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An Interview with Jane Magrath and E. L. Lancaster


At the 2019 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, Jane Magrath and E. L. Lancaster will receive the NCKP Lifetime Achievement Award. Magrath grew up in South Carolina and earned degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wesleyan College, and a D.M. from Northwestern University. She joined the faculty of the University of Oklahoma in 1981, where E. L. Lancaster had begun working two years earlier. Lancaster grew up in Tennessee and earned degrees from Murray State University, the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Together, Lancaster and Magrath created and shaped the piano and piano pedagogy program at the University of Oklahoma (OU).

In addition to their teaching, they each authored and edited numerous books, repertoire series, and music. These materials are staples in solo and group teaching throughout North America and beyond. Both won the highest awards for teaching, student advising, and service while at OU and both have served the pedagogy community nationally in various capacities through the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy (a forerunner of NCKP), the Frances Clark Center, and MTNA. Additionally, Dr. Lancaster served as Senior Vice President and Keyboard Editorin-Chief of Alfred Music from 1997–2016. He continues to work at Alfred as Executive Editor, Piano, and teaches at California State University, Northridge. Recently retired, Dr. Magrath is professor emeritus at OU, she is currently working on a second edition of The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature (Alfred Music), and she directs the Summer Piano Seminar at the Classical Music Festival in Austria.

Both Magrath and Lancaster have been regular contributors to The Piano Magazine's forerunners. Jane was a regular contributor to New Music Reviews in Clavier, to Musings in Clavier Companion, and E. L. authored the Q & A pedagogical column for Clavier. I recently sat down with Jane and E. L. to reflect on their careers, their contributions to the piano profession, and to hear their thoughts about piano teaching, learning, and performance today. Throughout the interview their respect for each other was palpable; they listened intently to each other, interjected ideas, expounded upon what the other had said, and laughed together over shared experiences. I left the interview feeling that the ideas expressed were richer because they contributed different, but complementary, opinions during the conversation. It was a testament to a friendship and professional relationship that has been evolving for four decades. Here are excerpts (edited and condensed for clarity) from our conversation on March 16, 2019.


Pamela D. Pike: Did you grow up in musical homes? 

Jane Magrath: My parents appreciated classical music, especially my father who sang in the choir at church. My grandparents also were musical. My interest in piano was ignited from visiting my grandmother, who lived in the same town, and playing her piano. 

E. L. Lancaster: It was the same for me in that my fascination with piano was sparked by visits to my grandmother's house as she had a piano and we did not have one in our home. 

JM: I didn't know that! When I played on my grandmother's piano, I would pick out music by ear. She had a Big Note Book with familiar tunes, but I guess I still played those by ear. When I asked my mother for lessons, she said that I could do either piano or dance lessons. Of course, I chose piano. 

ELL: My mom's youngest sister was a music minor, though my immediate family wasn't musical. My grandmother had a piano and I would go there and play. Unlike Jane, I couldn't pick out the melodies, but I would play in rhythm. I'm sure I was banging, but I heard music and had this strong sense of the rhythm. Eventually, our grandmother gave us her piano.

PDP: Can you share a little about your beginning piano studies?

JM: It seems incredible, but my mother let me choose my own teacher. I chose Mrs. McCown, who was the organist at our church. I began lessons in the third grade, and they took place in a little music hut on the school grounds. 

ELL: My first lessons were at the school, too! 

JM: We got out of class to have our lessons. 

ELL: We did too! 

JM: I loved slipping out of class to go to my lessons. Mrs. McCown fascinated me. She loved playing, was nurturing, and I had fun in my lessons. She put me in the Schaum method, which worked for me. Later on, I had many books of music and she always had me learn part of a musical. She inadvertently taught me to sight read by giving me a lot of literature. I worked with her through high school graduation. 

ELL: My first lessons were when I was six, in a modified group lesson. There were three people who wanted to study, and the teacher only had one time slot. So, the three of us got out of class to go to the lesson, but I think that we each basically had a ten-minute lesson. It wasn't like our group techniques today. We used the John Thompson books. I sight read a lot, too. I probably sight read more than I practiced! For my last two years of high school I went to Murray State University, which was about an hour's drive, to study with a professor there and that's where I did my undergraduate degree. What I remember about my first teachers is that they were nurturing and they kindled the love of music in me. 

PDP: When did you know that you wanted to pursue music as a career? 

JM: In high school, probably the ninth or tenth grade. I toyed with several other majors but I kept coming back to music—it's what I really loved to do. I didn't realize it, but it was my passion. 

ELL: I came from a family of teachers, so I knew I was somehow going to be a teacher. I was going to do a double major in music and math in college, but I quickly discovered that I wanted to do music. 

PDP: Would you reflect on your most influential teachers? 

JM: I'm grateful to each of my teachers for different things. My freshman teacher was ideal for that transition from high school to college. She insisted that I count aloud, which I did not enjoy, but it was one of the greatest things she could have done for me. She also insisted that I sing. She taught me how to play a musical line, which is a wonderful gift. My next teacher was an Isabelle Vengerova student. It was helpful to learn the technique in the formative years when my technique was being shaped. I found the method hard to understand and I can't say that I've retained it all, but that discipline carried through. 

Those teachers sent me to study with Marvin Blickenstaff for my masters. What an inspiring experience. He was boundless with his passion and a great role model of someone who absolutely loves to teach, loves music, and loves practicing. I also watched him teach his children's classes and I observed as he was writing Music Pathways, which was informative.

I was out of school for five or six years before starting a doctorate but during that time I studied with Michael Zenge, who had a wonderful eye for detail and for building a pianist. During my doctorate, Frances Larimer was my pedagogy teacher. She was persistent at helping her students grow into professional teachers. My applied teacher was Donald Isaak, who had been a Carl Friedberg student. He helped free my technique. 

Also, I should mention the independent teachers in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I graduated with my masters and joined the teachers group, they took my friend and me under wing. They guided me on choosing repertoire, finding new materials and appropriate festivals where my students could perform.

ELL: My most influential teacher was my undergraduate teacher, whom I studied with for two years in high school. His name was John Winter and he had studied pedagogy with Polly Gibbs. He helped me understand what playing piano involved. When I began my masters, I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but after my first pedagogy class, team taught by Jim Lyke and Gail Berenson, I knew I wanted to teach pedagogy and group piano. 

After graduating, I taught at a community college but studied piano pedagogy with Larry Rast, who was a big name in group piano at the time. Then for my doctorate, like Jane, I worked with Frances Larimer. So, I studied with the most important group piano specialists at that time. 

One of the biggest influences for me, in terms of my teaching, was that my first job was in a community college. There, we had some good students (who could not afford to go elsewhere), more average students (unlike those you'd encounter at a conservatory), and returning adults (who returned to college once they had raised their families). So, I really had to learn to teach a diverse group of students. Being able to observe several part-time applied faculty who were teaching this range of students taught me how to teach different levels of repertoire. That was an important part of my education, even though it wasn't part of a degree program.


PDP: Speaking of degree programs, together, you built one of the most influential pedagogy programs in the country at OU. What shaped the program?

ELL: I interviewed for the pedagogy and group piano position. My interview included a lecture for the pedagogy class where I discussed how to develop yourself for a career in piano teaching. I proposed that there were two different types of students who went to study piano: those who wanted to teach, but not perform so much; and, those who wanted to teach and perform. So, I proposed a masters and doctoral program in music education with an emphasis in piano performance and pedagogy, as well as parallel degrees in performance and pedagogy. I got the job and miraculously, the next year those programs got approved without the hassle encountered on many campuses today. Then, another piano position opened and during my second year we did a search where we wanted someone like Jane who was an applied person with a pedagogy background. So, in my third year, Jane came.

PDP: What did you want your students to take away from their studies with you? 

ELL: Not only how to teach piano but also how to function in the profession, either as an independent teacher or a college teacher. To give them not only pianistic skills but real-life skills. 

JM: When I came to Oklahoma, I had just finished my DMA. My educational experience was so fresh that I could relate, in terms of what I needed and wanted as a teacher, what worked for me and others my age. E. L. and I worked hand in hand, it really was a great partnership. Even though we were very different people, we complemented each other. 

ELL: It was a great partnership. 

JM: I learned tomes from E. L. about teaching. He is a master teacher, not just in group piano or piano pedagogy, but in all things piano and music. He became a mentor and inspiration for me. He showed me some of his insights into recruiting, meeting students, and helping students feel at home once they came to campus.

ELL: You have to remember that in the United States people think that Oklahoma is in the middle of nowhere, so recruiting was interesting. 

JM: But, great things can come out of unassuming beginnings. At OU our facilities and instruments were humble in the beginning. 

ELL: People build the program, not the buildings. We relied on people skills and making the most of what we had.

JM: E. L. is a natural builder. The wisdom that he has to create good with whatever he does is amazing. To have been a part of that was one of the greatest privileges of my life. We were a team. 

ELL: It was a great time.

PDP: Your students have been successful. They are teaching around the world, at different types of institutions, and in independent studios which speaks to the diversity of skills that they learned and applied in meaningful ways in their own lives. 

ELL: Well, I had a philosophy, that I think Jane probably shares. You should work to make the things you are good at the absolute best. You work to do well in all areas, but you build upon your strengths and that's why you see certain people go into independent studios, other people pursue the college route, and others go into administration. We always tried to identify those strengths in our students and in doctoral workshops we'd push them to develop their strengths. 

JM: Yes, that helps students flourish through further development and expansion of their strengths, while filling in as one can those other areas as well.

Writing and Composing 

PDP: Jane, The Pianist's Guide to Teaching and Performance Literature has been uniquely influential. What sparked the idea to create this monumental undertaking? 

JM: When I started teaching it was so much fun to help students learn music. I believed in building my students' skills and repertoire. But, we didn't have as much Classical teaching literature at our disposal then. 

ELL: Right.

JM: I realized that a lot of us had skipped the "black hole" literature. I was familiar with Maurice Hinson's wonderful work [Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire] and, at one point, I reviewed music for Clavier so it was a natural progression to take on The Pianist's Guide project. I worked on it for many years, and there was some hesitation because I knew it could never be complete. But, I worked little by little with annotations. I put levels by the pieces so I could organize and compare the degree of difficulty of various pieces as I wrote. I read through volumes of materials. I was grateful to the many publishers and music dealers who had collections available for me to read and I worked everywhere, including the Library of Congress, various music collections, and the New York Public Library. 

ELL: I was in the studio next door, so I can attest that she worked for hours and hours. She'd come back from trips and tell me about the material she found. It was a monumental project.

PDP: E. L. how did your interest in composing begin? 

ELL: People ask if I'm a composer, but I'm not. I write instructional materials. Sometimes that instructional material happens to be a piece. The original pieces that I write are typically at the lower levels to teach a particular skill. Everything I've written filled an instructional need, either for my students or my own children. When I needed a sequenced program that a number of graduate teaching assistants could follow and achieve success when teaching many different students, the group piano texts came about [Alfred's Group Piano for Adults and Piano 101]. Music for Little Mozarts was written for our son; our daughter was too old for it by that time. [E. L. is married to and works with Gayle Kowalchyk]. The Premier Piano Course and Piano for Busy Teens were for both of them, when they were teenagers and too busy to practice. Many of the early materials date from when we had a large pre-college studio. We began with the ear training books for the Alfred's Basic Piano Course. It continues because even now the project that I'm working on is to fill a need for a class that I'm teaching at California State University, Northridge. My writing has always been influenced by the teaching. 

PDP: Did you ever feel like performing had to take a back seat to work on other musical projects. 

JM: It did. I love performing but there was a tug between practicing and writing at one point while I was working on The Pianist's Guide. It didn't feel healthy so I decided to focus on The Guide and fulfill my desire for playing through presenting workshops, because the music is wonderful and of high quality. 

ELL: When we had children, Gayle and I made a conscious decision to not play as a piano duo anymore. We replaced our playing with our writing. Even now, my writing is like a performer's practicing, it takes me just as much time. I do practice in preparation for workshops because I need to play well there. 

PDP: What are your intrinsic motivators? 

JM: I love to help people, I love the students, and I love to learn. In addition, I enjoy reading, as does E.L. 

ELL: We correspond a lot and it's often to share new books. 

JM: Sometimes they are music books but not always.

ELL: I'm motivated by seeing a need that I may have the ability to fill.

PDP: E. L., how did you know that it was the right time to leave teaching in Oklahoma to pursue a different kind of musical endeavor as senior vice president and keyboard editor-in-chief for Alfred Music?

ELL: I never expected leave the University of Oklahoma, it just evolved. But, I began to feel that I could influence the profession, teachers, and students in a different way in the new role. 

JM: E. L.'s trajectory was so fast and fulfilled. By the time he left, he had advised more doctoral dissertations than anyone I can think of. 

ELL: You must have surpassed me by now! How many did you do? 

JM: I've done a few! [laughter] But E. L. had reached a peak and it seemed like he was ready for the next challenge. 

ELL: That is true, I'm a person who likes challenges and I wondered what else I could do to influence the profession. I think we still both feel that way, even today. In her retirement, Jane's working on the 2nd edition of The Pianist's Guide which is a big project. We each go after different challenges.

PDP: What advice do you have for students and young professionals who have many ideas and goals that they want to accomplish early in their careers? 

ELL: Set your priorities and manage your time. First, do what you can accomplish the most quickly, the thing that will make the most impact. 

JM: But, be patient. You don't want to rush and miss the depth that a life in music can offer. 

ELL: Don't try to do everything at once. Also, pursue projects that have a second life, upon which you can build later. For example, from The Pianist's Guide, Jane was able to do repertoire collections. In my case, I went from writing a college piano text to writing methods for different ages of students that I was teaching. 

PDP: Your collaboration began at OU in 1981 and it continues, just as your influence on our field endures. We can't think of two more deserving people for the 2019 NCKP Lifetime Achievement Award. 

ELL: It is so special that we are both getting the NCKP award at the same time because we've worked together so much. 

JM: I agree with E. L. on that. And, it's a great honor. 

PDP: We couldn't imagine giving it to one of you and not the other! Thanks for sharing your memories and insights with our readers.

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Timothy Becker on Tuesday, 13 July 2021 01:14

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