Santa Clara University

A Conversation with Hans Boepple

By Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly ’93
Interview date: 11/10/04
Hans Boepple
Hans Boepple
How did you end up here way back in 1978?

My wife, Bryn, grew up just miles from here in Campbell, and my mother grew up down the street just about 5 miles. So what I did was, the Indiana University Placement Pages came out every month or so, and this job announcement was on the first page and I just casually opened it up and I put it on the table and when she came home and looked at it, she said "Oh my gosh, Santa Clara University." It is right near where she grew up.

This area is where I have wanted to live all my life. I have family here, my cousins lived here, and that is where I met Bryn when I was 12, so I had been through this area often since I was 4 or 5 years old.

As far as finding Santa Clara, I had been applying for positions, and I came in second in two jobs, in Oberlin and at the University of the Pacific, and there were two other jobs that came along, Illinois Wesleyan and Santa Clara, and both of them wanted me, I was their first choice, which was very nice. But I truly wanted to come here and get out of the Midwest. So I am glad Lynn Shurtleff was able to make that happen.

Why do you feel like you have stayed so long?

I came from a university that had 25,000 students and was a city, actually, as many of the Big Ten schools are, and this was a school that I could sort of wrap my head around, you know, as far as the size. It is really personal to me. Ever since I stepped on this campus I felt I wanted to be here for as long as they would have me. It really is personal. I have pictures of it on my wall, I have pictures of Old Santa Clara. I feel as though this is where I am supposed to be. I love this school and what it stands for and the way it treats people.

Can you talk about your role as a teacher? I know you are department chair, and so with your administrative responsibilities, has that reduced your teaching load?

Piano teaching is something I do a lot of, and it is a very different kind of te aching than classroom teaching, of course.

How would you describe those two different styles?

Well, piano teaching, you work with somebody for years, and in the classroom you work with them for weeks, so there is a difference in size. And also, when you work with a person one-on-one for an hour, it is really two personalities at play, as opposed to a group of personalities, so the dynamic is quite different, even strikingly different, I think.

Which do you feel like you are better at or which do you prefer?

Piano teaching, because I have so many more hours to accomplish something. I have 50 hours a year to work with somebody.

How would you describe yourself as a piano teacher?

That is a really interesting question. I was thinking that you would have to ask my students. I don't know how…

If you were going to tell someone else how to teach piano, what would you say? What approaches have worked for you? What styles seem to work? You must have certain things about your style of teaching that come out with every student. I see you as extremely focused and analytical and very detail-oriented.

One of the things that I think is not ordinary among piano teachers is that every week is critical. There is no such thing as a casual lesson in my mind. In a way, I treat my students and I think of my students in the same way as I think of myself when I practice. If I work for a week and get nothing done, I can lose sleep over that. If a student spends a week and gets nothing done, I don't consider that unimportant, let's put it that way. We look into it and find out what is going on. Even a little progress, if you multiply that by 50 weeks, you get a lot of change in a year. So it is very intense, and I write lesson plans out and follow thorough on them and be sure things change in a good way. It is very much an apprenticeship, this kind of teaching.

There are three distinct levels, I think, that a pianist needs to take care of. The first and fundamental one is technical and getting around the keyboard well and easily so that there is no struggling going on in the playing of pieces.

And then there is a whole complicated thing called musicianship, where they understand how to make a piano sound beautiful and where they know how to shape a phrase and they know how to pedal cleanly and they know how to hold a pulse and just do those basic bread and-butter things that all good musicians do well.

And then on top of that, and it is kind of like the frontal lobe, there is the artistic element which is basically having something to say and being able to communicate feelings and impulses and emotions, the world of how something feels and doing it in a vivid and interesting way.

Those three all interrelate to each other, but they can all be discussed very separately from each other.

Is the artistry part what drew you to piano? Or what do you feel drew you?

I think anybody who goes into music is drawn by the way that music made them feel when they heard it. They just went crazy. They couldn't stay away. They are drawn to it like a moth to the flame. It is really not their choice. It is just something they are inexplicably drawn to.

One of my draws to music is that, for sure, but it is also the desire to communicate that. I feel so strongly the desire to perform, not to the exclusion of the desire to experience it myself, but I feel such a desire to share that experience, to try to communicate that to the audience. I have that same impulse in my creative writing. It is a means of communication for me. Do you have that sense?

What you said about communicating to an audience, that, in essence, what I feel about my piano teaching. The idea of somebody feeling what I feel in music, and getting them to experience that.

So you are teaching to an audience of one?

In a sense, I am teaching to an audience of one. And trying to light a fire is what it is, really. My experience is that there is almost always a moment, and sometimes I can almost snap my fingers and say it just happened, when I sense that the spirit of music just entered that person, you know what I am saying? They just played something through, and I got a charge out of it. And once that happens, once they are expressing their own genuine feelings, I know that they will be musicians their whole life. They will never walk away from it. And then there are other people, to whom that doesn't happen, and I feel they could walk away from it at any time—they won't practice and it will just kind of evaporate. Somebody who is playing from their heart couldn't possibly walk away. It has been confirmed in my experience.

As far as performing goes, that is a difficulty for me because I am basically a very timid guy. Really timid. I don't like the pressure of live performance; I don't like it at all. But I don't have any trouble communicating in front of a group of people or of feeling things. I can do that. It may seem sometimes easy when somebody walks out there and just does it and it seems kind of easy but it takes, sometimes, weeks and months to prepare emotionally to get out there and be focused and do it as well as one can. It is not at all easy for me.

Do you see music for you as very private? That is what I hear you saying. A private joy, a private ecstasy?

Yes. It really has nothing to do with anyone else. It is such a magnificent thing and it is such an extraordinary secret to hear what these tones have to say, you know, and to sense what they are saying is just one of the great joys of life. The idea that somebody else can have that become a part of them…

Through hearing your performance?

Well, maybe performance, but I think a performance can inspire somebody to do something, but I don't think they are really going to learn from it. I am talking about week-in week-out teaching. Teaching somebody well, trying to teach them how to be a musician, and an artist, and a pianist. I think that one can perform in such a way that it can be remembered one's whole life. I think we have all been to performances that we will never forget. Performances can have enormous power and can really shape people's lives, I think, certainly musicians' lives. I can think of a handful of concerts that made me change the direction that I went about music, specific performances that were very important and made me think of things in new ways.

It seems you have to have a certain level of musical ability yourself and understanding yourself to be changed at that depth by a performance.

That may be true, I think that makes sense, that one is maybe in an unsettled state and looking for a path, then that rings truer….Especially when one is younger and developing as an artist I think these things can happen every year, one can be really knocked out by something that one hears.

There was a time when it used to be rock-and-roll. I listened to rock-and-roll all the time I was growing up, still do, and I always found curious what I considered really to be a disparity between the natural energy of pop and the fact that classical musicians didn't seem to have that same character of energy, and trying to say, Why not? Wouldn't it be wonderful if Beethoven could have the same energy that the Beach Boys have? That the Beatles have, the same drive, the same sort of explosive energy that one hears in good pop. I really think there is something to that. It makes me kind of sad when my students say "No, I only listen to classical music." I just don't understand that. All the kids I grew up with in L.A., all the kids who were the best musicians and grew up to become professionals, we all listened to rock-and-roll and Sinatra.

Do you feel like it is Beethoven's work itself that doesn't have that energy, or just the performances of it that you had heard?

Oh, definitely the performances. I know it has the energy. I know it does.

Can you talk a little bit about how you recruit students?

When my students are successful in high-profile events like competitions and things and they win things and they play in front of lots of people and things like that, that's just far and away the most…

The best advertising?

Oh, very much so. "Who is that person's teacher? Oh, I see."And so it works. There's some…

Passive recruitment?

Yes, it is passive recruitment. I don't go out and make phone calls and that kind of thing. But usually one or two pianists a year now come in, and so that is a nice thing. No it is passive. I am way too shy to call people. I could never try to sell somebody on anything, actually.

You just sold me on being a pianist! (laugh)

Can you talk a little bit about your childhood and when you started playing piano? I read that you were playing intermediate literature at the age of 4. I have a 15-month-old daughter, and of course, I want to ignite millions of artistic and musical sparks in her. I am curious about how that happened in you and how that happened in your own children.

My mother was a very fine violinist and I still collect things. This is an advertisement of hers from an old Musical America. She was a real prodigy. She was nationally known. On the back of [the ad] just happens to be [a picture of] Robert Turner, who I studied with in L.A. for 12 years. What she was good at was finding good teachers. So she knew. She started us. She hired Donald Waxman in New York, who I have learned since then is an extraordinary pedagogue and a wonderful composer and musician. He is still alive; we are still in touch. But she had that way of being able to cut through…because you know only one in maybe 500 or a thousand teachers are really good, of that kind who can really do things with youngsters like that.

This is wonderful to have this [ad featuring his mother].

Oh, yeah. I have five scrapbooks of hers. She pretty much stopped when she was 21 (there are complexities there). So ours was a musical family in that sense.

How old was she when you were born?

I was born in ’49 and she was born in ’20, so she would have been 29.

I know you said she stopped playing out, but did she still play at home?

Yes, she did, shyly. When you play at a very high level—she was playing with the Pittsburg Symphony when she was 15—I have recordings of her actually. When you play that well, it is not easy to just pick up the fiddle and not play so well, so she was a bit shy about it.

My brother had started six months before I did. He started lessons when he was 6, and apparently I was just always there and I tried to play his pieces after his lesson, so she figured "We may as well start Hansie on this."

My mom's ears were always listening. She was always barking things: "G Sharp! G Sharp!" and that sort of thing from the kitchen, and she knew right notes from wrong notes.

It is nice to have a mom with that kind of ear. Do you think she had perfect pitch or do you know if she did?

I think she did not. It is a nice thing to have, and it is kind of like when we look at the color blue we are just looking at a wavelength and somehow we call it blue because we somehow remember that wavelength is blue. To me that is what an F is and a C sharp or an E flat. It helps to memorize large amounts of music. But it is also very, very common in conservatories. Probably more than two thirds of the kids in those places have it.

Do you think perfect pitch is something that can be taught? Or just tons of early exposure, perhaps, helps you name those sounds that you have internalized? Or how do you think it develops?

I wish I could say. My understanding is that it was always kind of there with me. I always knew what an A was. But from what I read about it, it is something that one is born with. I think one can acquire it to some degree. I remember Alice Druffle, a voice student at SCU, would sometimes come by my room and stick her head in and sing an E and say "Is that an E?" She was trying to remember. Because really I think long-term memory is what it is. If we finish a piece and the last note is, lets say it finishes on E, and five seconds later I ask you "Can you sing the last note you just heard?"

Of course I could.

Right, but could you do it in five minutes? Could you do it in five hours? So when does the memory of it or the recollection of it fall away? I can only think that it must be long-term memory of some kind.

It would be interesting to study those with perfect pitch as they age. My mother-in-law is very involved with studies of Alzheimer's disease. It would be interesting to study what types of connections and relationships there are…

With professional musicians. What kinds of faculties fall away and in what order.

So I think we have kind of talked about what you find most challenging about being a musician. It sort of sounds like performing might be the answer to that question, but I don't want to assume. What is the most challenging thing about being a musician? What is the most difficult thing?

It is something I love so much to do. When I get an hour to work on the Mozart or something like that, it's just palpably difficult to close that score and have to answer email.

So is stopping being a musician the hardest part of being a musician?

Yes. Being a musician is something that I would like to do 12 hours a day. But it is hard to do it more than three hours a day these days. I guess just the business of playing music well is a wonderful challenge, but that is what it is about. That is why it takes six months to a year to prepare a recital, to try to play it the best one can. If that's a challenge, then I guess that is what it is.

It sounds to me like you just have an enormous appetite for that type of challenge, and so it is not really challenging to you because that is what you crave.

Yeah. Right, I absolutely do. One of the challenges is trying to keep it going among the busyness of being a Santa Clara faculty member. I think that is true of all faculty members. There is their scholarship, which they dearly love to do, and then other aspects of their job, which are not in that category.

How many students do you have that are non-Santa Clara students?

Usually about 12.

And so you teach those students on weekends, or whenever you are not here?

Evenings, late afternoons, sometimes Saturday mornings.

And how long do your students stay with you typically? Is there kind of an average?

Those community students? On average five to six years. What I really like to do is start a student when they are about 9 or so, with a good start in music. That is ideal, and it is wonderful to keep them through high school. It is a perfect age. They are smart enough to think, and they are coordinated enough to play advanced literature at that age if they could, if they knew how to. A great age to start.

So what do you think about the trend to start children very young, like 2?

I have heard about such things, but I don't know. The whole world of starting piano students is quite a mystery to me. I wouldn't know what to do with a 4-year-old like that [gesturing to a photo of himself at the piano at age 4]. I would not know where to start. I have such respect for people who begin a child from scratch. What an art that is. I do something that is, I think, is very much easier.

Which is polish?

Well, it is like teaching someone the rudiments of language. How to read and write. How nice for a high school English teacher to take people who are literate and know perfectly well how to read. But the delicacies of just establishing these things is just something I don't understand at all. It is fascinating. It is quite a different kind of teaching.

***

INTERVIEWER NOTES:

At the end of our interview that November day, I asked Hans Boepple for some help. “There is this piece my father used to play every time he sat down at the piano, but I never asked him what it was,” I explained. “He died just a few months ago, and I would really like to know what that piece was.” I sang 10 notes, and Boepple sat down at his piano and played the melody. “Oh!” he instantly said, spreading his large hands across the keys and filling the room with gorgeous sound. “It is Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 number 3.”

Through all my years as a student, from kindergarten through my graduate school days, a few teachers have stood out above the rest. I remember Boepple’s music theory and ear training classes as some of the most challenging and rewarding classes I have ever taken. As a vocalist who did not play an instrument, I had to work very hard to learn this whole new language. With his extremely high standards, Boepple made me even more eager to master the material.

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