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SCU Professor of Music Hans Boepple is a gifted pianist and dedicated teacher
Though Hans Boepple describes himself as “a very timid guy,” you would never know it from talking with him about music or hearing him play. On this day, in an impeccably pressed blue oxford shirt and well-polished shoes, he speaks carefully, reverently, about his art. “Music is such a magnificent thing,” he says with a quiet passion. “It is such an extraordinary secret to hear what these tones have to say...To sense what they are saying is just one of the great joys of life.”
Boepple (pronounced BOH-pull) earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Indiana University, where he taught before coming to Santa Clara in 1978. The chair of the Department of Music since 1995, he teaches several courses a year including music theory and history and usually has at least six to eight SCU students studying with him privately.
His distinguished career includes solo performances with more than 30 symphonies, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra. He is the six-time winner of the Coleman Chamber Music Award in Los Angeles, and he has also won the J.S. Bach International Competition in Washington, D.C., the Kosciuszko Chopin Competition in New York, and many other awards. National Public Radio and the Voice of America have broadcast his performances, and he has completed several professional recordings.
In his office, two black grand pianos stand side by side, almost touching. On one wall, books and records line the shelves in neat rows near a small stereo system, and the other walls are graced with artfully arranged portraits and snapshots, historic images of old Santa Clara, a handwritten early music manuscript on parchment. There is even a small frame containing the job posting for the position at SCU he now has held for more than 26 years.
“Intense” is one word Boepple uses to describe his piano lessons. “Every week is critical. There is no such thing as a casual lesson in my mind,” he explains. “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,” he says with a slight smile that highlights his understatement. “Even with a little progress, if you multiply it by 50 weeks, you get a lot of change in a year.”
Behind this rigor is the desire to inspire his students and to share his own experience of this art. Teaching, he explains, is his opportunity to help “somebody feel what I feel in music.” And, he adds, “once they are expressing their own genuine feelings, I know that they will be musicians their whole life.”
John Harlander, a senior double major in civil engineering and music, says that he came to SCU because of Boepple. “The breadth of his knowledge is astounding. He has a real sense of not only the stylistic context of a piece, but he also incorporates his amazing understanding of the music’s architecture,” Harlander says. “He challenges his students to blend reason and emotion.”
Harlander, a Minnesota native, has been playing since second grade. At SCU, he has given annual recitals, performed with the SCU orchestra, and he won the 2004 Music Teachers Association of California Concerto Competition. He is just one example of Boepple’s successful students, who collectively have won more than 100 state, national, and international awards.
Nurture and nature
Among the influences on Boepple’s career, the earliest and perhaps most important was his mother, who was a nationally known violin prodigy in the 1930s. “Ours was a musical family,” he explains. “My mom’s ears were always listening. She was always barking things—G Sharp! G Sharp!… She knew right notes from wrong notes.” In addition, Boepple stresses, “she was good at finding good teachers.”
Boepple began playing piano when he was 4, and he studied with top teachers in New York and Los Angeles. But perhaps more important than his teachers are Boepple’s own natural gifts. He has extraordinarily large hands: with one, he can stretch an octave and a sixth (from C to A)—a distance of nearly a foot. This enormous hand span makes even the most difficult pieces easily within his reach. And he has perfect pitch, meaning that someone can play a few notes, or a chord, or a whole piece of music, and he can tell you exactly what notes he heard. This ability, he says, “helps to memorize large amounts of music.”
Boepple and his wife of 35 years, Bryn, have three children, and though none of them are pianists (the youngest, Saer, 18, plays guitar), Boepple’s playing and teaching have had a profound affect on them. His daughter, Christine ’95, who was an art major at SCU, says “falling asleep to Tchaikovsky or Chopin playing at the other end of the house most nights of my life was a very special thing….Learning to be a careful listener is very valuable to me in my adult life.” Christine is the West Coast operations manager for Acoustiguide, a producer of interpretive audio tours used in museums.
Her brother, Morgan ’01, ’03 teaching credential, says his father’s example likely influenced his own decision to be a grade school teacher. “His discipline and tenacity as a teacher were very ingrained in me,” says Morgan.
Boepple says his own youth was filled with all kinds of music, not just classical. “I listened to rock and roll all the time I was growing up, still do,” he says. “I always found curious what I considered 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,” he muses. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the way people play Beethoven’s music could have…the same sort of explosive energy that one hears in good pop?”
To hear an example of what Boepple means, listen to one of his performances, which crackle with passion and fervor. In a review of Boepple’s October 2004 recital at SCU, the San Francisco Classical Voice, a Bay Area journal of classical music criticism, said Boepple’s playing “swept the rapt audience with its ferocious intensity,” while other passages were “quite startling and profoundly beautiful.”
Play all day
For Boepple, it seems that the most difficult part of being a musician is when he has to stop. “When I get an hour to work on music by Mozart or Chopin, it’s just palpably difficult to close that score and have to answer e-mail,” he explains. “Being a musician is something that I would like to do 12 hours a day.”
Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly ’93 studied ear training and music theory (and even performed once) with Hans Boepple on her way to earning her minor in music. She is the associate editor of Santa Clara Magazine.