Who is Nancy Bachus?
She served on the editorial board for The Piano Magazine (formerly Clavier Companion). Her articles have been published in Clavier and Keyboard/Clavier Companion, and her series of 18 articles appeared in the “Athletes at the Keyboard” column for Junior Keynotes, the magazine of the National Federation of Music Clubs. She is the author of 30 book publications (check them out at the bottom of this page).
Certified as a Master Teacher by MTNA, Nancy has taught at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan and has [over 30 years] teaching experience at the college and university levels. She served on the Board of Directors of the American Liszt Society and was editor of its newsletter for many years. Nancy served on the faculty at Cleveland State University and maintained a private piano studio in Hudson, Ohio.”
Nancy passed away on September 8, 2020, and left her love of music as a legacy for all those who had the privilege of knowing her.
What you are about to hear is a project that began almost exactly a year ago. I had hoped to do some teacher interviews throughout the year … only to have the pandemic completely derail 2020’s plans.
2 weeks before everything shut down, I scheduled to sit down with Nancy Bachus for an interview on her life and legacy and to help her pack up her house. She was my piano professor in college, and we grew to be quite close during college and beyond.
Although she refused to let me lift a finger for packing, we had a wonderful evening that I still look back on as our goodbye. We talked and texted over the next several months before her passing, but that night in March we covered everything from piano teaching to politics to what we were learning in our Bible studies. When I heard of her passing, I was sad but at peace … largely because I had this sweet evening to look back on.
Nancy was one of those incredible people who understood that a piano teacher wore many hats … and she wore them well! Piano teacher, friend, counselor, confidant, mentor, to name a few. To say that I wish I had recorded the entire evening is an understatement. The next half hour you are about to hear has to do with the questions I sent her ahead of time to look at. And although she is as inspiring as always with her responses, I can’t help but remember the wisdom she gave in our conversations throughout the entire night. Nancy will always be someone I remember as having a huge impact on my life … and for that I am forever grateful.
My desire is that as you listen to Nancy Bachus in her own words, you feel inspired and rejuvenated in your teaching efforts. She will forever go down in our field as an incredible pedagogue, and will forever be in my heart and the hearts of all she touched.
Shortened Interview Transcription
How old were you when you began playing, and what inspired you to become a life-long teacher?
I was 4 years old. My mother said that I begged her to teach me how to play the piano, and she thought I was too young. And she said I would get up there and sit at the bench for an hour or so at a time and just fiddle so she decided to teach me. She had had very limited piano but she played very well, she was very talented. And so she actually painted with red fingernail polish from the lowest G on the staff to the high F – the letter names on each key – and I still remember being so thrilled when we were able to remove the fingernail polish because I knew where the notes were.
I loved playing from the very beginning, in fact that’s why I decided when I was about 8 or 9 that I wanted to be a piano teacher. Because I just thought it was so wonderful to play the piano and make music, and I just wanted everyone to be able to experience that. And I decided that I was going to be a piano teacher.
I have a sister that was 10 years older than I am. And she was a piano teacher, but she had children, so I saw that she was teaching during the after-school hours. So I thought I wanted to teach in a college or university so that I can do it more during the day.
My sister is 10 years older than I am. Her husband was a band director, and she did 2 years of college. But she did all of the music program and didn’t do all the other stuff. When they moved people knew she played the piano, and people started asking her to teach. She never dreamed she’d be a piano teacher. She quit when she was in 8th grade. My mother said they both cried and so my mom just gave up. And then she decided she wanted to be a band director and went off to college to be a music major, but she majored in voice and piano. Those were her major instruments after all.
But she became a fabulous teacher because she went to every workshop. She saw Michael Aaron, she saw Willard Palmer, and she learned so much by going to all these workshops.
I went to college 7 miles from her home, and I was in college after I had gone to Interlochen. And she paid me and came up and took some lessons with me. Who would do that with their little sister?
We’re close because of the piano. She’s always been my biggest fan. She’d come back from workshops in Chicago with her friends and say, “Oh my sister’s better than they are.” So once they said well put up or shut up and they set up a workshop for me in their area.
And I said to her “you’ve always been so supportive and my biggest fan, and I can’t believe that when I’m your little sister.” She really was a fabulous teacher and if I was coming out to visit, she might have a couple of kids play for me and work with them.
So that really brought us closer. Then we started meeting at workshops, and we’d spend a few days together staying in a hotel and going to workshops and we just had a ball. It really made a special relationship.
Is there a nugget of wisdom that comes to mind when you think over all your years of teaching?
There are a couple of things.
Dr. Paul Wirth in Minnesota has been a big influence on me. And I realize that I’ve adopted his philosophy without verbalizing it as he did. But he said, “You believe that a student can become a young artist, you really believe that about them, and they become young artists.” You set the bar high, you encourage them, and you really believe in them. And they feel that. One of my parents said to me “If you set the bar high, your students will achieve, if you set it low, they will achieve.” And that’s one thing that she liked was the fact that I had set the bar high for her kids.
Marvin Blickenstaff is another person – he said he felt was important – “Give students the repertoire they want to play and give them the skills to do it.”
My first semester at Eastman at graduate school I didn’t really like any of the music I was playing that much. Second semester he gave me repertoire that I loved, and then I really took off. Even at that age, at any age, I think it’s critical that the students play what they love.
There’s so much repertoire. Mr. List [referring to concert pianist Eugene List] said the repertoire for piano is so vast, that at anyone’s skill level you can find something they can play beautifully. He was absolutely true.
It’s so important to believe in a student’s potential and to really care about them and help them to achieve their potential.
What are your suggestions for balancing career with family life?
I taught full time for 9 years, then after I had the girls, I was part time at Cleveland State and had a private studio. I was not interested in teaching children. I had my first college position when I was 25, and I didn’t have a private studio during the years when I was teaching at the university and wasn’t really interested in it. But after I had my own children, I became more interested.
Did you teach your own daughters?
Not really, I just didn’t have the patience for it. And I didn’t have the patience with them that I had with other children. And I remember they used to say, “Mom, you’re so mean!” And I said, “I’m mean to everybody.” And so I found teachers for them. They studied with other people, with mixed success I would say. But Laura said to me once “Mom the piano is your thing, not ours.”
And Alicia decided when she was 4 that she wanted to play the harp. She saw Piglet on Pooh Corner playing the harp. We had tried Suzuki violin when she was 3 and that had just bombed totally.
We were supposed to go once and we couldn’t find the violin. And I said, “well if you don’t want to go find it we’re not going.” And she sat down. She came down later in the evening “Look what I found!” “Where did you find it?” “In the hamper.”
So I said at four let’s get a real violin. And she stamped her foot and said “Mother, I told you I want to play the harp.”
Now I have a Music Ed. degree, so I had percussion, brass, I played clarinet in 5th grade through college, I knew a little bit of strings. The only instrument I had no experience with whatsoever was the harp.
It was so funny because we would go out and people would ask, “Are you going to play the piano like your mother?” And she’d say “No, I’m going to play the harp.”
And I said, “Why do you like the harp?” She said, “well the piano is too loud. The harp is just right.” If you’ve ever read people that do really well on instruments, they always talk about how the sound of that instrument really compelled them. So I thought well, who knows. There was a teacher at Cleveland State who was teaching 5-year-olds on little tiny harps. I started her about a month or 2 before I was expecting Laura, so we continued and both girls actually did play the harp through high school. And they have not played since then 😊
I let them both quit piano around 8/9th grade because my husband said they’re just not that interested to do three instruments. This way they were able to be in the band and have the social aspect.
I really do believe that family has to come first. When the girls were at home I never taught past 6 o’clock. I would try to prep dinner, and Alicia quite often would finish it up. I was feeling guilty but then I thought, “you know this is a wonderful experience.”
The publishing things and writing that I did and practicing I usually did after they went to bed. They quite often would go to bed around 9 and ask if I’d play the piano after they went to bed. They both liked to hear it. So I would practice after they go to bed.
What types of students did you typically teach?
All ages. But mostly college, older kids and teens, and other teachers.
The youngest ones – I had a little 4 year old boy – the mother asked me to take him. Both the parents were professional musicians, she an elementary music teacher and husband was a band director. The little boy had been in a Suzuki program, and she said he hated it so much he wouldn’t even go to the piano. There were two brothers, ages four and five, and she asked if I would take them in order to wipe out that horrible experience. I had been presenting the Music for Little Mozarts through the Alfred workshops, and I thought it would be fun to try. I taught them for maybe a year or two and then we discontinued. But I heard that the boys were studying with someone else, and they were in high school and playing the piano.
But it was interesting to me to see, I had always thought that the Music for Little Mozarts moved so slow, but it’s just about right for a 4 year old, it’s about all they can handle.
It’s interesting because I just have a masters. I was accepted into the doctoral program at Eastman. My audition was accepted, but then we moved to Hiram and I got the job and we had kids and things changed.
I’ve had – I stopped counting – but I’ve had between 25-30 teachers that have studied with me in this area at various times. And most of them already had a masters. But see somehow, they didn’t get what I got from Eugene List.
What lessons have your students taught you over the years?
Number one – Never judge potential. I had a girl who was in 5th or 6th grade, and this girl was just so flat. And I felt like I was a song and dance man, and I had to do somersaults to get her to respond. Today she has a large private studio, she’s been a leader in the local music organization, has a masters in piano, and she has done a lot of professional accompanying. I would have never dreamed that potential was there. I kept working with her, and I remember she was a pretty good sight reader, giving her a lot of things like the Dan Coates and pop–ish things. She was a good reader, so that made a difference I think.
So I think that’s one big thing is to never judge. You can never tell when they’ll really take off. And sometimes it takes a couple years or longer. Keep prodding and do not let up, you just can’t ever let up.
The other thing – you really can spot real talent. Real talent usually has tremendous rhythmic sense. I’ve had a couple that came in and just had fabulous rhythm, and that’s always a sign of tremendous talent. I’ve seen that several times. When I was at Cleveland State, the previous chair of the department said that every great artist has fabulous rhythm.
That’s one thing I’ve noticed… I’ve had 2 or 3 students through the years that you go, “whoa listen to that rhythm” when they come in and play. Then usually the potential is just phenomenal.
How have you seen students change over the years?
In terms of the individuality I don’t see that big of change. The biggest thing is they’re so much busier. There’s so many more things to do than there were. Even when I was growing up Interlochen used to be 8 weeks. We did the whole summer, but now they’ve cut it to 4 and 6 because so many kids are wanting to go to tennis camps and science camps, and I think there’s a lot more competition. But I didn’t really find that my students were quitting.
In fact E. L. Lancaster at Alfred once said to me, “Kids used to take lessons for three or four years, but now I think it’s mostly one or two, the kids that don’t go on.”
That’s another thing that Paul Wirth emphasized that no one else did. He said “You really really have to push kids in the elementary years. If they’re not playing very well and getting satisfaction by junior high, they’re done.”
I had never really thought about that in how important those years are.
There was a study years ago with a violinist that showed if students started later than twelve there was not the physical growth in the brain. If they started younger than twelve the brain develops in a different way. Past 12 it didn’t.
My sister, who again has taught over 50 years, said sometimes she wondered if it was just as well to start them when they were 7 or 8 because they go so much faster. But when she looked back at the best students she ever had, most of them started younger.
You’ve traveled the world teaching other teachers how to teach … what have you noticed about piano teachers across the globe?
They really care. In general teachers really do care about their students. And they go on and on and tell stories about them and the relationships they have with them. In fact, Marvin Blickenstaff said to me this fall on the phone “I think we have such a blessed profession. I don’t know that there’s any other profession that you can develop the relationship that we have with seeing these people for years on a weekly basis.”
And I remember Mr. List saying to me once “The teacher student relationship is really better than the parent child relationship.” Because he said “first of all you have a common interest, and you don’t have all the emotional hang ups that you have with your parents.”
That was I thought a very intriguing thing that he said.
I really feel that the teachers really care every place all over the world.
What’s the best thing a teacher of yours ever told you?
- About your piano playing?
There are a couple things I was thinking about today. I still remember my very first lesson with Eugene List at Interlochen. And I wrote to my mother that summer and said “He’s opening up a whole world of music to me that I had no idea existed.” And as I said I still remember that first lesson I remember – what I played and what he showed me – and I remember talking to him about 10 years later and saying when I look back it was just so basic. And I said – and here he is this internationally known concert pianist – and I said, “you were never demeaning or belittling or made me feel ignorant.” And he put his arm around me and he said, “Look, no one can be expected to know anything they haven’t been taught.” And he says, “You weren’t taught anything. You were operating on sheer instinct. It’s a tribute to your great talent that you got as far as you did.” And he said, “The important thing is you learned.”
That impacted me incredibly. And I remember being at Eastman and I’m working on a masters and this freshman is playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and coming in and whipping out 3 Chopin etudes in studio class and I said to Mr. List, “What am I doing here?” And he said, “Oh yes, they have fast fingers. They do have fast fingers. But”, he said, “that’s not music.”
So on my low days, I think he must have seen something in me that he thought was worth developing. So when I would be doubting myself and my students had gotten nothing at a competition or something, I would think well, he saw something, I’m going to go with what I believe to be the right thing to do.
2. About teaching?
He (Mr. List) was just an incredible person. And really teaching me- I’ve thought about this more in the last year or two – the ability to really look at a score and be able to discern the emotions of a composer from the written words and the dynamics markings and things. And I had no idea that you could do that before. That you could feel that. And I think that’s what he gave me that was unique.
As he continued to teach, in later years, he was really incredible.
When I went back, I played for him when I had been teaching. My first job at Houghton College was 2 hours south of Rochester. And so after about 2 years I realized I knew nothing again. And so I called and actually signed up for credit for a half hour lesson a week and then I went every 2 weeks for an hour and we would drive the 2 hours. I’d play in the studio class, and then I did the doctoral audition at the end of that year. And so I remember when I first started playing for him he said, “Your hands are so much stronger than they were when you were a student. What are you doing?” Well I said that I’m practicing the technique I’m giving me students. And he said, “What is it? What are you doing?” I mean he was really interested. His humility you see. I remember his saying once in a studio class that we can all learn from each other. And I thought you’re not going to learn much from me buster!
He said we all wish we had the technique of Horowitz, the temperament of Rubenstein and the intellect of Richter. That’s the ideal pianist which I thought was interesting.
He said that students are always willing to postpone their recitals because they want it to be perfect. But it’s not going to be. He said, “Perfection exists among the angels, but not down here.” He said, “Just as we think we’re reaching perfection, it recedes further into infinity.” He was just so wise, and it was so wonderful just talking to him.
I do think the most important thing to teach is teaching students to read. They must be able to. That is the most important thing. If they can’t read fluently, when they stop lessons they’ll never play after they finish. I think that’s critical. Marvin Blickenstaff once said to me, “Don’t fall into the competition piece trap.” Which I thought was some of the best advice he gave me as a teacher.
Nancy’s Publications are still available
You can look at them more closely here.