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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Mona Wu DeCesare




e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.



The June 1998 artist/educator:

Mona Wu DeCesare, Pianist, Private Teacher and Adjunct Professor of Piano, Pepperdine University, Moorpark College, CA USA

Mona Wu DeCesare received a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts in Piano Performance from University of California, Los Angeles. Her teachers included Dorothy Hwang and Aube Tzerko. Mona has received scholarships from the Aspen Music Festival, Sigma Alpha Iota, and Atwater Kent. She is an Alumna of the Aspen Music Festival and a frequent soloist with the Moorpark Community Orchestra. She is also a member of The Nuance Trio and DeCesare-Francis Piano Duo. These ensembles have given many recitals throughout the Southern California areas: Schoenberg Hall UCLA, Moorpark College Performing Arts Center, Pasadena City College, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, California State University, Northridge, and Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. She is a member of the Music Teachers' Association of California, Music Teachers National Association, and has adjudicated many piano competitions.

PEP: What made you go into music?

When I was five years old, I begged my parents to buy a piano. At that time my family and I lived in Taiwan. All the neighborhood children had pianos in their homes. My parents were not rich, and financially it was very' difficult for them to buy a piano and afford piano lessons. But they bought a used piano and my older sister and I started our piano lessons. Most children do not understand the discipline it takes to go into music. I staffed playing for church services when I was seven years old. I liked to be up in front of the church with the other 'important" people. I also enjoyed playing in recitals. I think when I was in junior high school, I decided to make music a career. I played a Mozart piano concerto with my junior high school orchestra. This was a memorable event because it was an orchestra competition that involved other junior high schools. My school came in first place and it was a thrilling experience.

PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?

I have been blessed with many good teachers. When I came to the United States, I studied with Dorothy Hwang. She is a most caring and humble person and teacher. I studied with Dorothy until college. When I first entered UCLA, I was not a music major. My father was against my decision to study music because he was concerned about the ability to make a reasonable living. Growing up in a strict Asian family, one usually does not go against your parent's wishes. My major, then, was pre-med and I was miserable. I consulted with Dorothy about a teacher in the music department. She recommended that I look up Aube Tzerko. At first, I studied with him privately, then against my father's wishes, I changed my major to music. It was very difficult to tell my father of my decision, but I have never regretted it. I studied with Aube for 12 years. During those 12 years, we had many good and some turbulent lessons, but I have many fond memories of my mentor. He taught me how to LISTEN, LOVE, and be TRUE to the music you are playing. He made me listen to and love the sound I created. I remember him saying that you should be able to taste the music as though you just tasted the most delicious chocolate in your life. He also stressed about being true to the composer's score, "Always study the music from the page, not from your emotions."

PEP: What do you enjoy the most about making and teaching music?

I love making music, especially chamber music. I am one of the members of The Nuance Trio, which consists of flute, oboe, and piano. The flutist, Sandra Kipp, is on the faculty at California State University, Northridge, and Moorpark College. Gordon Lazarus, the oboist, is on faculty at Moorpark college and California Lutheran University. They are both excellent musicians and we have an enormous amount of fun rehearsing and performing. We bring different views to our music and, in turn, share it with our audience. The other chamber music that I have come to love is duo piano. My colleague and duo partner, Edward Francis, and I formed DeCesare-Francis Piano Duo in 1996. Edward Francis is currently an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University, California. We have found much interesting and wonderful duo piano repertoire that is not only fun but challenging.

I love teaching music because it is satisfying when your students finally master a piece or passage that has been a challenging to both of you. It is, by no means, an easy profession. You sometimes doubt yourself and wonder if the repertoire you have selected is appropriate for your student. The reward is also great when your students go off to college and continue to communicate by corresponding. By expressing their appreciation, years after our teacher-student relationship has ended, is extremely rewarding.

PEP: Do you use any of the piano "methods" in your teaching? If so, why do you prefer that one over others.

I have used The Music Tree by Frances Clark and Step by Step by Edna Burnam. I like the clean look of the page. Some method books look a little cluttered, what with too many fingering. I don't mind a fingering suggestion for the starting note. Children are very smart and once they figure out that the fingerings match with the notes, they stop reading the notes. There are many method books out there, so you need to find the right one that will work for you and your students.

PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?

I think that every teacher finds deficiencies in the students they hear or audition. Sometimes these deficiencies are not the fault of the teacher. I try to be sensitive to the new students that come into my studio or class. The areas that have the most deficiency are the ability to read and count correctly. It always amazes me about student's inability to count. The level of understanding can be quite low. Prompted by my question, I have heard many times: "I know I have to hold it longer, but I don't know exactly how long.

PEP: What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?

I would say try to avoid playing repertoire that is too familiar. 'There is an enormous amount of music out there, so take advantage of it.' Of course, you should learn pieces that are within your capability. Explore some of the less well-known or least often played pieces. Also try to avoid listening to too many CD's of a piece before you have learned it. You should have your own interpretation first, then listen to the CD's. Then they can be used as a tool for exploring other possibilities.

PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?

Try to use good and reliable editions. Learn a piece with an open mind. Some pieces may take longer to come together. That's OK. Never learn a piece just to play at a competition or recital. Have a good practice method. It is not wise to practice from the beginning to the end of a piece all the time. If there's a problem in a section or passage, isolate the passage and figure out the problem Perhaps you need to adjust fingering, experiment with a different way of phrasing, and etc. Try to avoid boring practice methods, especially when you are up against a deadline. Treat your practice and music with respect. It should not be a "chore" you have to force yourself to do everyday.

PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally

Many times I find students learning pieces that are beyond their capabilities. We teachers have to be careful not to over extend our students. Some students can handle extra challenges, but some cannot. The opposite is also true. Sometimes I hear students playing pieces that are below their level. We need to challenge our students in a positive way so that they will not get frustrated and they should have an exciting feeling about the music.

PEP: What does it take to be a successful musician or music educator?

In my opinion, a successful musician is someone who is open- minded and not afraid of positive criticisms. A successful music educator is also someone who can get along with his fellow colleagues.

PEP: Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career?

Most of the people in this field will agree with me that it is difficult to make a career out of music. There's no guarantee of success. When I was younger, I dreamed of being a concert pianist and nothing else. Looking back I am glad that I can teach, perform and accompany. You have to be realistic and have tremendous love of what you are doing.

PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?

I have very mixed feelings about this subject. I have had both very enjoyable and devastating experiences in competitions. One should go into them with a positive and winning attitude. However, just like politics, the best do not always win. I hate the politics that are involved in the competitions, but that's life. If a student does well in a competition, it can uplift them and motivate them even more. On the other hand, if the student does not do well it can also have a negative impact on the student. I think it is very important for the teacher to have a frank discussion with the student about this subject before entering the student in the competition.

PEP: What was your most memorable performing and teaching experiences and why?

Some of my best teaching memories occur when I am contacted by former students who are now in college. I enjoy their correspondence, and especially when they thank me for my patience, understanding, and caring when they were younger. The relationship between teacher and the family goes beyond their weekly piano lessons. It goes as far as graduations, weddings, baby showers and other important events in their lives. I'm sure I have worst teaching experiences, but they are very minimal compared to the joy. My worst and most embarrassing performing experience was an overzealous student came up to the stage, made a speech, and lead my duo partner and I to the edge of the stage, and bowed with us after the performance. It ruined the entire performance.

PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist(s) and if so, what attracts you to that person’s performances?

This is a difficult question to answer. I have many favorite pianists; it depends on the repertoire they perform. Alfred Brendel is one of many. His recordings of Beethoven and Schubert are my favorite. I love the sound he produces and the musical ideas he brings out forth. Martha Argerich is another favorite of mine. Her vitality at the piano is amazing. She brings the music alive. It does not mean I agree with everything she does, but I am amazed at the things she can do on the piano. Other pianists include: Schnabel, Uchida, Perahia, Alicia de Laroccha, Emanuel Ax, and others.

PEP: What kinds of things can the teacher do to maintain the interest of children in piano in the face of all the distractions modem society provides?

The students in my studio usually come from a two parent family environment. That is very important because the parents are interested in their child's musical development and can divided the responsibilities of music and other time consuming activities. They may not choose music as their career but the discipline that is involved in any music lesson will enhance the child's self-esteem Many of my students are involved in their school's music programs: orchestra, band, choir, and musical theater groups. Some of the students are taking lessons on another instrument as well. Some of the children belong to a children's choir, either sponsored by the community or church. These different musical activities, outside of their own piano lesson, are positive added aspects for the students. As a teacher, I try to find and assign interesting repertoire. Sometimes the students let me know about a piece they would like to learn. Perhaps they heard the piece at a competition or one of their friends is learning it. We discuss the possibilities, and if it is an appropriate piece I will give my approval. As teachers, we can also recommend CD's, video tapes, and concerts that will motivate the students.

PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a wonderful program that is geared toward children. It takes place about once every 2 to 3 months. The program consists of classical works that children are familiar with: Peter and the Wolf, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, and so forth. The program is advertised on the radio, school newsletters, regional newspapers and flyers. It happens, sometimes, on a school day or Saturday, and the cost is minimal. The students, parents, and their siblings have an enormous amount of time. We should have more of these programs everywhere. We musicians can also approach local colleges and universities to see if they are willing to sponsor such concerts. If the children are interested, the parents go along with the ride.

PEP: We get many questions at The Piano Education Page from new teachers starting private teaching studios. What general tips do you have for new teachers?

Make sure you have a studio policy, and be firm with it. Do not let parents or students talk you into things that you are not comfortable with. Avoid talking about other music teachers, disparaging their work or by sharing hearsay. Teachers need to support each other in what we do: give children the best musical lessons they can get.

PEP: What are your greatest joys and greatest frustrations teaching in a private piano studio?

The greatest joy is the long-term relationship I have with the students. They graduate from high school go off to college, but many of them keep in touch. I enjoy hearing about what they are doing in college, what classes they are taking, their challenges, and so forth. I get invited to their graduation, weddings, and other family functions. I feel like I have been part of their family, and that kind of relationship is irreplaceable.

The big frustration is when you have a new perspective student who is interested in taking lessons, and they are not sure of you or your teaching ability. It takes time to build their confidence in you as a teacher. The other frustration is when you hear rumors about you and your studio. I really dislike hearing that parents and students compare results from competitions and evaluations or just generally spend wasted time ranking teachers.

PEP: Generally speaking, do you find membership in music teacher organization valuable? What could such organizations do to help teachers more? What should teachers themselves do to get the maximum benefit from such organizations?

Yes, membership in music teacher organizations is very valuable. I have benefited a lot from joining such an organization. The organization sponsor speakers, seminars, and workshops that may be beneficial to each one of us in different ways. I love the conventions. You get to meet other colleagues, attend concerts given by students as well as professionals, and learn valuable materials from workshops and seminars. If time allows, teacher members should attend lectures that are sponsored by the organization. The support makes the organization stronger.

PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?

Students - have respect for your teacher. if the teacher works for you, why jump from one studio to the other? Parents - support your teacher. If your child sees you doubting the teacher, they will too. Teachers - have confidence in your studio and be polite to your fellow colleagues.

You can ask your own questions of Ms. DeCesare by e-mail to

Page created: 6/13/98
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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