—it is about HOW it is played! So, choose audition repertoire very wisely and not with a misplaced effort to impress with difficulty.


All photos by Hanqing Zhou. Used with permission. All rights reserved. 

November 12
Keyboard Kids' Companion: November/December 2017

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