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From Hobbyists to Competition Winners: Young Pianists Grades K-12 Thrive with SMU Piano Preparatory Dept. Training

Over the past five decades, the SMU Piano Preparatory Dept. has attracted hundreds of young pianists to its rigorous program. Whether for cultural growth or for competition awards, the program for students in grades K-12 is gaining an international reputation.

For over 50 years, the Piano Preparatory Department at SMU has quietly contributed to the cultural literacy of the Dallas area by combining its stellar music faculty and graduate students at Meadows School of the Arts with young pianists in grades K-12. Many of these pianists have gone on to enjoy a lifetime of playing music; some have gone on to win significant competitions and/or become music majors in universities and conservatories across the country.

The program was founded in 1963 by Professor Emerita of Piano Pedagogy Louise W. Bianchi and has grown steadily since its inception. In 2004, Senior Lecturer of Piano Pedagogy and Piano and Artistic Director of Meadows’ Piano Preparatory Dept. Catharine Lysinger added a weeklong summer intensive workshop, the SMU Institute for Young Pianists (SMU IYP), to the program for students in grades 4-12 who are more serious about their studies.

The reputation for the SMU IYP, which includes intensive lessons, master classes, ensemble experiences, history classes, an optional competition and more, is growing beyond Texas, says Lysinger. “Three years ago we started having people coming in from overseas, such as James Chungyue Tien from Hong Kong.”

James began studying piano at age four. When he was nine, his piano teacher recommended he travel halfway around the world to attend SMU IYP. His experience at the weeklong intensive was life changing.

James Tien
James Chungyue Tien, age 10, will play with the Plano Symphony Orchestra on March 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Eisemann Center. Photo by David Downs, courtesy of the Plano Symphony Orchestra.

“He really liked the people and the environment here, especially Dr. Lysinger,” says his father, Otto Tien. “We decided to move to Dallas in order for James to pursue his piano studies with Dr. Lysinger.”

With his home now in Dallas, James has been studying with Lysinger for two years. The results of his training, augmented by additional teaching by Meadows grad students in the school’s master’s in piano performance and pedagogy program, have been outstanding.

“We decided to move to Dallas [from Hong Kong] in order for James to pursue his piano studies…” – Otto Tien, father of ten-year old award-winning pianist James Tien

Last January the fourth grader was named the grand prize/piano winner in the 2016 Plano Symphony Young Artist Competition among a field of pianists in grades 1-12. James will perform the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor with the Plano Symphony Orchestra on March 19 during the orchestra’s “Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch and the Young Artists” concert at the Eisemann Center.  He had earlier won first prize in the 2015 Dallas Symphonic Festival, Elementary Concerto II Division, in February 2015 and first prize in the Elementary Sonata Division in January 2016.

James is one of many students in grades K-12 who are training year-round in Meadows’ Piano Preparatory Dept. Below are some examples of additional successes of Piano Prep and SMU IYP students:

  • Fifteen-year-old Roy Xiong has performed twice in Carnegie Hall. After his second Carnegie appearance in February 2016, he was invited by the American Fine Arts Festival to perform Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 (first movement) with an orchestra in Moscow in summer 2016. He was also selected out of a field of 30 pianists ages 15-18 to represent Texas in the MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) South Central division competition; at the division level, he won second prize and is first alternate to represent the four-state area at the national MTNA competition, which features only seven pianists from the entire U.S. He was recently invited to compete at the first international Kuleshov Competition, hosted by former gold medalists of the Van Cliburn Competition.
  • Piano Preparatory students have twice been invited to be featured performers in Van Cliburn: An American Hero, a production of Performing Arts Fort Worth’s Children’s Education Program and The Cliburn.
  • Eight students performed with international pianist Adam Golka in an ensemble for 10,000 4th graders over six concerts in Bass Hall in Fort Worth.
  • Two pianists, Cynthia Gu, a Piano Prep 12th grader, and Lígia Pucci, a first-year graduate student in the M.M. Piano Performance and Pedagogy degree program, were accepted by blind audition to perform in master classes with famed pianists Abbey Simon and John O'Conor at the 2016 International Piano Festival at the University of Houston.
  • Eric Chen, Piano Prep 12th grader, was named grand prize winner in the Dallas Symphonic Festival in January 2016; he will perform Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 (first movement) with the Meadows Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Professor of Music and Martha Raley Peak Endowed Centennial Chair Dr. Paul Phillips, on March 24. Chen was also awarded second prize and $1,000 in the Schmidbauer International Competition in February 2016.

Algur H. Meadow Dean and Professor of Music Sam Holland says while it is natural and good to want to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of a number of gifted, hard-working and well-prepared students in competitions and festivals, it would be shortsighted to focus exclusively on wins as the only important accomplishments of the program.

“Over the years, for every one or two contest winners and super high achievers from the Piano Prep program, there have been hundreds of average students whose lives have been enriched through the serious study of music at the pre-college level,” says Holland. “They form the bedrock of arts and culture in our society. They are the future patrons who love, support and engage with the arts to make the world a better place—to make Dallas a more culturally alive and vibrant community.”

Grad students: “ … not above our students, but alongside them … ”

Meadows students pursuing the M.M. in Piano Performance and Pedagogy must complete a certain number of hours of practicum and internship to satisfy degree requirements. Working with the young Piano Prep pianists serves as a teaching lab for the M.M. candidates. Nick German (’17) says helping the young charges find their own unique voices is one of the challenges and benefits of teaching the young students.

“While we are responsible for the growth and development of each young pianist, we must also realize that we are still growing and developing as musicians and teachers ourselves,” says German, who earned his B.M. at Eastman School of Music in 2015. “It is so incredibly humbling to be a teacher and explorer of music not above our students, but alongside them. As a musician and music educator, I strive to help aspiring musicians realize their potential and to give them the option of choosing music in their futures. Through recognizing and building upon the existing qualities of my students, I seek to inspire, nurture and strengthen the musical ability of each student.”

Two of German’s colleagues, M.M. students Rachel Menscher and Jessie Welsh, have been selected to make individual presentations at the annual conference of the MTNA in April 2016.

German adds that an important part of the success of the program is due to the guidance of the faculty, which includes Lysinger, Senior Lecturer of Piano Pedagogy and Executive Director of the Piano Preparatory Department Matthew Kline and Lecturer Kevin Gunter. “I am very blessed to know I can go to any of my colleagues in the program or any of my teachers for advice or encouragement,” he says. “With students from all over the country and world as well as many different musical backgrounds, we learn from each other’s experiences and teaching styles to benefit our students as well as ourselves.”

Read more about the SMU Meadows Piano Preparatory Department and the SMU Institute for Young Pianists.

Read more about Catharine Lysinger and additional music faculty at SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

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