As we reflect on the last ten years, Faculty Coordinator Claire Allen sat down with Piano Teaching Artist Michelle Richardson, who has been with the Academy almost since the very beginning. Michelle, who completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Mason’s School of Music and is in the process of completing her Doctorate, has also built a thriving piano studio, created the structure and curriculum for our popular Piano Beginnings children’s classes, and developed two summer programs for young pianists of varying ages and levels – Summer Piano Adventures and Mason Summer Piano Academy.
CAllen: How did you first fall in love with music?
MRichardson: I grew up in a family surrounded by music. While my parents did not play instruments, my mother has a beautiful voice and always sang a lot around the house. My paternal grandmother was a pianist and my aunt was a concert pianist who pursued a degree at Juilliard before she decided to become a lawyer. All of these things combined with inspiring teachers created a musically encouraging environment. I remember specifically learning Chopin Preludes when I realized the potential for beautiful sound and harmonies on the piano. It was love at first sound!
CAllen: What made you decide to pursue music as a career, and how did you choose Mason as your college and graduate school?
MRichardson: Music was a strong interest of mine, although I was equally strong academically and originally was going to pursue my strengths in those areas. When I realized I would regret not studying music more than anything else I could study, I wanted to give it my best shot and see where my passion for it led me. I decided to pursue performance piano and choral music education in my undergraduate degree. Throughout the years, with lots of hard work, I continued my studies into graduate school where more doors were opened for me to build a musical career.
CAllen: When did you first hear about Mason Community Arts Academy – formerly known as Potomac Arts Academy?
MRichardson: I was recommended to the Academy by a professor at Mason and decided to join it!
CAllen: You’ve been a driving force behind the shaping of our piano programs for young kids, including the group piano classes and summer piano academy. Can you tell me about your inspirations for each of those programs and what makes them special?
MRichardson: Piano is predominantly learned and performed as a solo instrument, which creates an isolated environment for young students. Despite the hours of alone time, pianists actually are also very social, and if you get a bunch of us together, we have a blast! So my goal has been to foster opportunities that get pianists together to play and learn music while making friends in an otherwise isolated and competitive field. After attending camps together, some of my students still keep in touch through what they tell me is Instagram and Snapchat. [laughs]
CAllen: What did your piano studio and classes look like initially, and how does that compare to what it looks like now?
MRichardson: I have taught privately for over 10 years and at the Academy for over 5 years. The beginning always starts small, but with time and experience your student base grows. I did this by fostering a “musical culture.” By encouraging masterclasses, recitals, chamber playing and offering camps, students have opportunities to enjoy the full spectrum of music making and see its benefits beyond just weekly lessons. My job is to teach students music’s great value not only for a fantastic performance, but beyond for enriching their life. Music becomes a part of their life that they will always seek out even amongst other activities.
CAllen: What is your favorite part of your job, currently?
MRichardson: I truly love teaching music, piano happens to be my vehicle for that. My favorite moment is when suddenly, I find myself just sitting back and listening to my student. I watch them being comfortable enough at the instrument to make beautiful sound, and listen to them using the music score as the basis for their expressive intentions. This combines effort from so many angles: the tradition of great composers and performers whom we love, my own teachers and myself, the student and their own unique voice. The continuity of teaching music and beauty to others is tremendously fulfilling.
CAllen: What is one of the most memorable experiences you have had as a result of teaching for Academy?
MRichardson: My favorite experience is running the Summer Piano Academy. It had been a dream of mine for a long time. I remember the first year we ran the camp, I was so nervous about its success! We had such a blast with students and also with the other teachers who are some of my dear friends and colleagues. This past year’s camp we had my teacher from Mason, Dr. Anna Balakerskaia, participate in a master class for our students. Watching my amazing teacher/ mentor teach some of my students was truly a dream come true! Having been part of making that moment happen gave me so much joy!
CAllen: How do you balance being a faculty member with the Academy and a Doctoral student at Mason?
MRichardson: That is a good question! I have also embarked on the journey of motherhood recently, so now I will balance faculty member, doctoral work, and a baby! I have always reminded myself to do the best work I am able to. Doing my own best work sometimes means choosing what work not to do as well, in order to preserve your own quality. This is not easy since as a musician, it is very common to overextend oneself in so many musical avenues. I have tried to seek a balance in taking the best opportunities rather than simply all of them. Even if that means to take an extra semester or year to allow myself some breathing room for practicing, coursework, and professional work. I also have to remind myself that this is not a race, but a marathon! Music will be my lifelong pursuit, so it’s important to take the long term view, and relax and take care of yourself.
CAllen: If you had one wish for how Mason Arts continues to grow in the next ten years, what would it be?
MRichardson: I dream of Steinway grand pianos in every room, but I don’t think they would all fit! I can’t think of a single big change; I’m truly happy with where the Academy has gone over the past five years that I’ve been here! I simply envision a continuation of all of what we do on higher levels: integrating musical value and life in the community in deep and meaningful ways.
A big thank you to Michelle for all of her dedication to the Academy throughout the years! Come and try one of our piano programs and get the “Academy experience”!