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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Tannis Gibson




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 October 2003 artist/educator :

Tannis Gibson, Assistant Professor of Music,  University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ USA

tgibson.jpg (7595 bytes) Canadian born pianist, Tannis Gibson, enjoys a career covering a wide range of solo and chamber music performances.  She has appeared in major North American venues including Weill Recital Hall in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Boston’s Gardner Museum.  Ms. Gibson has performed numerous times for the National Gallery Series and the Phillips Collection Series in Washington, D.C.  She has appeared at many festivals including the Bath International Festival in England,  Killington Music Festival in Vermont, New York’s Bang-on-a-Can Festival, Western Slope Music Festival in Colorado, Weekends of Chamber Music in NY, and others.  Ms. Gibson’s recent concerto  performances include appearing with the Shanghai Radio Orchestra in China and the French Woods Summer Festival Orchestra in Hancock, NY.  

Ms. Gibson has performed live concerts for WGBH Boston’s Pro Musica and WQXR’s The Listening Room in New York. She has been heard several times on NPR’s Performance Today, and in 1992, as pianist in the Monticello Trio, appeared on NBC’s Today Show honoring the legacy of President Thomas Jefferson

Ms. Gibson’s major studies began at the University of Regina in Canada where she studied with William Moore, and graduated with a B.M. (summa cum laude).  At the Juilliard School, she graduated M.M. as a scholarship student of Sascha Gorodnitzki and Herbert Stessin. Ms. Gibson continued studies at the Banff Center for the Arts Winter Cycle Program for two years where she participated regularly in masterclasses with such noted artists as Gyorgy Sebok, Menachem Pressler, Janos Starker. A year of private study in Brussels, Belgium with Eduardo del Pueyo and Arthur Grumiaux followed.

Chamber music has formed an important part of Ms. Gibson’s career.  In addition to her ten years as pianist with the Monticello Trio, Ms. Gibson has collaborated with distinguished ensembles and artists including the Muir, American, Lark, Miami and Shanghai String Quartets, as well as the Dorian Woodwind Quintet. She appears frequently in recital as duo partner with many of this country’s finest instrumentalists and singers. Her first recording, featuring the Charles Ives Piano Trio, was described by American Record Guide as “really remarkable – the Ives trio seldom has been heard with so much energy or panache.”  Other chamber music recordings include recently discovered piano trios of Richard Strauss and music of British composer, Nicholas Maw, both CDs released by ASV of London. The disc featuring Maw’s piano trio gained considerable critical acclaim throughout Europe and the U.S., and  was nominated for a 1995 Recording of the Year Gramophone Award. Gramophone Magazine named it “Editor’s Choice – Recording of the Month” in the June issue. Summit Records has recently released “Breath in a Ram’s Horn”(2002), a CD of new song cycles by American composer, Dan Asia, with Ms. Gibson as pianist.  

A continuing commitment to new music has resulted in Gibson’s collaboration with many of our country’s prominent composers. She has been active in commissioning significant new works through grants such as the Koussevitzky Foundation and the Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program.  In addition to many first performances of new music, Ms. Gibson has directed the University of Virginia New Music Ensemble and has served as Co-Artistic Director of Coyote Consort, an ensemble dedicated to innovative programming of new and old music.

Ms. Gibson has given residencies, master classes and performances at universities and arts institutions throughout the U.S.  From 1984-94, she was a member of the music faculty at the University of Virginia. Currently, Ms. Gibson is Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Arizona, where she teaches studio piano and coaches chamber music. She makes her home in Tucson, Arizona.

What made you go into music?

My final decision to go into music was made halfway through my undergraduate degree. Music chose me at that point, you might say. Until that time, although I loved playing the piano, I think the actual reason I remained involved in music was largely the result of very supportive parents, enthusiastic teachers and luck.

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

Gyorgy Sebok, who was for many years a member of the piano faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington. After my graduate years at Juilliard, I spent two years at the Banff Center Winter Cycle Program for the Arts in Canada. The Banff Center provided an extraordinary environment for musicians, actors, visual artists and the program was highly conducive to personal growth. During that time, Sebok gave numerous master classes for the center. Those were pivotal experiences that helped me put together valuable concepts regarding my own playing. Perhaps I learned more by watching others play for him than I did from my own lessons. Sebok had a compelling way of communicating ideas that somehow reached down into the core of the issue being addressed. His observations were insightful and brought to light through sparing, but colorful language. He was, and continues to be, an inspiration.

What do you enjoy most about making music?

I have come to enjoy immensely the process of preparing music for performances. In other words, I love to practice! Certainly, this hasn’t always been the case, but today I crave that time spent exploring the score and the fascinating process that brings it to life.

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

I don't use a method, although I suppose, unknowingly, I use bits and pieces from many. I tend to teach much the way I have been taught, having gathered information from fine teachers over the years. I have put together a system that works well for me and I use much of that to help my students. I believe the shortcoming of any method is that it tends to emphasize the method rather than the needs of the individual student, although in the hands of a capable and insightful teacher this problem is effectively overcome. Finally, a method is only as effective as the teacher teaching it.

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

A number of technical problems show up regularly. Habitual physical tension, particularly in the wrists and shoulders, is quite common. These problems then produce their own set of further difficulties. For example, a high, locked wrist severely limits finger motion and raised shoulders prevent the use of full arm weight into the key. This sort of tension can often emerge as a young pianist first takes on more advanced repertoire and forces their technique beyond what is really possible at that time.

What advice would you give to students of the piano?

1) Explore your art. Listen to opera, orchestral literature, new compositions, writings about music. It worries me when students lack intellectual curiosity and limit themselves only to the bare bones of an assignment. Go beyond what is expected of you. What a shame to not turn the pages of the score beyond the movement your teacher has assigned to you!
2) Be intent on building your technique through healthy and productive practice. Find simple, efficient and direct ways to solve technical problems.
3) Listen to others play as much as possible through concerts and recordings. Listen actively and try to understand what makes a performance successful or communicative in your view.
4) Learn to read a score well. Understand that this road map is essential to realizing the composer's intent.
5) Practice now. As you grow older, the available time to practice diminishes.
6) Be resilient.

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

Without discipline and technique, there is no possibility for art. At the same time, technique alone expresses very little. Rather, it serves as a tool that frees us to make music. I would encourage piano teachers to address both technique and artistry from an early age. Encourage bold interpretive experimentation. Show students how you yourself might experiment with phrasing, dynamics and rubato. Enliven the student’s imagination, as well as tending to the important physical mechanics of playing the piano.

Additionally, I would suggest that teachers help students cultivate the ability to listen to their own playing. Students who have a strong aural image of what they want from the piano will progress quickly in many ways. Open up their ears to nuance, color, articulations, voicing, etc.

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

I do believe that young people face difficult choices when stepping into a music career. The terrain is harsh today and the competition is extraordinary. Beyond simply playing the piano well, many, many different skills may be necessary. Today, most young musicians will need to be entrepreneurial, adept at organizing opportunities for themselves. The difficulties aside, I believe a life in music is tremendously rewarding. It is a profession filled with passionate people who are fully engaged in what they do, not for the monetary rewards, but simply for the opportunity to make music.

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

To be a successful musician, it takes passion for the art, patience, persistence, talent and discipline.

To be a successful teacher, it takes passion for the art, patience, persistence, talent and discipline.

From your experiences in Europe, can you compare the European style of teaching and performing with that in the U.S.? What are the relative strengths of the two styles?

There is a European formality attached to the student/teacher relationship that we have far less of in this country. For example, during my studies in Brussels, both del Pueyo and Grumiaux were always addressed as "maitre." However, the atmosphere at lessons was not unfriendly. Beyond this formal veneer, I don’t think you can generalize differences between the two continents.

What were your best and worst: teaching experiences, performing experiences?

Best teaching experiences: Observing and celebrating a student’s improvement. Without this reward I really couldn’t continue as a teacher.

Worst teaching experiences: Those times (fortunately few) when I have been completely unable to motivate a student.

Best performing experience: There are many, but some of the most satisfying have been playing new works with the composer in the audience.

Worst performing experience: Arriving at the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh to play a Sunday afternoon concert only to discover that there are two Frick Museums in Pittsburgh! Bad luck had taken me to the wrong one. Once the mistake was discovered, there followed a wild cab ride and five minutes to spare before concert time. I really don’t care for that sort of concert warm-up.

What advice would you give to the student contemplating a music major in college?

When considering an undergraduate music major in performance, I would advise students to give careful thought to their choice of teacher. I believe it is the single most important factor in determining a student's success in these still formative years. Do your homework. Research the teachers you are considering and perhaps take a few lessons with them. I believe that during these four years, a teacher should provide important groundwork, demand new achievements, and make the case for focused work. It is an unparalleled time and the student/teacher relationship must be in good working order.

Do you have a favorite pianist and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?

There are many pianists I admire and I go through phases of wanting to hear and know everything they have recorded: Horowitz, Lupu, Argerich, to name a few. These are pianists I heard often when I lived in New York. More recently, I have become fascinated by recordings done in the early part of the twentieth century; pianists such as Cortot, Kochalski and Friedman. Their Chopin recordings are particularly revealing and the whole sense of tempo and rubato belongs to another world. One can’t help but marvel at the eloquence and personality found in these performances.

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

Of course, the key is how we teach and present classical music to children. As performers, I think we have a duty to address this. Yearly, I try to present a classical music unit in the elementary schools, usually between four and six sessions. I don’t believe it is enough to go in and simply play a brief concert and then disappear. This parachute effect has minimal impact. Rather, I try to present a unit around a composer, working with the teacher to integrate something of their daily curriculum into my presentation. This might sound intimidating to some, but it’s actually quite natural to delve into map reading with third graders, for example, when talking about certain composers. It is important to me that students walk away from the classroom experience with memorable knowledge; knowledge that they might someday take with them into a classical music concert. For example, an ability to identify several Beethoven symphonies or understand how an extra-musical influence might have contributed to a work by Vivaldi can be a vehicle that opens the world of great music for young people.

Does a piano student need to be particularly talented before they perform? How can the "average student" take advantage of performance opportunities?

All students will benefit if they perform publicly. Preparing for a performance always encourages a higher level of achievement than is likely to be reached without that goal. This applies to any student. But it is vital that teacher and student work together to ensure a positive performing experience. Most importantly, choose appropriate repertoire, make sure there are adequate practice hours devoted to this effort and schedule several low key "run-throughs" prior to the concert.

In your own performances with the Coyote Consort, you've introduced "unexpected" music and influences, such as Jimi Hendrix and John Cage among others. Can these kinds of "unexpected" music play a role in the teaching studio and, if so, how can the teacher best implement it in the teaching curriculum?

Over and over again I am struck by the very conservative nature of my piano students when it comes to selecting repertoire. I don’t understand it really. Perhaps it is a reflection of a general trend in education toward a standardized canon, or perhaps students feel the need to be secure in the traditional repertoire before branching out. As musicians, we are inevitably linked to our past. But there is no reason to think that we must learn Bach before Schoenberg. It can be rewarding and interesting to travel in the other direction. In my mind, working on the piano music of George Crumb is a wonderful "ear opener" to composers such as Chopin or Debussy. How to work this into the curriculum is another question. Sometimes I demand it, other times I might see an opening and pounce on it. Most of the time, I simply have to wait for the student to be ready.

How do you feel about the role of chamber music in your career? Should this be a part of a piano student’s education?

Presently, the three major strands of my musical career, solo, chamber music and teaching are so intertwined that I cannot imagine existing without any one of them. Chamber music is essential for me. Although I began my professional performing career as pianist in the Monticello Trio, nowadays, I play chamber music in all sorts of configurations. As pianists, we have so few opportunities to engage in music making with others, and for me, one of the most stimulating aspects of collaborative work is that intense interaction with other musicians. The world of chamber music has much to offer and, for the piano student, chamber music rehearsals are ideal places to begin learning how to articulate thoughts on musical issues. Most of all, the chamber music repertoire represents some of our greatest and most profound music and should be a part of every piano student’s educational experience.

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

I hear a lot of playing that is dutiful, but musically flat these days. Much of it is note perfect and commendable, but holds little communicative power for me. I find the sterility of the trend toward middle-of-the-road performances to be numbing. Sascha Gorodnitzki, my teacher at Juilliard, had a direct and harsh response to this sort of playing. "I wouldn’t take a nickel out of my pocket to hear you play it that way again," he would say to students. I didn’t fully understand his comment at the time, as I believed it to be about piano playing on a more technical level. But in fact he was referring to the performer’s responsibility to convincingly communicate something beyond technical skill to an audience. After all, the art of music rests completely on the ability of performers to do this successfully and we, as concertgoers, are acutely aware when the magic happens.

You can ask your own questions of Dr. Gibson by e-mail to

Page created: 10/9/03
Last updated: 01/30/15
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