Interview with Dr. Allison Gagnon

Dr. Allison Gagnon is the Collaborative Piano Department Chair at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she has an exciting schedule filled with performing, teaching, and overseeing all activities requiring a collaborative pianist at school. She’s also my teacher and it was an enriching experience to ask her some questions I’ve always wanted to know more about.


When did you start working at UNCSA?

I came to UNCSA in 1998.

Did you start at UNCSA with your current title as Director of the Collaborative Piano graduate program?

No: When I first joined, I was hired for one year to join the piano staff while I finished my doctoral work at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I asked if there was an accompanying class I could teach and they said there was one in the curriculum but no one was teaching it. So I joined three other pianists on staff and I taught a mixed class of college students and graduate students. This became the “introduction to collaborative piano” class and I’ve had this for 23 years now. After the first year they wanted me to design a graduate program in collaborative piano and I stayed on to do that.

When did the graduate program start?

The graduate program launched in 2001 and I continued to be part of the piano staff. Professor Larsen coordinated the piano staff for another 10 years while I coordinated the graduate students. We worked in tandem for a while and then in 2009 it became more logical for me to do it all. I didn’t have my ongoing teaching position until 2014 and I officially immigrated in 2016.

Oh, wow, so you were a temporary employee at UNCSA for 16 years! Did you ever expect your career to be predominantly in the U.S.?

No, in 1995 I had been commuting between two schools in Canada. I was an adjunct instructor at one and accompanying at the other. Then one school had cuts and gave me a year’s notice because I was an adjunct.

I took that year to start my doctorate and came to the U.S. to study with Anne Epperson at CIM.

When I came to North Carolina I was expecting to be here for one year but the opportunity to create the collaborative piano program was the deciding factor: I really wanted to be teaching collaborative piano.

After several years the chancellor at the time could see that this [temporary status] wasn’t a good situation for me or the school and so in 2014 he ordered the search for my position.

And for many reasons, it was the right place to continue.

The focus was so clearly on applied study and performing arts, and there always full-time positions for [applied] instructors, it was a very different teaching environment for me. And such great colleagues! I mean, look at the faculty we have. And additional attractions for me were pottery and birding!

What are your favorite things about UNCSA?

It’s fun to have the high school program. For my purposes, it’s good to teach students collaborative piano skills when they’re young.

The excellent instruments and access to the halls: Not just for my own enjoyment, but to have them as our regular places to work and teach. Students won’t find better instruments to learn from.

How did you learn to manage coordinating pianists for an entire school of music?

My style of running the program is to make the effort to match repertoire and personnel. I think that it causes fewer problems in the long run. I learned this from my mentor, Anne Epperson.

It’s more planning and monitoring but less damage control. There has to be a little bit of risk-taking where the collaborative students are concerned (otherwise, nobody learns how to handle a difficult situation), but I provide the necessary support.

The old fashioned way is assigning a teaching assistant ten hours in the violin studio and saying, “see ya later,” but that’s not a very healthy situation in my opinion.

How did you find the collaborative piano world?

It’s what happens when you’re in a family where music is part of life and you have a mum who gets you to play with everyone else in the family. My mom sang and played piano and also a little violin. My dad played violin and my mom taught both my brothers and me how to play piano. She said “I tried to teach my children what I could do. If I’d been a painter, I would have taught you how to paint.”

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing with other people.

When I was 5 or 6 we had a family concert at home and at church and we’d mix and match: I would play for her singing, we would sing together, my brother David would play, I would play for my dad on the violin.

I remember in 1967 Canada had its centenary. I was just finishing kindergarten and there was this theme song that I played for the class to sing - as a kindergartner!

Even when I started studying with Mrs. McLellan after my mother, she [Mrs. M] put me with one of her sons and another friend and we had a trio with piano, flute, and oboe. We even got coachings from the oboe teacher. This was when we were teen-aged. And then when I started university, Mrs. M paired me with a new voice major.

It’s just always been a part of my life. I think the oddest recollection was of my mum singing all the parts in the Messiah and somehow I was playing while she was singing. It was before everything was recorded so I have no idea what it sounded like.

So you’ve been fluent in collaboration from a young age! Did you study any other instruments?

Flute and piccolo in high school. I tried guitar and violin but these just didn’t feel right for my hands.

How would you define a collaborative pianist for someone who may not already know?

Well, I would have to explain the term first: pianists who play with other people.

Part of what we do is play every kind of music with every kind of person.

And it becomes as much about understanding your partner as it does about knowing what to do musically. People who are collaborative pianists are interested in other people, I think, and figuring out how to make the connections that work for that particular person.

And it has to do with sharing music.

Some pianists don't feel good sharing in that way. But that interaction is something we thrive on.

In order to do the job, we have to be adaptable and communicate well and work towards a common goal, whatever it happens to be.

And I guess musically there are all sorts of different things you can do with other people that you could never do on your own: different kinds of music and different kinds of sound. We spend time in all sorts of different repertoire that are far away from the solo piano literature that we grow up on.

I often tell my intro class that we get to know different composers, styles, and types of music we wouldn’t know as pianists. We get to play as an orchestra and we have to enjoy doing that.

I think about it a lot with the staff at school: we’re not only partners with the people we play with, we’re also collaborating with the person in charge in the room. Some of the time we’re a direct partner and other times we are like the conductor/teacher’s partner. That’s a significant difference in that sometimes you have to defer to the conductor and not the singer for example. There’s a lot of adaptability and chameleon-like behavior.

I think it has to do with our temperament. We’re interested in working with other people and curious about other kinds of music. We’re constantly inspired by different sounds of instruments, and the messages we’re getting from the other person.

The time is coming when all pianists should be just ‘pianists’ and the ones that don't want to play with others can be called the ‘uncollaborative pianists’. Because more and more every pianist plays with others at least some of the time.

What do you enjoy most about being a classical musician?

Sharing music with others.

I really enjoy performing. I don’t particularly enjoy studio recording time, although it’s kind of nice to have an end product. And I do enjoy working on the orchestral reduction editions although I have two that are unfinished. Teaching is another joy because we’re continuously sharing music.

What’s the most important lesson you hope to impart to your students?

“More bass, less pedal.” or “Keep breathing.” Two of my favorites!

So many things I want my students to remember are things I’ve stolen from my own teachers and mentors. But an overriding concept is learning how to learn. Not just in music, either. There’s no way you can cover all the repertoire so you have to learn how to learn everything.

Any thoughts on being a female leader in this career? What has your experience been like as a woman in the classical music world?

I think you’re the first person who called me a leader. It took me a while to recognize I am a leader. With the kinds of challenges I’ve experienced, I'm not sure if it’s because I’m a woman, or a collaborative pianist, or short, or an alien. Truly. I think that combination is not helpful.

It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that being a woman was a problem. I grew up being encouraged to excel in whatever I did. That doesn’t go over well when you have good ideas but you’re not in a position to be the one calling shots.

The challenge is to have your voice heard and be at the table. And then on top of it, if you are in a position to be at the table and have your voice heard, do it in such a way that you don’t get branded [negatively] somehow. That takes a lot of practice and I've seen a lot of good examples that I identify with. It’s unfortunate that it’s a challenge.

And there are day-to-day things that women deal with that make everything harder. It’s like a double whammy at times. There’s the twist of how you present yourself on stage (the attire that you choose) depending on who your partner is. You have to treat it like a uniform and I think you have to understand that you don’t want to attract attention to how you’re dressed. You want your music-making to attract attention.

Men don’t have to think about this to the same extent. They may have a suit and they just change the tie. But eventually, it can be fun, managing how to present ourselves to complement our partners.

I don’t think in making music with people I ever feel it’s difficult as a woman. I mean there are people with temperament, but they don’t have to be male to have that.

It’s more in academia that I feel this, not so much in performing.

What future projects are you most excited about? What are your most fulfilling projects?

The ArtistCorps adventure is a challenge but it’s rewarding and inspiring. It’s probably the biggest project going ahead. ArtistCorps is UNCSA’s community engagement initiative, and I mentor a team of students and alums.

We have had a team working on interactive music in dementia care since the fall semester of 2019. It started in person at our local adult day center for adults and then we had to suspend work for the first part of 2020. In Fall 2020 we created video content that could be shared by caregivers on home visits. We’re still trying to figure out if we can resume in-person work this fall.

But this past spring we worked on bringing together materials that we could share with other schools of music as instructional resources.

Music addresses their feelings of isolation whether they’re at home or in a facility. And this helps the caregivers with their jobs as well. I know my mother’s caregivers learned that if they sang with her, it made it easier to get her from place to place. There was one woman in our group who was quiet and grumpy when she came in. She sat down, closed her eyes, and seemed content. But then we put on Elvis and she perked up! I showed her how the egg-shaker in her hand worked and then she was so fascinated with what it did and how it sounded. And she was like that for the rest of the session and even spoke with us after.

I think the larger goal would be getting this work into schools across the country. There’s a growing sense that musicians have a lot to contribute beyond performing and the need is so great for people with dementia. It also teaches students many skills that are universally transferable. And it doesn’t have to be presented very formally to have a big impact. If we get five more people in every community to interact with people with dementia, it will make a big difference from what we have currently.

And of course, creating our Collaborative Piano program - I'm happy about that.

We’re trying to have a 20th-anniversary event in the fall!

As for other projects: maybe making a set of dishes one day. Gagnonware™.

What are the albums you would bring with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

Anything of Oscar Peterson playing solo. My Favorite Instrument is a great album or any studio recordings from Germany.

Martha Argerich playing Bach: there’s an album with the C minor Partita.

Ivo Pogorelić playing Scarlatti.

Leon Fleisher playing the Brahms Piano Concertos.

The Tchaikovsky Violin concerto, not sure who specifically but I would enjoy that.

And some Billy Joel and Simon & Garfunkel.

What inspires you?

My ArtistCorps work, nature, birds…

Seeing what my students accomplish is quite inspiring!

Whenever something beautiful is being done, whether it's somebody making a cool pot or any kind of artistic endeavor where they put effort into things.


Learn more about Dr. Gagnon’s work with ArtistCorps

Learn more about Dr. Gagnon's work at UNCSA

Learn more about ArtistCorps at UNCSA

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