Artist Portrait: Matthew Odell
I had the great pleasure of doing this latest Artist Portrait interview with pianist Matthew Odell—and face to face too! He is an energetic and down to earth person who inspired our students and teachers during his workshop, masterclass, and performance at EAC a couple of weeks ago.
He’s also a busy person. He has an ongoing project to learn and perform all of Messiaen’s solo piano music. He has just one concert left, Les Oiseaux which he laughingly says will be a teensy little concert. He has some upcoming commissions on the horizon and is looking forward to several brand new pieces. There are upcoming solo recitals in New Hampshire and New Jersey and a lecture recital at the College of Music Society Northeastern Convention.
He is a founding member of the Hampton Trio and serves on the coaching faculty of the Académie internationale d’été de Nice in France. He also has an ongoing, working relationship with French composer Michel Merlet, and every summer goes over to Paris and plays whatever he has learned most recently. And, of course, he teaches piano and coaches at Julliard, gives workshops, and does lots of accompanying.
We sat down in my classroom late one afternoon before a rehearsal for his concert the next evening. I know you will enjoy his thoughts on growing into music, teaching and performing.
What was your childhood like? Were you always driven towards music?
Yes, but not driven by anyone else. I think that’s a real important thing, because I have a lot of students who are very driven by their parents to music, not necessarily just by themselves, you know. And I think it makes a big difference who’s doing the driving.
I didn’t start my first piano lesson until I was 10, which is quite late for most pianists. Most of my colleagues started when they were 3 or 4, and have been playing steadily ever since. So I started late and I always felt like I had to play catch-up. But we didn’t own a piano until I was 10. My mother, ironically, played the piano, and she played in our church. And I guess that was my first introduction early to music, was through church music, because my mother played, my grandmother played, and my aunt played.
So, on my mother’s side of the family there was quite a bit of music going on, but not on the professional level. It was mostly in church and just at home, like when we would go to visit a relative and would make music there. I would try to pick out a melody and I would sing all the time. Because that’s kind of all I had. I didn’t have a piano to really make music on. And so everybody said, oh he’s so musical, he’s so musical, but we just didn’t have a piano until I was older.
We moved and we rented a home that was furnished and had a piano. So I started taking lessons there and then we eventually moved out of that place and got a new home, and we had to get a piano because I was, at that point, taking lessons. And, that’s kind of when it all took off.
But, I think that music was kind of bubbling up inside of me ever since I was born. It was just kind of struggling to find an avenue to come out. When I was young, I would kind of pretend that I was playing. I would kind of set up a little mini piano of my own devising, just with my imagination at the coffee table, and I would pretend that I had a music rack and I would make like a board game into a music rack and sing Herald Angels Sing at the top of my lungs and pretend that I was playing along with myself- that kind of thing. That was kind of my musical outlet when I was young, just singing and pretending to play the piano.
When I finally was able to start, then I really took off, because that was kind of like “it.” From my first lesson on I knew that was for me. But, I was definitely lucky, my parents were always very supportive of me doing music. They were never once the sort of masterminded my education in any way. They were happy that I was happy doing music. And felt that was really important and I’m very thankful for that.
That’s not always the case.
Yeah, it’s not always the case. Sometimes people don’t want their kids to go into music. But I find most often the parents really stress that they want their kids to go into music without really taking into account what their children might want to do with their lives. I taught a 9 year old who’s parents were talking to me about how important it was that she get into either Julliard or Curtis. Those were her two options. And she was 9.
That kind of thing I think can be very harmful in the long run. We have to be very careful about that. It’s important to be supportive, but not controlling in that way. And I was very fortunate that my parents were just happy that I was happy doing what I was doing. And then I knew, too, that if I wanted to enter a competition or learn some piece, it was really all of my own doing, it was all of my own interest. It wasn’t that someone else had the idea that, oh I think you should do this. I didn’t feel pressured to do anything. I just came purely of my own interest and desire to do more and try more and to see what happened.
So you always knew you were a pianist.
Yeah, I did. I always knew. Certainly from the first lesson on, there was no question. And I knew I’d go through and get my doctorate, I knew that. At the time my dad was working on his doctorate, so that was kind of in the family ethos, or whatever you want to call it. But no, I knew that that was just gonna be it. I didn’t have a clue what the lifestyle of a musician was like at the time, of course, who does when they’re 10? But, I knew that that was just it, so there was no real question, as some people have when they get to high school of wondering what am I going to major in, what am I going to go and study when I go to college. There was no question.
You’re a champion of contemporary music, and you’ve had many works written for you. Do you find the process different when you have the actual composer looking over your shoulder, and don’t have as many historical resources available?
Well it is, yeah, because you don’t actually know what the piece is going to necessarily sound like. For one thing, the composer will sometimes give you a midi file where there’s just a computer program that’s, more or less, playing the notes for you so that you can kind of get an idea. That, I find is not very musical. So, it is a very different approach, because there’s no history behind what you’re doing. And that’s, I think, very exciting.
You don’t have any of the crutches, shall we say, of being able to go to YouTube and find 50 people playing the piece that you’re working on. You can’t read a music history book to tell you more about the composer’s background. Fortunately though, the great benefit is that you do have the composer right there and you can ask them, what did you mean by ___ when you put it here? What does this marking exactly mean to you? Where did you want this retard to start? Did you want it to start here or there?
They’ll just plain tell you, oh no I was actually thinking of having it start exactly there. And then it’s kind of a dialogue which you can’t quite have with Brahms. Because we can’t quite call him up on the phone, or send him an email or Skype to find out exactly what he meant by this marking. We have to do our best to figure out what exactly he meant.
I think it’s very exciting to have the composer there because you can ask questions and you can try things out, and you can find out in a very, I find mostly, non-threatening way, ok that wasn’t exactly what he meant. But, now you can find out what he did want you to do. So I think it’s a very wonderful thing. And it’s exciting to feel involved in the creation of a new piece, to feel like you had something to do with it and to help introduce it to the world. I think that’s really nice.
Does it ever go the other way, where you have an idea that the composer likes first?
Yes. There was a very of mine that wrote a piece for me—one of the first pieces that was written for me. I had talked to him once about how, because I’m from New Hampshire originally I go back there as often as I can. I told him what it was like to walk outside in the woods and hear nothing but silence, especially if you’re walking out in the snow and everything’s just that wonderful stillness that you have when it snows. And I said there was just nothing, you know there’s just nothing like it. When you live, as much time in a city as I do, for as much time as I do, you’re sort of wanting that silence. And so he wrote a piece called Snow Moon for me, which kind of tracked that idea of silence and that kind of mental image that I guess I gave him when I talked to him about playing in the woods. So, you never know what your conversations with composer friends may lead to.
I’m a California girl, and when I first came here to go to graduate school and I was working on some of the Debussy preludes and one of them was Footsteps in the Snow. I was practicing and practicing and spending hours in a little room by myself and my boyfriend, now husband, said that’s it, we’re going to the snow! And I didn’t want to, because I had to practice, right? He said, “But it snowed yesterday and we’re going!” and I went kicking and screaming. Then I got there, Madera Canyon was covered with snow, and it was exactly that, it was new snow.
There’s nothing like it.
Absolutely, we heard our footsteps crunch and these were the first human footsteps in that snow. I instantly knew how to play the piece. So, I went kicking and screaming and came back with what I needed. Isn’t that funny?
Exactly. It is, it’s interesting. I know for Messiaen, he writes all these bird songs. And they’re actually songs that he transcribed from outside. And I think it’s kind of impossible to play them well without actually listening to the birds that are outside. You know, it really makes you appreciate the sounds of nature far more, when you have to recreate them at the piano. So I certainly listen to birds far differently than I ever used to. They’re fascinating, actually. It sounds very nice.
Please talk about your affinity with the music of Messiaen. Where did it start?
Well it’s kind of interesting. I first heard a piece of Messiaen, it was one of the Vingt Regards, The Kiss of the Infant Jesus, which is number 15. And my teacher in high school said, I think you should listen to this. I guess he probably thought that I might have interest in modern music, although to that point I hadn’t really played much more than Debussy or something. But he said, oh I want you to listen to this piece. And I listened to it, and I absolutely hated it. I absolutely hated it. You know, it was very dissonant, and for me I hadn’t yet quite come to grips with even the music of say, Prokofiev. And Messiaen was worlds further along than Prokofiev even. I just thought, oh my word, that’s crazy. I will never play this music.
Never say never, because a couple years later I went to college, and my teacher there, he often enrolled his students in the MTNA competition. And he liked to have his students play something that was maybe not quite so well known, because he felt that that was an advantage. And I would say I would agree. He often used movements of the Vingt Regards for his more advanced students, because he felt like those truly weren’t as well known. They’re getting more known all the time, but certainly back then too, they weren’t as well known. So he recommended Noel, which is I believe movement number 13 and, which was a little more accessible than the longer Kiss of the Infant Jesus. I guess at that point I was ready for it, just personally and musically—I was more accepting.
After that point when my teacher recommended Messiaen to me and I rejected it, I listened to a recording of Issac Pearlman playing the Prokofiev violin concertos. And all of a sudden I realized that this modern music, what to me was modern music, could actually be very lyrical and really quite beautiful. And then I started to think, oh if that could be ok, maybe something else could be ok, too, and I started to listen to other things.
So, by the time that my freshman year came around in my undergrad, I was sort of I guess ready for it. I played a couple movements of the Vingt Regards in undergrad, and then I started playing more and more when I grad school. Certainly by the time I was working on my doctorate, I was fully involved in Messiaen. I started researching and working with people who worked with Messiaen, like the pianist Peter Hill, who had played basically all of Messiaen’s solo music for him before he recorded it- and, you know, just meeting people, talking to them, doing research, reading everything I could find and listening to every recording I could find. So that kind of brought me to where I am today. I’ve got a project right now where I’m working on learning on all of Messiaen’s solo music and gradually performing it all. I’m most of the way through that project, which is really quite fun. But, it’s amazing to think that back in high school I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.
You have a multifaceted career, performing artist, vocal coach, collaborative pianist, teacher at the pre-college division at Julliard. What’s your typical week like?
I don’t know if I have a typical week. Every week is very different from the last. You know, I have my private piano students that I see every week. I don’t see my vocal students at the pre-college every week, so that varies. But, I have my private lessons, and then there’s always practicing, you know, 4 to 6 hours a day of practice. I guess that’s my most regular activity.
But then every day can be different, because sometimes someone will be needing you to do a recording session, or to accompany them in something, or I will need to be going, traveling to Arizona, to play a concert and to do some teaching and things like that. So every week actually ends up being very different.
In a couple weeks I’m going to do a lecture recital at the college of music society conference in New Hampshire and the northeast regional. So you know, that’s something different. And then I’m doing a master class in New York a couple weeks later and then you’re off to do solo recitals. So every week is actually its own thing you know, there’s very little repetition. Which keeps it fairly interesting, I’d say.
So, do you have to squeeze in practice time, or do you squeeze everything else around practice time?
Well, no, I mean I definitely have to squeeze in practice time- certain weeks more so than others. It just kind of depends on the time of year. In the summertime, practice time is far more available, as you probably can relate to. But at certain times it’s very hard, and I’ll find myself practicing only very early in the morning or very late at night.
I usually start at 7:30 in the morning and then I go until I’ve gotten the work done. So, you know I do certainly make a very concerted effort to get in quite a bit of time everyday. And I don’t really allow myself to get away with not doing it because I’ll pay a price for it later. You know, when I am supposed to be performing well and I don’t. It is something that it really does have to be a priority.
Actually, I do try as much as I can to give myself several hours at a time where I’m just focused on practicing, otherwise I find it’s hard if you only have 15 minutes here or 20 minutes there. But if that’s all that we have, that’s all we do too. Have to be practical.
What do you think are the most essential elements any student should receive from their teacher?
It’s a big question. There’s a lot that can be addressed in that question. I think more than anything, they should be receiving support and understanding. I think that can mean a lot of things for a lot of people and be shown in many different ways.
I did not come out of the womb knowing how to play the piano, as some seem to. It’s been a life-long struggle and something that I continue to work at, something that I continue to refine. I’m grateful to the teachers that I had that pointed me in the right direction and showed me what I needed to do to be able, well to have the capability of doing what I wanted to do at the piano.
And, I think that it’s important to give our students a wonderful musical background, so that they sort of live and breathe music. Also that they understand what the difference is between how you play Mozart and how you play Bach, how you play Prokofiev versus how you play Debussy. I think that it’s really good for us to give them that kind of strong background, so that they can kind of put things into perspective, musically.
Like I said before, I think it’s so important for us to give them the support so that they know that there is someone who believes in them and their talents and their abilities, wherever that takes them. And I think it’s important for us to respect… their own interests and abilities and backgrounds and family situations.
There’s a lot that goes into learning how to play the piano, and not everyone is going to pursue it as a career, and I think that’s fine and wonderful, actually. I think that we need as many teachers and doctors and ministers and lawyers who are wonderful amateur musicians and had wonderful musical background far more than we just need millions of concert pianists.
What advice do you have for pre-college (middle or high school) students?
Well, my advice to them would be: There are a lot of things that are really important. Find what you really enjoy, and go do it. If you find that you really enjoy a certain kind of music, really do it, and find a teacher who will be willing to help you get there and do it.
I think that people sometimes don’t realize how much work it really takes, if they’re really interested in pursuing music as a career, for example. Some people don’t really quite realize how much study and how much time and dedication it really takes. So, I’d love for them to actually be able to see the hours of practice that go into it, and the dedication and coming to lessons regularly, and listening to what the teacher has to say and all that kind of thing. Those are some of the things that I would want for younger students to start to kind of get a grasp of.
I would also give them advice to learn carefully and slowly, to learn really well. And also to have fun doing so. To really pursue music because it’s a passion and not because it’s a duty.
I remember when I was in middle school there was a class that everyone had to take, it was a basic music appreciation class. And up until that point, I had been playing piano for 2 years, but I didn’t really have any kind of understanding of the different time periods of classical music and the different composers and who wrote what, why it sounds the way it does and all that. And then I took that class and it was amazingly eye-opening. And then my passion for classical music actually took off. It was a combination of that class and just on my own, starting to listen to recordings.
That’s another thing that I think is so important for younger students, to start listening to good recordings. To start hearing music played really well and to just kind of get immersed, so that they start to hear music for all kinds of instruments. If they play a piano then I think that they should be listening to string quartets and symphonies and operas and art song, and lots of chamber music. And not just piano music, but I think that they should be just listening, listening, listening as much as they can.
I was fortunate, when I was in middle school and high school and all the way through undergrad, we had a very nice public library in our town, with a very large CD collection. I don’t know how they had so many, but they did. And every couple of weeks I would go out and I would check out a stack that was about yea high off the floor, so a good 2 ½ – 3 feet high, and I would just listen to that as I did my homework. I just listened to scads of music. And it just sunk into my head, and it just, it does something, to the brain and your musical perception, when you start to listen like that.
It amazes me that people who play piano for so many years and don’t actually listen to much music for piano, let alone for anything else. I think that it’s such a shame, especially with all that we have available with YouTube and iTunes. The availability of music has never been greater than it is today. And it’s never really been as inexpensive as it is today, either. People need to be getting used to hearing and listening to, and seeking out different kinds of music all the time. That’s one of the greatest things that we can do, one of the greatest things that we can encourage our young students to do, is to explore. You never know what you’re going to find, what that might, what kind of interest that might spark.
That’s true. How about adults?
Well, some of my favorite students are the adult students who are just doing it because they love it. It’s not going to be their career. I’ve had some students in New York City who are in finance, they work on Wall Street, and they do music because it’s a calming influence on them. It’s relaxing, it’s something that they truly love to do. And I find that kind of thing to be so refreshing.
I think that for adults who are wondering maybe, should I take lessons, or I took lessons when I was young but I stopped and should I take it up again? I’d say absolutely. I haven’t found too many people who have regretted taking lessons. In fact, I’ve only heard regrets about stopping lessons when people were maybe young, and not continuing. So I think that as soon as possible is the best time to start taking up lessons again.
For those adult learners who are already actively involved in lessons, one must be patient with oneself when trying to learn a piece of piano music. There is a lot of dexterity that comes with youth, that’s not always there for adults, and they just have to be patient. And I find that things happen in time, but they don’t always happen quite as quickly as they’d like.
Adults, as opposed to some young children, they can understand the concepts that are being, that’s going on in the music. They have a greater connection to the music, but they’re frustrated they can’t always do what they want to with the music right away. I think that having patience is really important. But I think that it’s a wonderful thing for people to either take up for the first time as adults or to continue on after a hiatus, which is so often the case with adult learners.
Yeah. And they feel guilty sometimes, too… for having taken time off.
To have a family, of all things. I just love when I have adults students who are just so passionate about music that they’re willing to put in time everyday, after work and after raising a family, you know, maybe putting the kids to bed and then they start they’re practicing. But that’s really refreshing and very nice because they do it because they love it and because it means a lot to them, and I applaud them, hugely. I think it’s great.
What are some of the coolest things that have happened to you professionally?
Well, I think the opportunity to travel has really been amazing. I’ve gotten to perform and teach all over the world. You know, I traveled all over Europe, to England and France. And I’ve been all over, studied in Austria and performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and over in Asia, performed in Japan and Taiwan and just gotten to see and travel and just experience so many different things, that’s been pretty amazing. That’s certainly something that, at the age of 10, starting my first lesson I would never have dreamed of getting to do, you know?
Getting to perform at some of the other venues here, even just in this country, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall… just things that I would never have, in my wildest dreams, ever thought that I would have done. It’s pretty amazing. To me, that’s pretty cool.
Also, just being able to interact with other musicians. You know, people that have spent their lives doing this. I think that that’s been richly rewarding for me- and it continues to be. I can’t wait to continue doing that kind of thing for the rest of my life.
But most of all, it’s just such a huge privilege to get to play this music. I think we don’t realize sometimes how lucky we are because we’re busy confronting the difficulties of the music, or sometimes frustrated by how much time is taken out of our lives because we have to practice for the next concert or something. And we don’t quite put it into perspective where, this is actually pretty amazing that I get to play music that’s 300 years old, or 400 years old, and it’s still relevant today, and it’s still gorgeous, and it’s a masterwork and I get to deal with it everyday. It’s like being able to pick up a literary classic everyday. I mean, I guess we can all do that, but how often do we? It’s really pretty wonderful to be able to play Brahms and Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven and all the way up to the latest compositions, and have that be part of my, a large part of my daily activity.
Being able to share that with my students is also really wonderful. It really makes all the things that I’ve experienced far more relevant and it helps my students appreciate them more, when I can share things. “Oh yes, there was this time when I was working with this composer and he said…”, and then I can pass that on. That’s really very nice.
Do you have some humorous incidents to relate?
Well, I don’t know if it’s humorous. I didn’t think it was humorous at the time, I could tell you. Maybe, looking back on it there’s some humor in it. But, I’ve had some mishaps on the concert stage. When I was making my European debut, it was in Toulouse, France. I was playing a concert, and many things had gone wrong with the trip. But I got there to play my concert and I was horribly jet-lagged because they had booked my ticket for the wrong day, so I got there too late, really, to be properly prepared to play the concert.
They had these new piano benches at the time, which are now all over the place, and they’re these piano benches that instead of having four legs, they only have two, and on the bottom of each leg there’s a support to keep it stable. Well there should have been two screws attaching the top of the piano bench to the two legs. And we found out, in a very difficult piece fairly near the end of the program, that one of those screws was missing.
And so all of a sudden, in a very difficult passage, I pitched forward, toward the keys because it was the kind of thing where it could have tipped forward or it could have tipped back, and it tipped forward and kind of almost launched me into the keyboard. And I had all I could do to hang on for dear life while I was still playing a very difficult piece, and I kind of had to lean back to compensate. At the time I didn’t think it was funny at all, it really didn’t feel funny. Now I can kind of look back and laugh, ha ha. But it wasn’t fun at the time, I have to tell you. But now, it’s just one of those things that I look back and it’s an anecdote that I can talk about, you know?