A Conversation with Washington Conservatory Piano Teacher Haskell Small
Washington Conservatory's director, Kathy Judd, talks to Haskell Small about his career as a musician and teacher:
KJ: How did you become a pianist?
HS: My mother was a pianist. She studied at Peabody and also played jazz. Basically I played since I was a kid, picking up things by ear at first and frustrating several neighborhood piano teachers along the way. I didn't start really studying seriously until I was 18 and in college, supposedly to become an engineer.
KJ: What made the difference then?
HS: I met another freshman at Carnegie Mellon who was a music major with stars in his eyes. He was going to be a great concert genius. He gave me some lessons and I got excited. He ended up changing majors and I ended up studying with his piano teacher.
KJ: Were there any other diversions along your path to becoming a professional pianist?
HS: Many diversions. For instance, at one point I lived in San Francisco playing in rock and roll bands.
KJ: Then what happened?
HS: One day I knocked on the door of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and said I wanted piano lessons. They gave me a teacher who was a pianist and composer. His name was Robert Sheldon and he changed my life. I ditched rock and roll and practiced like crazy. The following fall I was officially accepted into the Conservatory. Later I transferred back to Carnegie Mellon as a music major.
KJ: How did you become seriously interested in composition?
HS: I've been writing in one form or another since I was a kid mostly jazz and rock. However, it was Robert Sheldon who steered me. Through him I discovered composers like Prokofiev, Bartàk, and other composers I didn't know existed. I went wild!
KJ: Sounds like your life has been both hard work and serendipity.
HS: Well sometimes it is serendipitous. For instance, one day in college a girl said, "I remember you from music harmony class; I'm looking for piano lessons." Now she's my wife, Betsy.
KJ: Is the rest of your family musical?
HS: Betsy is a lutenist, one daughter studied oboe, the other studied cello and now sings in a Bulgarian choral quartet and is a professional photographer.
KJ: How does being a composer influence your piano playing?
HS: Probably I could answer that best by quoting one of my early reviews that referred to a "small distinction" [pun intended!]. He said that as a composer I added a "thinking" to my piano playing -- thinking of music from the compositional standpoint, not just being a middle-ground interpreter. I like to approach everything I do from the point of re-creation (not recreation).
KJ: What music do you most enjoy performing?
HS: I'm always searching for something that is going to be unusual and attractive to me. I have picky tastes and like certain things for reasons that are just my own. For example, Musica Callada by Mompou is shunned by most virtuosi. I adore that music!
KJ: Tell me a little about your newest composition.
HS: It's called Altercations -- a little bit of a play on the word "variations." It is essentially a Chaconne -- rapid-fire variations.
KJ: Why do you love to teach?
HS: I love seeing the developing musicality of a student and trying to steer it in directions I value. Seeing the results of that is very gratifying. I grew up from a standpoint of loving music first; then working on it. If I had a credo for my teaching it might be to instill a sense of love for the music.
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The Washington Conservatory serves the greater Bethesda and DC area. With their exceptional international artist faculty, they offer a personal approach to music for young children, teens and adults. No audition required. Lessons on all instruments, including voice - ensembles - jazz - early childhood classes - and much more. Visit them at http://www.washingtonconservatory.org/