Written by Becky Chaffee
Published: March 23, 2015 at 5:17 PM [UTC]
Dr. David Brunell is a phenomenal pianist. He is a Professor of Music at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has concertized on four continents: North America (including Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean), South America, Europe, and Australia, and produced a number of recordings. He has been described as having “formidable technique”. Last year, I attended his wonderful
performance of the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra.
* * *
Personally, I had the great pleasure of witnessing Dr. David Brunell as a devoted teacher who puts so much time and effort into his students, that he has been known to stay in his office until 4 in the morning to get his own practicing and paper work completed. His students include accomplished children as well as University students. His students regularly place well in competitions, including then 17 year old Jerry Feng, who performed a few years ago on NPR’s radio program “From the Top” (a program that showcases some of America's best young musicians and is heard by millions each week).
Violettes:I watched you cleverly explain piano techniques in terms of
golf moves and football plays for my son’s benefit. You must do this for many children. What is the wildest technique explanation that you created to match a child’s interests?
Dr. Burnell teaching my son, Dalton (in soccer clothes).
Dr. David Brunell: I enjoy the challenge of trying to think from the student’s perspective and interests. So it was fun to compare a sudden unexpected twist in a piece of music to a turnover in a football game. Perhaps the wildest thing I’ve come up with was inspired by the movie “Speed” in which a school bus is hooked up by terrorists to a bomb that will explode if the bus ever drops below 50 mph. For students who can’t seem to focus enough to follow the written fingering for their scales, and who declare that they just can’t do it, I’ve replied that I think they can. I’ll say, “If you had an atomic bomb hooked up to you such that it would go off and destroy the world if you played with the wrong
fingering, I bet you could concentrate hard enough to save the world from that fate! As long as you play the right fingering the world will be fine! Furthermore you can take all the time you want for each finger. You can take 10 minutes or more for each note while you look at the written fingering and think about getting that correct finger to play next. And it’s really fun to see that although they thought they couldn’t get the right fingering, they actually can once they learn to slow down enough to concentrate! Most of my illustrations and comparisons aren’t that drastic or violent. For example, I like to compare a staccato touch to crispy cereal, like Rice Crispies. I’ll compare a lazy not-staccato-enough touch to soggy cereal and ask the students how they like soggy
cereal. Most students agree soggy cereal is rather repulsive, but this line of questioning didn’t work one time when a student said he actually liked soggy cereal! One of my favorite illustrations is my jello analogy. Almost everyone
practices too fast. To get the students to see how slow practice is so much better for getting the music into the proper shape, I’ll ask them if they could fit jello that is already solid into a ring mold or if it would just fall apart. And of course they realize that you have to start with liquid jello, and then as it cools it solidifies and takes the shape of the ring mold. In the same way, slow practice is like the liquid jello that can be molded into the proper shape. Then as the
passage being practiced gradually speeds up over time, that’s like the jello gradually solidifying in the refrigerator, whereas starting with fast practice is like trying to start with solid jello and it just won’t work.
2. Violettes: You seem to be interested in many things. How did you decide to become a pianist? Are you still glad of the decision? Do you have any advice for young people trying to make this decision today?
Dr. David Brunell: I actually had a rather ignoble reason for starting lessons. When I was six a girl in my Sunday School class in Kansas City, Denise Dreier (whose brother David Dreier would one day became a US Congressman from California and would also serve as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign manager for California governor) started taking piano lessons from my mother and I didn’t want to be outdone, so I started asking my mother for lessons, too. She didn’t want to give them to me because she preferred to wait until kids for 7 or 8, but she finally gave in. Once I started lessons I seemed
to take to it very naturally and I loved to practice. Since I loved playing and practicing so much, it started to seem as though piano might be a natural choice for a career. My grandmother kept warning me, though, not to go into music as she said the standards were so extremely high in order to make it as a professional.
Also, a distinguished Washington University professor and one-time concert pianist teacher of a Saint Louis high school summer class I attended called, “The Making of a Musician,” kept telling the class, “Don’t go into music!” (So, those of us in the class said it should have been called, “The Breaking of a Musician!”). However, when that teacher said he thought I could make it in music, and when I won some competitions, especially the first prize in the national MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) piano competition, it seemed to indicate that I might be able to make a career of it. I was coming to love very deeply the music of many of the great composers, and whenever I tried to leave music and go into some other career, I couldn’t seem to break away from music. That illustrates, in fact, the standard line of advice that many musicians give to those considering music as a career: “Music is a tough career, so if you can do something else
and be happy with that, then do that, but if music is pulling you so greatly that you can’t really do anything else, then stick with music.” I am still happy that I chose music.
3. Violettes: Do you have a favorite composer to teach or to play? Why?
Dr. David Brunell: For a while my favorite was Chopin, then
Rachmaninoff, then Brahms. Then I came to love Schumann and Mozart. Then
I came to love Fauré and Debussy and Bartok and a host of others.
I even came to really enjoy jazz composers like Gershwin. I
finally realized it’s impossible to pick one favorite. It’s sort of
like fruit. Pears are delicious, but so is cantaloupe and so are
pineapple and strawberries. One composer that comes to mind
that I enjoy teaching to intermediate students is Mendelssohn.
His phrasing is so clear and his use of compositional techniques
of harmonic tension and resolution is so clear that his pieces,
such as his “Songs without Words,” serve as a wonderful
vehicle to help students understand how phrases are put
together and how they communicate.
4. Violettes: You give workshops on “Artistry and Technique”. You must
have collected knowledge from your teachers, colleagues and years
of experience. What part of the program is your personal spin on the
workshop? Tell us something about your approach.
Dr. David Brunell: Just as calculus has two main branches
– integral and differential – so, too, there are two main branches
to my “Technique and Artistry” workshops. There’s the physical,
athletic dimension of getting the hands and fingers to do what
we need them to do, and then there’s the interpretative dimension
of understanding how music is put together and how we should
manage the elements of music, such as the shaping of phrases
(i.e. varying the volume of sound from one note to the next in
the most convincing way.) Regarding the athletic dimension of
piano playing, many pianists pit one muscle group against another
and develop too much physical tension that can lead to injuries.
I show them how to free themselves from this problem by
substituting the force of gravity for one muscle group, thereby
enabling them to play with much more freedom, relaxation and
mastery. As for the interpretative side of music, it is my
contention that music is essentially a meaningful drama
of musical tensions and resolutions, and I endeavor to help
pianists and teachers become increasingly aware of these
musical tensions and resolutions so that these will guide their
playing and teaching. As one of my teachers once said, “Each
musical passage has its own inner logic.” I endeavor to help
students and teachers find that inner logic.
Dr. David Brunell, Pianist Extroardinaire performing Mendelssohn with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra
5. Violettes: The UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE, KNOXVILLE is in the process of
becoming an all Steinway Music School. How many Steinway Pianos has
UT acquired, and how has it affected the school and your teaching program?
(Some background info about the project Here.)
Dr. David Brunell: U. T. Knoxville officially became an all-Steinway school in the summer of 2013, with the acquisition of 68 new Steinway pianos thanks to gifts totaling 3.5 million dollars.
Many donors contributed to this. Leading the way were Jim and Sandy Powell, who really had the vision to make U.T. an all-Steinway school. Our beautiful new recital hall, the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall, is named after Mrs. Powell with gratitude for the
Powell’s vision and generosity. The new Steinway pianos are a fantastic
thing. Pianists have an almost unique problem among musicians in that they are
unable to carry their instrument with them and must “make do” with what instrument
is provided them in each location. When one has to practice and/or perform on poor
instruments, it affects the quality of one’s learning and development. The fact that we
have been provided with these wonderful pianos makes the whole learning experience
here so much better. I believe our practice rooms in the gorgeous new state-of-the art
Natalie L. Haslam Music Center with the wonderful Steinway pianos have got to be
among the best in the country. In our performance halls and teaching studios, we
have both New York Steinways and Hamburg (Germany) Steinways to give students,
faculty and guests the widest choice possible. Everybody who comes here raves about the pianos!
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