Crystal Desch and I recently interviewed Robert D. Vandall by phone. Robert Vandall is one of this country’s most prolific and popular composers of educational piano music. He and his wife, Karen, operate a thriving independent piano studio in New Philadelphia, Ohio.
You’ve had a long and full career in music, most notably as a piano teacher and clinician. How are you different today as a teacher compared to when you began your career?
I think I am much, much better. My wife Karen and I have talked about this a lot. We are so much more knowledgeable. We understand kids more. We know more about pedagogy. Nothing beats experience. I think piano teachers only get better as they get older.
We were intrigued by something you said in a past interview with Keyboard Companion magazine: “I never make judgments about students. I see struggling pianists as individuals, who simply need a lot from me.” Tell us more.
I can think in particular about a young lady I had as a student. She went to church with us when our boys were the same age. She was a steady pianist and stuck with it through high school. Right at this moment in time, she runs a big, huge, thriving band program in a big high school outside Philadelphia. She became a clarinetist. So, if I were to make judgments on her future success based on what I saw in piano lessons, they might have been fairly modest. But she used her knowledge of music, her knowledge of piano playing, plus her experience as a clarinetist and has become and created something really wonderful for high school students.
I think of Stanley Fletcher — I got this point of view from him. He told me he never made predictions on whether his students would be successful because he couldn’t see down the road. I am sure at the time I studied with him he would have thought I’d never amount to anything because I had to work like a dog for him just to keep my head above water. So, I’m sorry he’s not here now to see I have attained some bit of success. I think he would have been very happy about it.
How do you coach piano students to deal with stage fright?
That’s interesting. Karen and I teach a brother and sister — she has the sister, I have the brother. They’re young elementary students. These two siblings will not perform. Their mother tells us they get the jitters. Let’s say we haven’t been successful in three years in talking these two young kids into playing. So if you want to call that a failure, you can.
Yes, we’ve been able to talk other kids into performing. I think it comes from helping them to know that they truly know their piece. That they have mental confidence, they know it theoretically. They’ve performed it in trial runs in front of people and have had success, plus positive encouragement from us. We can encourage all we want but we truly try to help them come to their own personal knowledge of the music. We also stress the fact that everyone in the audience is wanting to hear them play. They can’t wait to hear them play. The piece they’re playing is beautiful and the audience is going to love to hear that beauty whether there are mistakes or not — that’s not going to matter to the audience. They’re going to enjoy the beauty that they hear.
You are a prolific composer of educational piano music as well as hymn arrangements for the piano soloist. What do you love most about composing?
I work from the kinesthetic feel of things and from my ear. And if I can match a very comfortable physical feeling with something that to my ear sounds attractive, then I’m enjoying two things simultaneously. I always have a theoretical student in mind, not one of my real students. I always know exactly what each physical motion or musical element is designed to teach. So I’m always thinking on all kinds of levels: kinesthetic, aural, theoretical, and emotional. You see, when I first compose I sit at the piano and let my fingers move. I never write a note until I have a good first phrase. So it’s sort of a total immersion in all these types of things. I just enjoy the process. It’s very maddening at times — I get up and leave. I lie on the floor and think about things. And I go back. I think about it at night. When I go out running, I think about it. It’s always in my mind and it’s an all-consuming thing. But I really enjoy doing it because I just sort of lose myself in the process.
For all published collections by Robert Vandall, click here.
Check back next week for Part 2 of this interview.