Sophia Gilmson

Rosalind Meaux has been taking music lessons from UT music students for three years as part of the Piano Project. Every Tuesday evening, Meaux has a private 30-minute lesson at the Butler School of Music.

Photo Credit: Chris Foxx | Daily Texan Staff

The fifth floor of the Butler School of Music is flooded with children waiting with their parents before starting their 30-minute music lesson. Some kids have conversations with other music students and some are quiet. As students enter small practice rooms along the narrow hallways, the floor comes alive with music. This is the Piano Project.

Children accepted into the Piano Project take private music lessons every Tuesday from 5-7 p.m. Students currently enrolled in piano pedagogy courses lead the lessons. After a semester-long Piano Project session, each child performs a piece at the program’s recital.

Elementary school student Rosalind Meaux has been with the Piano Project for three years. In addition to Rosalind’s weekly lessons, her teacher expects her to practice piano daily.

“I’m almost on book two,” Rosalind said. “I only have five more [pieces] to finish in book one. This means I get to play new things. It’s fun.”

Rosalind said her favorite part of the Piano Project is the recital performance at the end of the semester. 

“Dressing up is fun,” Rosalind said. “Last year I got to wear a sparkly dress.”

Rosalind’s father, Mark Meaux, waits outside as she practices. Although Mark never had the opportunity to play music growing up, Rosalind has become his teacher back home.

“I am slowly learning how to play music with her,” Mark said. “She teaches me something new every day.”    

Students like Rosalind would not have the opportunity to play music at the Butler School of Music without Sophia Gilmson, director of the Piano Project and music associate professor. Gilmson, who has been teaching music for 22 years, said her love for music and passion for teaching makes the Piano Project very special to her.    

“Music has disappeared from many lives, but it is not too late to fix this,” Gilmson said.

Gilmson said children are ideal students because they can start to learn from a young age how to play music correctly. She said the Piano Project also aims to teach young music students how to have performance manners.

“Proper concert behavior is important,” Gilmson said. “I don’t think many other music programs do this enough.” 

Each semester, children audition to be part of the Piano Project. Gilmson said there are currently only 22 students because there are only 22 teachers. She said the number of teachers is often uncertain, but the small number of students in the Piano Project makes the program more personalized.

“Every child has individual prospects, and all are special,” Gilmson said. “We have 22 students, and we have 22 special projects.”

One of Gilmson’s favorite parts of the program is being able to watch her own students learn how to teach the children in the Piano Project.

“Critiquing is not hard if it’s with a good heart,” Gilmson said.    

Gilmson said it is a serious program — but an exciting one.

“We work very hard to make students into young artists,” Gilmson said. “But seeing children play music makes me feel that there is a genuine joy in this. It is a genuine joy.”

Professor Sophia Gilmson plays the piano in her office on Monday afternoon. The Russian-born pianist recently released several recordings of the Bach Goldberg Variations for both the piano and two-manual harpsichord.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

In the halls of the Butler School of Music, muffled melodies barely escape the soundproofed practice rooms as students diligently rehearse on an array of instruments. But it is not only students working on breakthrough performances; professor Sophia Gilmson has also been hard at work on a project of her own. The 20-year veteran of the music school recently released her own recordings of the Bach Goldberg Variations on both the piano and the two-manual harpsichord. A concept, which, quite to her surprise, is the first of its kind.

“I love Bach’s music, and I credit my first piano instructor for that,” Gilmson said. “A question I had was, ‘How would Bach himself would have played this; how would he have wanted this piece to sound?’ Because we’re used to playing it on a different instrument, the piano, than what it was written for. Some of the variations in the piece specifically call for a two-manual harpsichord.”

The Russian-born pianist has a deep-rooted interest in music dating back to her childhood. Gilmson graduated from the Lenigrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory, a renowned music school, and came to America in 1976.

“I started taking piano lessons at the age of six,” Gilmson said. “My parents did not intend to make me a musician, they just wanted me to have lessons. I loved it – somehow from the beginning I just wanted to do it.”

Her project began in 2001, playing the Bach Goldberg Variations back-to-back on the piano and the two-manual harpsichord. Gilmson wanted to present the piece as it is played in modern times, on the piano, and on the more antiquated two-manual harpsichord, the instrument on which Bach had specified that some of the movements be played.

“In 2001 I performed in Jessen, a relatively small hall because the harpsichord doesn’t have a particularly mighty sound,” she said. “We didn’t know at the time what kind of response we would have, and wow, we had to turn away about twice as many people as we could seat in the hall. We had no idea of the response we would have, but obviously there was a great interest in the project.”

After the initial performance, friends and colleagues encouraged Gilmson to take her work to broader audiences. After touring the United States and Europe, Andy Murphy, chief recording engineer for the Butler School of Music, approached her to record and release her performance. Gilmson considers Murphy the “co-author” of her release.

“I approached her after her performances and encouraged her to do a recording,” Murphy said. “It definitely took some time, but she was very committed, so eventually we got it done. We worked on and off over a two-year period, mostly between semesters and in the summer.”

To Gilmson’s surprise, she is currently the only performer to release a compilation of the piece played back-to-back on two different instruments.

“I was surprised because it seems like such an obvious idea,” she said. “There are many recordings done by harpsichordists on harpsichord; there are many wonderful performances by pianists on piano — but no one has done it on both.”

Gilmson said that the project was challenging and fulfilling to work on and hopes to highlight the differences between the two instruments, rather than make a case for one over the other.

“I hope listeners will not listen to decide which instrument is better. My hope is that they will enjoy the unique colors and expressiveness that each instrument has to offer,” Gilmson said. “When I play the piano, I have warm, beautiful, flexible musical lines that I try to bring to the harpsichord. When I play harpsichord, I have this fantastic clarity that I would like to bring to the piano. It was a mutually enriching experience.”    

As far as having a preference, Gilmson doesn’t play favorites.

“I love whichever instrument I’m on at the moment,” she said with a smile.

Gilmson’s performance of the J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations is available in both CD and DVD formats on her website, as well as audio and video clips of two of the variations.

Published on February 6, 2013 as "Butler professor strikes chord".