Keyboard Collaborative: Albion College Piano Festival Tunes Up

Goodrich Chapel hosts a five-day celebration of the instrument this week

A student performs during the 2013 Albion College Piano Festival.
A student performs on the Goodrich Chapel stage during the 2013 Albion College Piano Festival.

November 3, 2014 By John Perney

The lush, beautiful sounds that can only come from a grand piano will fill Goodrich Chapel November 5-9, as approximately 50 accomplished students and masters of the instrument showcase their craft during the seventh annual Albion College Piano Festival.

All events are free and open to the public, beginning with a November 5, 7:30 p.m. recital by guest artist Edmund Battersby, professor at Indiana University. The same time the next night, the University of Alabama’s Kevin Chance will perform. Starting Friday afternoon, November 7, through Sunday, November 9, student competitions comprising a range of abilities as well as master classes will make for a rousing weekend.

And while cash prizes are awarded to winners, the event is quite intentionally not called a “piano competition.”

“We wanted it to be something that’s inspiring to the kids, so it’s called the Albion College Piano Festival,” says professor of music and event co-organizer David Abbott, who launched the event with his wife, visiting assistant professor Lia Jensen-Abbott. “It’s not just a cash-prize event. The festival is meant to inspire and give the kids an opportunity to hear each other play. Everything is open, nothing is closed.”

An Impactful Trip

This year, participants are coming from as far as Massachusetts and Nebraska. In recent years, students from Albion’s sister cities of Noisy-le-Roi and Bailly, France, have also made the trip to perform. While the scheduling didn’t work out this year, Abbott says planning is already under way for their return in 2015.

Three students will make their way south from Bark River-Harris, a K-12 school near Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula. They’ll make the eight-hour trek with their music teacher, Jenny Sylak, ’10, who has a unique perspective of the festival.

“I’ve been there since the beginning. I was a student worker and I got to work the first festival,” she says. “Seeing the types of students who come and their abilities, and hearing from the teachers and being able to perform, it’s insane, the level of quality.”

At the same time, she adds, “it doesn’t make those less accomplished feel alienated. It’s nice the way they split it up—my students either can compete or have the option not to compete and listen to other performances and still receive training.”

One person who has been impacted by Sylak’s trips back to Albion is Alyson Barra, ’18, whom Abbott calls his first “grand-student” (given Sylak was Jensen-Abbott's student). Barra was planning to attend—and in fact had enrolled—at another institution not far from Albion but reconsidered after a campus visit and a master class with the Abbotts.

“I came down here and I didn’t really know anything about Albion before. It was the personal attention, the smaller atmosphere,” says Barra, adding that an off-campus moment—a meal at Cascarelli’s downtown—particularly stood out. “There was a table of faculty and they said ‘Hi’ on their way out, and they remembered Jen. They were so excited to meet us.”

One of those professors was biology's Dale Kennedy, who is also director of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program. Barra is currently an honors student pursuing a general music and international studies double major as well as a Spanish minor.

‘A Seven-Year Story’

The festival was inspired by the memory of Vera Reed, an Albion resident and piano teacher who taught into her nineties and played even later in her life. That community angle has been celebrated the last few years several weeks prior to each festival with a progressive dinner and concert that begins in Goodrich Chapel, then moves on to several homes in Albion. Donations generated from the event go toward the festival’s prizes.

“The progressive dinner is a great social event now, where we bring back some of our past winners,” Abbott says. “It’s amazing how some of these people generously give. People just look forward to hearing [the concert].”

Of course, the same can be said for the festival itself.

“What started as a dream with Lia, we’ve really been pleased with how it’s gone,” Abbott says. “We bring back alums, students come and perform, everybody does it for free for the love of playing music.”

Along with the opportunity to play on one of two Blüthner concert grand pianos—provided by James Reeder Pianos of Lansing—and experience a master class and/or a private lesson, participants also receive a professional CD recording of their performance.

“Parents often say they don’t get this treatment in other competitions,” Abbott says. “So that tells me that maybe we’re doing something right here. It’s a seven-year story that has really grown.”

For more information about the festival, contact the Music Department at 517/629-0481.