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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - William Leland




e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noted 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 September 2005 artist/educator:

Dr. William Leland, Professor Emeritus, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, USA

William Leland completed his 30th year as resident artist in piano at NMSU five years ago and is now Professor Emeritus.  A native of Philadelphia, he has made numerous solo and ensemble appearances throughout the Southwest, has performed in Germany, Italy, Mexico, and in 26 states, and holds advanced performance degrees from The University of Cincinnati and the Niedersächische Musikhochschule of Hanover, Germany.  He was Pianist in Residence at New Mexico State University, receiving an appointment there in 1969 upon completion of Doctor of Musical Arts in Performance under Mme. Olga Conus at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati. A native of Philadelphia, Leland received his Bachelor's degree from the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and a Soloist Certificate from the Hochschule fur Musik in Hanover, Germany; he has also worked privately with the noted pianists Mieczyslaw Horsowski, Karl Engel, and Manahem Pressler. Since coming to New Mexico, Leland has performed over four hundred times as soloist in recitals and concertos, as chamber music artist and accompanist, and in duo-piano recitals with his late wife, Melba Halamicek, also a member of the NMSU music faculty. He has been heard in such major centers as Dallas, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Denver. In addition to his duties as artist and teacher, Leland was principal conductor of NMSU's Dona Ana Lyric Opera, recently leading productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd.

Professor Leland is familiar to recital audiences in many communities. He was PEP's Editor-at-Large for a number of years

Editor's Note: We first interviewed Dr. Leland in September, 1995 - the very first Artist/Educator Interview that appeared on the site. Since then, Dr. Leland has written many times for PEP. In honor of PEP's tenth anniversary online, we are interviewing him again, with a different set of questions from those asked in the September 1995 Interview. We commend that earlier interview to you as well.

PEP: Can you update us on what you've been doing musically since 1995, when you were first interviewed for PEP?

I had five more years to go as Pianist in Residence and Professor at NMSU, during which time I performed a lot--here in Las Cruces many times, around the state, and in Texas, Colorado, California, Mexico, Indiana, Arizona, and two recitals in Germany. During this time I continued to serve as Junior/Senior Auditions Chairman for the New Mexico Music Teachers Association. I also conducted several opera productions at the University, and, of course, continued a full teaching load. Since retiring in 2000 I have, above all, relished the freedom to practice without hurry, and to spend more time on PEP.

PEP: Do you continue to perform since retiring from the faculty of NMSU?

Yes, both as a soloist and in chamber ensemble with strings. Right now I'm preparing a difficult concert for October, and am presently making a CD here at home.

PEP: What works are you preparing for your concert and what makes them "difficult"?

The most difficult work on the program for me is "Variations for Violin and Piano" by Olivier Messiaen. It is a beautiful contemporary work with lots of unusual chord structures--bichords, clusters, etc.--all of which have to be prepared very carefully and call for unconventional fingerings. Then there are some rapid passages of successive three-note chords, difficult stretches, and much intricate interplay with the violin. I'm also doing solos--some Chopin Etudes and his E Major Scherzo--and the Brahms Trio in B Major. More conventional difficulties there, but plenty to worry about!

PEP: For the last eight years you have been a member of the staff of PEP. Can you tell us what you do on PEP?

Much of what we do is done without bylines, since we share some of the same duties such as writing Meet the Composer and other things. I write some of the reviews of software, have a number of independent articles, and spend a good deal of time answering questions from students, teachers and parents. Then, of course, I served as one of the Forum moderators on the Forums. Occasionally it's hard work, but I've never done anything for PEP that wasn't both rewarding and fun!

PEP: What motivates you to spend so much time doing work for PEP completely unpaid?

I never feel that it takes too much time. On the contrary, I'm grateful that the Internet permits us to reach so many people all over the world so easily, and that PEP provides me with the opportunity to continue making use of a lifetime of experience in music.

PEP: Do you have any particularly amusing anecdotes you would like to relate, arising from your work with PEP?

Some of the questions I get from very young children are funny. Just the other day a little girl asked, "Why do we always start learning from C? Why not A, which is the first letter?" Logical, no? What's really fascinating to me, though, is that we hear from literally every region of the world; I get queries from Indonesia, South Africa, Europe, Russia, India, New Zealand, Central and South America--everywhere.

PEP: Any pet peeves you're willing to share?

Every so often I get a letter from a student asking me to answer a whole series of questions, or provide a lengthy treatise, that is obviously a school assignment they've been given and that they want me to do for them in its entirety. I don't mind suggesting sources of information, but it's annoying to be expected to do a student's work that they should be doing for themselves. One girl even inserted her assignment as an attachment, in the original form she got from her teacher!

PEP: Has there been any particular aspect of your work with PEP that has been particularly surprising or gratifying?

It's all gratifying, especially when someone writes back to say that you've provided some significant help. The only real surprise was discovering how far reaching we are, as I mentioned before.

PEP: In addition to contributing articles and reviews, you were also active on PEP's Forums. What did you find most valuable about the interactions you have with teachers and students there?

That's easy. The most valuable thing is that I learn as much from them as they do from me.

PEP: Since you've had a great deal of experience with PEP helping people with piano questions, do you foresee a time when multimedia experiences (the Internet, software, videos, etc.) can replace the private teacher in learning piano?

No, never. It would be almost the same as expecting technology to replace the parent--and sometimes we seem to get dangerously close to that as well. Anyone who believes we could do that must believe that teaching piano is the only thing that goes on between student and teacher. But a good teacher has to do much more than that: sense the subtle physical, mental and attitudinal responses that can either enhance or inhibit learning; know when to be demanding and when to back off; find ways to encourage the timid student and enlighten the one who has an inflated opinion of himself; create diverse experiences in the lesson and perhaps outside it; advise both students and parents--I could go on and on. Only a one-to-one interchange between human beings can provide these things.

PEP: After a long and distinguished career as an piano educator, what advice would you give to people considering a career in piano or music teaching?

Become fully aware of the immense amount of discipline and sacrifice it takes to play and teach really well, and resist the temptation to be just a dabbler. I don't believe anyone should consider music, at least as a career, unless it is absolutely impossible for him or her to imagine doing anything else.

PEP: Are there any less known works that you would like to see become a more established part of the teaching repertoire?

A number of good but relatively obscure compositions have been finding their way into published collections for a long time, but many teachers just don't use them. Those teachers should spend more time exploring repertoire--it's too easy to just keep using the same familiar stuff over and over. But I can tell you what works I'd like to see thrown out: the insipid little C Major ditties that some of the method writers compose for their own publications.

PEP: The piano repertoire is huge. What strategies would you suggest for the teacher who wants to explore it more fully to aid her teaching?

Well, just for the fun of it I typed "piano teaching repertoire" into Google and you know what came up? The Piano Education Page! We were the first two items, then there were many more pages of others suggesting literature and methods, both old and new. We're in the Information Age, and the materials available are staggeringly vast and varied. One has to peruse a lot of web sites to find those that zero in on good teaching literature that is graded by difficulty; similarly, we have to go to music stores and look over collections, individual compositions, and technical exercises and etudes. It's all very time consuming, and often boring, work. But it's an important part of the job, and I suggest resolutely setting aside a certain amount of time once a week, or even once a month, to devote to it.

PEP: What overriding principles would guide you if you were writing a piano "method"?

I don't think I would be any good at writing a method, because the overriding principle would be, "Fit what you're doing to the individual student." There would be so many options and alternative approaches that no one would publish it. Another maxim would be, "Throw away all methods if necessary, including this one."

PEP: If you could change anything about the way piano is taught - either routinely or all too often - what would it be?

A private piano teacher does not have to pass an exam, get a license, or answer to any agency in order to get permission to set up a studio. Consequently there are an unfortunate number of people who teach without adequate training or even any particular talent for music. We can't change this, but I feel that one of our most important functions on PEP is to steer parents and potential students to qualified teachers, and help them know how to look for them.

PEP: If a teacher can't attend an accredited piano pedagogy program, what areas of training should they pay particular attention to in order to bring their teaching up to a higher standard of quality?

I don't believe there can be ANY better training for a teacher than learning to play the instrument--having to grapple with all the problems and frustrations first-hand, analyzing one's own practice, developing the choreography and strategies to solve technical problems and then being able to tell a student what it ought to feel like. And it also gives one a great appreciation of how important a good piano with a well-regulated action can be.

PEP: In broad brush terms, what do you think are the most important principles and skills that teachers should impart to students, beyond a basic ability to play the piano?

At the risk of sounding like an ancient mariner: I grew up without cell phones, computers, television, professionally organized children's sports, and quick easy transportation. These things are all wonderful, but they have provided today's kids with a numbing array of distractions that tend to make them get spread too thin and drastically shorten their attention spans. But if a child is receptive, a good piano teacher can encourage and train them in something that takes a lot of concentration and hard work over a long period of time. Anything of this nature is going to help develop one's autonomy and inner resources.

PEP: Do you think being a musician (performing or teaching) is easier or harder today than it was when you started your career?

Well, from a practical, economic standpoint it's much harder, because the field is so crowded. To cite my own example, it's far more difficult to land a piano faculty position in a university. But there's always a need and a market for a good, dedicated private teacher if you can find the right community.

Page created: 8/30/05
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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