Your Stories No.4
I am a pianist in the Seattle area who enjoys performing solo and collaborating with other musicians.
My parents never let me quit taking piano lessons. That, really, is the crux of my story. I did not grow up under a Tiger Mom, but from the very beginning, I grew up being surrounded by classical music…
My dad and his three siblings all played piano, and my mom was my first piano teacher (That lasted about a year, until she decided I was better off being taught by her friend, and her friends’ kids were better off being taught by my Mom.)
I would go to bed down the hall, hearing my dad practicing Chopin and Rachmaninoff.
I would pick out tunes on the piano, and my mom taught me simple chords to accompany the melodies. I was a good sight-reader early on and learned to fake my way through lessons, having neglected to spend much time practicing at home. It wasn’t that I didn’t love music; I really did love to play, but I did not have the drive to put much effort into it.
We moved out of our small town into a large suburban area when I was in the middle of fifth grade, and after a few years, my mom found a fantastic piano teacher for me through some inquiries at one of the state universities. This was my first introduction to other kids who actually loved playing (and practicing) the piano.
Mrs. Stoutenburgh’s studio was focused on developing full musicians, not just good pianists, but musicians who were well-grounded in theory, critical listeners, and who had an appreciation for artistry – particularly in classical music. I spent Saturday mornings learning music theory and history with other pianists my age. We would play for each other and spend time goofing off and lamenting over our theory work. This time of discovering a community of kids who were like me was invaluable.
Also around this time I began accompanying my church kids’ choir, and then in high school I developed a crush on a boy who was in the top chamber choir at our school. He suggested I consider accompanying his choir (during my study hall). I auditioned for the director, and I was in!
Talk about a life-changing moment. From then on, I was in the choir room whenever I could escape from my regular classes, accompanying any of the five choirs at my high school, playing for after-school musicals, and soon after graduation, singing and playing on a choir tour in the British Isles.
I went on to major in Piano Performance at Grand Canyon University with a focus on accompanying, and was kept busy accompanying voice majors, opera and musical theater productions, teaching piano lessons, and accompanying choirs both at the university and at my former high school.
It was the richest time musically in my life.
I loved being able to go to the practice rooms and hear my friends practising. We would often poke our heads in to each other’s practice sessions to discuss what pieces we were working on, marvel over the beauty and complexity of what we were studying, and encourage each other to keep going.
After graduating, I returned home to the Seattle area to begin accompanying. I started playing for musical theater auditions and did quite a bit of accompanying and music directing in children’s theater. I played for my church choir for about ten years before meeting my husband and starting a family, and then after a brief break, I began playing for the Kirkland Choral Society, a 100-voice community choir, where I am currently.
Along the way, I dabbled in administrative work, piano teaching, and travelling internationally whenever I could. I went back to school to earn my K-8 teaching certificate and taught first grade for several years. There were times when I was earning my living fully from music-making and times when music was on the periphery (and I was making more money!).
But the most fulfilling times were always those in which I was making music with like-minded people.
At home with music
I am fortunate now to be a stay-at-home mom (nine years now), and I am again striving to build that “ideal” musical community that I once experienced in college.
Along with playing once a week for choir rehearsals, my husband and I host house concerts in our home, where we bring in musician friends in the area to make music for about 30 guests. We have had classical, jazz, and gospel music; instrumental and vocal; young and old audience members. It has been a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, collaborate with a variety of musicians, and bring music into our home for our three children to enjoy.
In a way, I feel I’ve come full circle, beginning with being surrounded by music at home with my parents, to now parenting and bringing musical experiences to my children.
They are all in school for the first time this year, so I am working on recording a solo classical piano CD in my living room. In many ways it is the culmination of my life’s work so far, but it is also a new beginning, as I have more “free” time to practice now than when my kids were young or when I was working.
It is incredibly exciting for me to dive into solo music intently again, taking time to record and listen to and critique my playing, and to listen to what other performers are doing and learn from them as well. I am thinking of finding a piano teacher to study with again, after about a twenty-year hiatus from lessons. I’ve found that I even enjoy practicing now, far more than I did when I was a child, although it is like exercise: it takes a bit of convincing myself to get up and do it!
There is something about music that is “home” to me, and I’ve realized this most as I’ve programmed the music for my new CD, Commonplace Beauty. The pieces that most resonate with me touch me deeply emotionally, in part because of the music itself, but also in the memories created by sharing it with others, either in recital or at house concerts or in a public hall.
Maybe it all goes back to the sense I had as a child whenever I heard the sounds of Chopin or Rachmaninoff drifting from the living room as my dad played: that this safe, secure, beautiful, passionate, loving place is where I belong, at home with music.
Cori Belle’s website
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