What exactly is a piano society? Is it a club, shrouded in secrecy that requires a hazing or an initiation to join? Do they hold closed-door meetings about Frédéric Chopin and the hidden meanings behind his nocturnes? Not at all, at least not the former, but come to think of it, some may actually do the latter. A piano society is usually organized either by a community group or university student organization. They can offer everything from lessons to recitals. They are comprised of piano players and aficionados whose desire it is to spread the word about all things black and white. They help foster relationships within the community and can offer opportunities to see performances that wouldn’t necessarily take place without their support.
Piano societies come in many different sizes and can most certainly abide by their own unique set of rules—some are more performance-oriented, while others are lesson-oriented, for example. Some do both. Making Music took a look at three different piano societies and what they have to offer. If you’ve ever considered starting or joining a piano society, think of this as your introduction.
Cornell Piano Society
The Cornell Piano Society advertises itself as a campus community for pianists and piano fans. Though founded in 2002, it really took off about five years ago and has been improving ever since. “We started with paper forms and beginner, intermediate, and advanced placement levels,” says 21-year-old Computer Science major Jean Hooi Lee, the Society’s current president. “Then we switched to a numbered placement scale (0-5), from paper to online forms, and from cash and check to credit cards—it’s growing.” The Cornell Piano Society offers inexpensive lessons to about 80 students per semester from approximately 35 volunteer teachers.
Lee was already a lifelong pianist, who played in piano competitions as a child, by the time she joined the Piano Society as a freshman at Cornell. She started off as a teacher, then became a lesson coordinator in her freshman spring semester. Eventually she became vice president, and recently, she assumed the position of president. “I love the society,” she admits. “The events and the people are a major part of my life.” She says the Society’s growth also shows in the size of their current staff. “We’ve been hiring more people, because as the organization grows, we need more staff to handle all of the work. We have two event coordinators, two publicity directors, two lesson coordinators, and a treasurer.” And that does not include the 11 committee members.
Lesson coordinators Phoebe Ai and Brandon Maziuk, with Cornell Piano Society President Jean Hooi Lee (at the piano).
Costs run $50, $60, and $70 for 30, 45, and 60-minute lessons for the entire semester—that’s about $5 to $7 per lesson. The Cornell Piano Society is an officially independent nonprofit organization, so the money goes towards paying for rentals, locations for meetings, and moving pianos around for concerts. It also goes towards social events, like ice-skating and movie screenings.
“We’ve also been trying to donate to a charity,” says Lee. “That is one of our major goals. We were planning on donating to Save the Music Foundation, but our input and our output ended up being equal, and we broke even, so unfortunately we weren’t able to contribute, but we are working on that. We’re also trying to implement a scholarship fund for students on campus, and we are working with the music department on that.”
Society teachers are not necessarily music majors. It may come as a surprise that, at Cornell, the Piano Society really hasn’t much to do with the music department. As for pairing teachers with students, Lee says they ask teachers, many of whom are engineering or arts and sciences majors, to try the online forum before the staff actually gets involved with pairing them up. Then, they look at location and genre first.
“We’ll often pair up students and teachers who live in the same dorms, or who have similar affinities,” she says. “Age is another pairing technique. Sometimes it can be awkward to have a younger teacher with an older student. We’ll also pair people according to their major, putting engineers with engineers and arts and science students with one another because they tend to understand each other’s schedules.” Lessons are all one-on-one except for theory, which works better as a group lesson. Lessons take place on campus. “We definitely prefer that they stay on campus,” she admits.
Obviously the piano society places a great deal of emphasis on practicing. “You need to practice, otherwise how can your teacher help you get any further?” she asks. “We’ve tried to standardize some of our curriculum; we have a teacher’s manual that we send by e-mail as a word document giving potential teachers guidelines on how to teach if a student doesn’t know how to read music. It also includes information on how to use pedals, dynamics, etc. We do screen our teachers. We want a standard. We get advisors involved to judge skill level so that there’s a standard for our students.”
In addition to lessons, they also hold spring and fall concerts. “The Johnson Museum performance is our major spring concert,” says Lee. Since the students are often too shy to perform, the Society has an inner circle of more advanced player/teachers called Pianovations. “We work with the English Club and Museum Club to host the spring event,” she says. “They read poetry and we play music, with the Pianovations members often coming up with stuff on the spot.”
“Generally, people are happy with learning,” she says. “A lot of people that come to our organization never got the chance to really learn piano before. This is their first chance, so it’s exciting for them.”
ASU Piano Society
The Arkansas State University (ASU) Piano Society is a student organization led by 46-year-old Dr. Lauren Schack Clark, director of keyboard studies at ASU. Its main goal is to promote the performance and appreciation of piano music and encourage attendance at recitals and classes, both at the university and in the community. “We’re also an hour from Memphis, so sometimes we coordinate trips to hear somebody play with the symphony,” adds Clark. “We took a bunch of students to hear André Watts recently.”
The piano society got started at ASU thanks to student activity fees at the university. The money collected from such fees can go towards just about any kind of student activity, but students have to be part of a registered organization in order to access the funds. “The society was set up as a way to raise funds to bring in guest artists and offer master classes,” she says. “We have four officers in the piano society who have to go before the Action Fund Committee and explain to them how much money we want, what it’s for, and why they should give it to us. It’s good because it spreads the word about piano to student leaders as well.”
“We like to bring in guest artists who may not necessarily be pianists, like the American String Quartet,” explains Clark. “We don’t hear a quartet of that caliber every day around here and I want my students to understand what a great string quartet sounds like when they’re playing a Beethoven sonata. But mainly, the ASU Piano Society is set up to promote what we’re doing in the keyboard studies program. It also promotes concert attendance at the university, and attendance at master classes and at programs that our students and precollege students play within the community.”
The Piano Society of Greater Washington
Established in 2003, the Piano Society of Greater Washington is a nonprofit group of Washington, DC, area pianists who provide recitals of classical music five times a year at Calvary Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s a small group, comprised of eight pianists, ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s. Some balance careers in performance with other professions. “Yes, we have other jobs,” says 64-year-old member Ellen Tenenbaum, who works as a researcher at a survey research organization. She’s also the society’s publicist. “We practice for hours. We’re passionate about piano performance.”
Tenenbaum started playing when she was seven years old. Lessons were unfulfilling and she quit. Decades passed. “Eleven years ago I decided to find my own teacher and see what might happen if I practiced two hours a day,” she says. Today, in addition to her work with the Piano Society, she also gives hour-long concerts at senior living facilities, community centers, and libraries. Either way, performances are free, though the Piano Society may request a freewill offering to help offset the cost of renting the church and running the website.
A few of the members have Doctorates in piano performance and a couple of them are piano teachers who have studios and students. “Most of us study with a teacher,” she continues. “Each of us is capable of playing repertoire to the highest standard. Our concerts offer beautifully prepared music—the way it’s meant to sound. You can come to one of our concerts and think you are at The Kennedy Center, the quality is that good.” The society’s mission is simply to share piano music and their repertoire takes its cue from what the members are working on.
You’ll also get a brief introduction to the work at their recitals. “These are not pedantic, pedagogical introductions,” affirms Tenenbaum. “They’re a few sentences about either the composer or something that sparks the imagination as you listen to the piece, so there’s an art to it.”
She says the thing that really sets them apart, however, is that they like to talk to the audience afterwards at the reception. “There’s no feeling of loneliness or intimidation and certainly there’s no real expense, so it’s completely unlike going to The Kennedy Center,” she explains. “This is a chance to really interact. People feel welcome and they meet each other as well. So it not only fosters relationships between the community and the piano society but amongst the community itself.”
“This is not a hobby and it’s not an outlet,” she concludes. “And it’s not a passion—we’re just obsessed. And I’m the obsessor-in-chief.”
Five Piano Societies Around the States
- Cornell Piano Society
- Arkansas State University
- The Piano Society of
Silver Spring, MD
- New York Piano Society,
New York Citynewyorkpianosociety.com
- Dallas Jazz Piano Society