A! Magazine for the Arts

Nate Mitchell and his grandmother, Mrs. Joe E. Mitchell, mentor to two generations of Bristol Music Club scholarship, pictured at Mrs. Mitchell's Steinway piano.

Nate Mitchell and his grandmother, Mrs. Joe E. Mitchell, mentor to two generations of Bristol Music Club scholarship, pictured at Mrs. Mitchell's Steinway piano.

Arts for Youth: Three Generations Play Piano

March 29, 2010

For more than 45 years, Bristol Music Club scholarships have helped budding musicians pursue musical careers.

Add Nate Mitchell to that list. Nate was a winner of the 2009 Bristol Music Club Scholarship auditions. Nate, age 18, is majoring in Piano Performance at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and plans to perform professionally and to teach piano. He is in the Furman Chorale and also plays guitar and mandolin.

Nate is the son of Lisa and Doug Mitchell and the grandson of Dr. Joe Mitchell (deceased) and Marjorie Mitchell -- all from Bristol, Va. Nate's grandmother plays piano and helped guide and develop two generations of musicians -- her daughter Marjorie and grandson Nate.

According to Bristol Music Club member Peggy King, "Nate has a musical heritage following the leadership of his aunt, Marjorie Mitchell Greene, now living in Wisconsin. Marjorie was a Bristol Music Club winner in 1973, 1976 and 1978. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin School of Law and practices law in Milwaukee, where she has had a musical impact as a singer, violinist and teacher. Marjorie and her husband have three musically talented daughters: the oldest plays cello, the two younger ones play violin."

Nate's mother Lisa says, "While neither Doug nor I are musically talented, Nate's grandmother saw the musical talent in her daughter Marjorie as well as Nate. When Nate comes home from college, he spends a great deal of time with his grandmother, practicing under her guidance and sharing knowledge and their love of music."

She continues, "They have a very special bond through music. Nate's grandmother also maintains a strong bond through music with her daughter Marjorie. Because of the long distance between them, they often plan visits based on special concerts or performances. Lately, Nate's grandmother, now 84, delights in keeping in touch, even sharing videos of music with both Nate and Marjorie through Facebook."

While studying for mid-terms at Furman, Nate set aside some time to answer our questions.

Tell us about your relationship with your grandmother and her musical guidance.

She guided me through music and through life in general. She is a firm believer that music is a crucial factor in the development of a person, and she provided everything I needed to motivate me in the direction I'm going now. She's been a huge factor in my life in so many ways that it would take multiple volumes of the magazine to adequately describe all of them.

Bristol Music Club member Mary Landrum gave you her baby grand piano. Tell us how that happened.

It was sudden. Really, it was out of the blue that she called and just offered her piano. I was shocked to say the least.Mrs. Landrum has always been someone whom I admired as a person and as a musician, but -- though she is a friend of my grandmother's -- we weren't close personally. There is simply no way to explain my gratitude to her and this gift she has given me. Not only is this a very personal gift from her, but a grand piano is something I was going to need eventually and something which is certainly not cheap. To simply come into the ownership of one at my age is nothing short of miraculous to say the least.

A real problem we had when considering whether or not to accept this gracious gift was where to put it. It wouldn't fit in my parents' house, and my grandmother's already had a baby grand piano on the main floor. So the piano is on a lower level of my grandmother's house, a temporary place for the years between now and when I finally settle into a home of my own. I'd like to emphasize that this piano is not sitting unused in a corner. I play it every time I'm in town and have imagined the room as a personal studio many times. In fact, the more I think about it, if I ever have a personal studio, I would probably recreate the room that piano is in to the letter.

According to Nate's mother Lisa: The piano is a century-old Kranich and Bach baby grand. Mrs. Landrum was downsizing and very generously thought of Nate and how he would use and love it. As the former organist at Emmanuel Episcopal Church and a family friend, Mrs. Landrum enjoyed seeing Nate grow up and become a musician. He often sang as a soloist, played the piano for some social events, and has many supporters there of his musical talents. He has also played the piano for events outside the church. He was floored by Mrs. Landrum's gift -- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's a very beautiful piano and, with some work on the instrument and keys, the sound quality has become excellent. Nate is keeping it at his grandmother's -- we didn't have room in our house -- and he spends a lot of time there when he's home, into the wee hours of the morning.

Nate, what type of professional performance do you want to pursue?

I'm sure a little bit of everything would be beneficial to me. Chamber music, duets, concerti, etc., are of great interest to me at this point since I missed that opportunity in high school. I can't think of anything more fun in music than getting together with a pianist friend and playing the Rachmaninoff suites for two pianos, Vlastimil Lejsek's "Brazilian Dances," Debussy's "Lindaraja," or Schubert's Fantasie in F minor for two pianos. Not only is that sort of music not as common as music for a single pianist -- making it interesting simply because it is so rarely heard -- I think of making music as a shared experience. If nothing else, you are sharing your emotions with the emotions of the composer and the emotions of the listener. Sharing music with another pianist makes it infinitely more exciting as a performer, and I hope to participate in as many of these combined performance opportunities as possible.

What kind of teacher do you want to be?

At this point, I would love to be a private piano instructor. The times I've taught people, I've always found that I'm much better in a one-on-one situation than I am in front of a large class. I'm the kind of person who really wants to get his point across when I have to. So if I explain something to someone and they don't understand, I always go back through it and try to explain it in a way that makes more sense to that particular individual. That is much easier to do when you're alone with someone than when you're in a group of people. I think it'd be fun to be a director of a band/choir/orchestra but, as of now, teaching piano is my preferred career choice.

What types of music do you play?

I am focusing primarily on classical music in order to meet the requirements of the music department [at Furman]. I'm not complaining, though, because classical music has always been what I enjoy playing the most. However, I would like to expand into jazz and blues when I become more comfortable with my abilities as a classical pianist.

What other types of music do you enjoy?

I've always been a folk junkie. I love Rhythm and Roots and would attend every single folk music or bluegrass concert that came to Bristol if I had the chance. What I love about folk music is that it doesn't pull any punches; it's a very accepting sort of music that shows me that you don't have to have something complex to make people feel emotion. Folk music also is very mindful of its roots, which to me says a lot about the character of folk musicians. To me, a true folk musician is someone who doesn't try to buy into what makes music "popular" but, at the same time, is not trying to be unique for the sake of being unique and being seen as edgy or cutting-edge. He looks into himself, sees the way he feels and the way he sees the world, and doesn't attempt to blow it out of proportion or sacrifice it for the sake of being successful. This definition of a folk musician actually extends the boundaries of the genre, at least to me. I see this attitude extremely apparent in blues music, soul music, alternative country, rockabilly, and I'm sure I could name others. I eat up all of that stuff, because it's real, it's from the heart, it's sincere.

In classical music, I enjoy composers who are able to do similar things. For example, I have recently fallen in love with George Gershwin. He didn't write "flashy" stuff for the sake of showing off, but he didn't want to just be another composer that stuck to what was accepted, either. He found that middle ground that so few of us find, where he could open his heart and write music that he identified with. As such, you can hear the sincerity in what he wrote, especially his Concerto in F, in which you can hear the American spirit of the 1920s put forward in music the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in writing.

How do you prepare for recitals?

Before college, practice and preparation included what was essentially "beating the piece into submission" as my current professor would say. Basically, I would play a piece over and over and over, no matter what my mistakes were, until muscle memory took control. This became very apparent when I got to college and my professor noticed that I wasn't listening to the subtle things that turn pitches into music. I was playing the notes on the page, so if I saw "forte" I would play loudly, if I saw "piano" I would play quietly, but I was unable to look past what was written to hear what it was that conveyed the emotion and how to bring that emotion out as best as I could. It's as if you were listening to a sermon about the most impassioned verses in the Bible from a preacher who was monotonous. So listening has become a huge part of recital preparation since -- for the most part -- people will not recognize if you play a wrong note unless you make it obvious, but if all you do is play softly or loudly, then you won't hold anyone's interest beyond the first 15 minutes of a program.

How has the Music Club scholarship helped you?

In addition to the obvious performance and scholarship benefits, competing as a pianist is a fantastic way to hear and interact with fellow musicians. Pianists don't require accompanists the way other instruments do, and the availability of ensembles that require pianists are limited as a high school amateur -- and if an ensemble needs a pianist, it is only in a limited number of works. So, for the average high school pianist, it is relatively rare to work or interact with other musicians at all, since the piano is inherently a solo instrument. Piano playing can seem like solitary confinement in this way -- granted, it is the most enjoyable solitary confinement I can imagine -- where you can't compare yourself to any other pianists and you can't appreciate the beauty of other instruments. So the opportunity to hear and talk to outstanding pianists of your age, as well as outstanding vocalists, violinists, cellists, oboists, etc., is a truly enriching experience and one that has helped me adjust to the life of a college music major.

Why are you concentrating on piano?

It's funny to move from an answer where I described the piano as "solitary confinement" to a question where I have to explain the opposite. The piano is an extremely versatile instrument, and the loneliness I described previously is the result of a failure to recognize its versatility. For example, if all you do as a pianist is concentrate on the solo pieces you have been assigned at your lesson -- as I did in high school -- you don't get to interact with anyone at all. But if you step back and look beyond the piano as a solo instrument, you see the vast majority of opportunities available to you. Not only are pianists required for a majority of vocal and instrumental recitals, but keyboard players have also become well-grounded in rock, jazz, country, blues, and other forms of popular music in a way that few other classical instrumentalists have been able to do, except for guitarists. So, while the main reason that I'm concentrating on piano is my love of the instrument and of music, my justification for it is the vast amount of possibilities that comes with mastering the instrument to the best of my ability.

In your musical training, what did each teacher do to inspire and/or motivate you?

I've had many, many teachers over the years. I began with Connie Wurster, who set the foundation for what I was to do in the future.Eventually I moved to the music program at King College, where I studied with Betty Kuhnert and later with Evelyn Thomas; sadly, due to health complications they were both experiencing, I was not able to study for any length of time with either of them. My next full-time teacher was Deborah Alonzo, who had a huge impact upon my piano playing for a number of reasons. The two biggest being that she understood me and I her, and that she was the teacher I had when I really fell in love with performing classical music. She always took an interest in what I was looking for in music, as well as what I would need to be ready for collegiate piano; as a result, I was truly motivated by her insight into what I was playing and took her ideas to heart. Now at Furman I'm taking piano from Dr. Derek Parsons, who has really helped me develop both my technique and my listening ability that I described earlier.

Have you competed and won other music awards?

I never really attempted to compete before my junior year in high school. That year, I competed unsuccessfully in the Bristol Music Club Scholarship auditions. The next year, I shared first place in that competition and won a scholarship at Furman. I have had little competitive experience beyond that, but I hope to change that in the coming years.

Editor's Note:
He may not have "competed" for awards, but Nate's achievements include Superior Ratings 2002-07 from the National Federation of Music Clubs, and he performed with Young Artists during the Tunes @ Noon concert series at the Paramount Center for the Arts in June 2009. Nate participated in the marching and symphonic bands all four years at Bristol Virginia High School and was awarded senior superlative-most talented his senior year (2009). He played trumpet until a car crash left him unable to march, then he was a keyboardist for the "pit" or front ensemble. He says, "Band was truly enjoyable because it was that ensemble experience I didn't have in my solo piano work."