A Concert Pianist Thrives in the Classroom

Thursday, July 12, 2012
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Arlene Kies

Playing the really cool stuff: Arlene Kies at the keyboard.

Piano Forte

How much does Arlene Kies love the piano? If her home furnishing choices are any indication, the answer is, a lot—the Durham house she shares with her husband, fellow UNH professor and pianist Christopher Kies, holds four pianos: three six-foot grands and an upright. There’s also a digital keyboard, Kies notes, for practicing without disturbing guests.

“It’s hard to walk through any of the rooms and not be tempted to sit down at one of the pianos and play something,” she laughs.

A conservatory-trained concert pianist, Kies is senior lecturer in music at UNH, where, since 1995, she has been teaching music students all the technical aspects of being a pianist: how to play, how to learn music quickly, and how to accompany other instruments and voice. She also teaches her students how to teach—a critical skill, she says, that can make all the difference in their future careers.

“For the most part, our students here are going to go on to teach, and to teach well, they need to become articulate about the piano,” she explains. “It’s one thing to be able to play and to know what someone else is doing right or wrong, but it’s another to be able to communicate that information effectively to new learners, especially children.”

Many of Kies’ students hone their teaching skills in a program she refers to as her “baby”: the UNH Piano Extension Program (PEP). Developed by Kies some 17 years ago to bring affordable piano lessons to the greater Durham community, PEP pairs UNH piano students with aspiring pianists for weekly 30- or 60-minute individual lessons at the Paul Creative Arts Center. Every third week, Kies conducts a group “master class” that brings together all of the roughly 10 student teachers and 60 program participants to focus on specific concepts—and to rub shoulders with other budding musicians who are at about the same place on the learning curve.

Kies says that’s a vital part of the process.

“One of the challenges of learning piano is that it’s a lonely endeavor,” she explains. “With other instruments, even beginning players play in a group and receive the support and reinforcement of their peers. Without that group dynamic to support them, so many piano students get discouraged and end up giving up.”

Kies says that’s among the reasons it’s so essential that her teaching students truly learn how to teach. “I tell them they’re the ones who are going to get their students over that last hill in the desert so they can enjoy the rewards of all their hard work and start playing the really cool stuff.”

Kies knows a little something about what it takes to be a good teacher. She just received a 2012 Faculty Excellence award from the College of Liberal Arts for excellence in teaching, an honor she finds both wonderful and somewhat ironic—since, as a performance-trained pianist, she herself was never taught how to teach.

“When I was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the emphasis was on learning music, memorizing, building a repertoire,” she explains. “The field of piano pedagogy didn’t exist.”

Still an active performer, Kies maintains a daunting schedule—between 40 and 50 concerts a year, primarily as an accompanist—but she says it’s her work with her own students that gives her the greatest sense of accomplishment.

“One of the things I’m proudest of about our piano program here is that we can really meet our students where they are and help them meet the goals they set for themselves, whether that means becoming a teacher, continuing on to graduate school, or performing,” she says. “It’s quite different from a conservatory environment where the students all come in playing at performance level, but it’s also quite gratifying to work with a student who maybe has the talent and drive – but not the background – to be a high-level pianist and then to see him or her get there.”

Jersey heifers, like all the cows at the Organic Dairy Research Farm, live outside year round

Participants in the 2012 Piano Extension Program gather before a spring recital.

Zach Onett, a music composition major who graduated in May, met Kies at the University’s Summer Youth Music School, better known as SYMS, when he was a senior at Timberlane Regional High School, in Plaistow, N.H. Onett hopes to become a contemporary composer and illustrator, but he studied classical piano, piano teaching, and piano accompaniment with Kies just to soak up her energy and spirit.

“You can’t separate her philosophy from how she teaches,” Onett. “She always pressed upon us that we should strive to be the best we can because our students, or audience, or fellow musicians deserve nothing less.”

In her 17 years at UNH, Kies estimates she’s taught some 200 UNH students, and reached another 500 or 600 pianists through PEP. And though, on top of her teaching, she puts in a minimum of four hours a day practicing when she has a solo performance coming up, she still finds time for another major passion: cooking. She’s even writing a “cookbook that will help people get away from using cookbooks.”

The idea behind it, she says, is to give cooks confidence, so they trust their skills and are willing to experiment and have fun. Just another example of the born teacher at work, helping her students to achieve their very best.

Arlene Kies is on the faculty of the University’s Summer Youth Music School (SYMS) Senior Session from July 22–August 4 on the UNH campus. Learn more about SYMS.

Mike Ross | Freelance Photographer