Nine seems old for a typical beginner. Were you playing another instrument before beginning the piano?
I started ballet at the age of three. Even though ballet is not an instrument, it was vital to exposing my ear to music at a young age - I believe this is where I developed my first true appreciation and love for music. Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff were mainstays on my record player. Yes, records!!! I would constantly rent LPs from the local library.
In fourth grade, I played the violin in my school orchestra. Although I enjoyed playing the violin, I always knew there was something else out there. My younger sister was taking piano lessons, but she didn’t like to practice. I would practice through her materials and decided to accompany her to a lesson. I played the piano while the teacher was in the other room. Thinking it was my sister, the teacher commented on how much she had improved. She was quite surprised to see me sitting at the piano and encouraged me to start lessons - thus began my journey at the piano.
You often play the classics. Do you ever play today’s music and which do you prefer the most?
The reason I love my classical training is that it allows me to pick up any piece of music and play it. It is fun to play the music of Billy Joel, Tori Amos and John Legend, but, for me, it is more gratifying to play the classics. The music of Beethoven and Brahms is something you feel in the depths of your soul. No one currently making the rounds on today’s radio stations has been able to duplicate that type of emotion for me.
From Bach to Winehouse, tell me who is your favorite artist or who do you prefer to play?
As far as composers go, I absolutely love to play Debussy. There is something so evocative about his soundscape, I can completely immerse myself in the music. One of my favorite times to play his music is when it is snowing. The world around me is completely quiet and I am able to bring out each nuance.
My other favorite is Czech composer Leoš Janáček. His music was completely new to me when I started my Bachelor’s degree and I was fascinated with it. The raw emotional quality of his music haunted me - it became the driving force in my academic career. I wanted to play every piano piece he composed and learn everything I could about him – artistically and personally. This passion led me to make his piano music the central focus of my dissertation.
My favorite artist is Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. I was fortunate enough to interview him while I was working on my doctorate. His insights into music are truly thought-provoking and his musical interpretations are stunning.
Who do you have on your playlist when doing activities?
When I am spending time with friends I like to listen to Eddie Vedder, Mumford and Sons, Dave Matthews, Florence and the Machine, Lord Huron, etc. Working out requires music that pushes me and allows me to focus on my movement. I have a mix of Rush, Madonna, Rusted Root, and Kyleigh Minogue on constant shuffle. I’m constantly adding more!
What is your go-to work out and how do you challenge yourself?
I believe that a strong body is essential to feeding and facilitating a strong mind. Tonique Fitness is my workout of choice for this exact reason. This two-hour powerhouse workout allows me to push my body to its limits and beyond. A constant mix of every variation of lunge, squat, plank push-up, and handstand builds endurance physically and mentally – it fuels my other activities. I cycle 60 – 90 miles a week, run, and take ballet classes.
Your students call you Dr. Melissa, what are your credentials; and for any child who wants to teach piano, what advice do you have for them?
I have four degrees in music: an Associate’s, a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and a Doctor of Musical Arts.
For those who would like to teach piano, it is of utmost importance to obtain the correct training. It is integral to maintain that training by continuing lessons and being periodically coached by other professional musicians. Feedback on your playing allows for a deeper comprehension of the music. This, in turn, nurtures your own teaching abilities and allows for a multi-faceted approach when working with students. I would also suggest attending as many concerts as possible, listening to recordings of prominent pianists, practicing until you think that doing more is impossible and then continue practicing. Music is a lifelong journey, you are continuously expanding on your musical knowledge. The moment you stop learning is the moment you stop growing.
You obviously take care of yourself physically. What is your favorite healthy meal? Do you seek organic foods or are you a junk food junkie?
I like eating seasonal foods. Right now, my garden is teeming with juicy Heirloom tomatoes and robust basil. I’ve been having fun adding these ingredients to salads, pasta, fish, etc. The flavors are so vibrant that all you need is a little extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt and pepper. Once the crispness of autumn settles in, there is nothing better than an herb crusted roast chicken on top of jewel-toned root vegetables.
I do my best to eat as organically as possible. It’s one of the reasons I love summer, I can always go in my backyard gardens to pick fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s reassuring to know exactly where the food came from. I’m not really into junk food, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my body if I ingest foods that have been overly processed. I always feel my best when eating whole, minimally processed foods.
Who inspired you over the years? Who inspires you now?
This is a very difficult question to answer, since there have been so many people who have inspired me. I would first have to mention the women of my family. My first inspiration was my grandmother. I only had her for four short years, but she was the person who introduced me to the piano in the first place. My mother showed me the strength is takes to counter adversity. She always reminded me that if you want something bad enough, you’ll work to get it. This mantra remains with me to this day and constantly inspires me to be my best. When times were difficult, my aunt inspired and encouraged me to continue on my path.
My teachers through the years have always inspired me. I cherish the music they have written in, their notes in my various pieces are little gems of knowledge that I treasure.
Today, my students are a constant source of inspiration. It is a joy to watch them gain confidence and realize their full potential. Their inquisitiveness and hard work help me to strive to be the best teacher possible.
Do you belief that women should look to other women as mentors? Why?
Yes, I believe women should seek the expertise of other women in their field. I find that women tend to be competitive with each other and fail to realize the potential of working together. There can be tremendous power when two women combine their knowledge. Regardless of age, the mentor and mentee will be able to share their viewpoints with each other and grow. Yes, the mentor is the sage adviser in this case, but the mentee may offer a new perspective that the mentor may not have considered; both parties benefit from the relationship.