Jeffrey Middleton: Pianist

Jeffrey Middleton started playing piano when he was a young boy. His studies led him to Juilliard and the Yale School of Music, where he earned a masters and a doctorate. Middleton has performed with a variety of artists, both as an accompanist and in chamber groups. In the 2000s, he collaborated with dancer Jody Sperling in her productions inspired by the work of dancer Loïe Fuller. Middleton recorded Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II in 2004. And he has made first recordings of piano works by composer Joseph Fennimore, most recently From My Window: Five New Works for Piano by Joseph Fennimore. He is on the music faculty of the School of American Ballet.

Terry Stoller spoke with Jeffrey Middleton in February 2019 about his childhood and his dedication to the piano, his premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1995, his music teachers and advisers, aspects of his professional activity, including his work with dancer Jody Sperling, the special opportunity to make the first recordings of piano music by Joseph Fennimore, his study and recording of Bach, and his coaching/teaching gigs.


Terry Stoller: Was your family musical?

Jeffrey Middleton: To a point. My family was typical in their generation and time and economic level. They wanted their kids to have music lessons in school. But that was about it as far as professional aspiration or training. My dad sang in church. My eldest sister played the trumpet. My other sister played the clarinet and was taking piano lessons. We grew up with a piano in the living room. It was always there. I was kind of playing what my sister was playing. I was doing that before I started lessons at 7.


You spoke in an interview about a formative experience when you were a boy on vacation with your family at Silver Lake.

I overheard the sound of a piano coming from one of the cottages at Silver Lake. It was so beautiful to me. I was stricken with it. That was when I first became aware that I wanted to be a pianist.


So you were taking piano lessons, and you would go on to study music at college. Was it always classical music?

Yes. I had a lot of confidence and aspiration, but I had no clue as to what any of it really meant or how one goes through the process of becoming a classical musician.


You didn’t envision what a musical career might be?

I’m not sure I thought that far in advance. I was just increasingly drawn to playing the piano for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was something that set me apart—there were six kids in my family. It was a kind of escape from any stress or unhappiness that I felt. And I showed off. I liked to show off.

I was just playing. Learning how to work at it is something that came later. I had a teacher who was starting to put me in the right direction when I was in junior high school. I grew up near Niagara Falls, and then we moved to Wisconsin. And in that move, it took a few years to find another teacher who was experienced and qualified to continue to put me in the right direction. I lost a couple of years there. I was taking lessons with a local piano teacher, but if you want to be a serious pianist, those teen years are the most formative in terms of technique and training. You can’t really decide you’re going to be a serious pianist at 20 or 21—I guess you can, but most people get there earlier. I was pretty late in getting a teacher and starting to really work at it. I think the consensus is—like sports or ballet, where you’re training both the mind and the body—you have to start young, and you have to have good training young if you want to excel.


When you eventually found someone in Wisconsin who guided you, did that person also advise you about what schools to attend?

That person was a faculty member at Lawrence University. I started there, and then I transferred to Juilliard. I am of the belief that teachers are very important, and they steer you in the right direction, but I think there are a lot of things I had to teach myself. I don’t feel I’m completely self-taught, but I feel a teacher can only do so much, and then you’re on your own. Technique is a big word. It can mean a lot of things. For instance, there’s a physical aspect to playing the piano that a teacher does not address. I’m six foot five. The piano is designed for somebody more your height [five foot four]. It was designed in the eighteenth century. So physically, there’s sitting at the piano, how you use your arms and how you use a very subtle set of muscles and how you maintain physical balance. That’s the part you have to figure out yourself—how does your body work. There are piano teachers who’ve written about the hand and how to develop the hand, but it’s a whole mechanism. I found I had to address that myself.


In your bio, you still include your premiere recital at Carnegie Hall in 1995. What is the significance of the premiere?

Traditionally that was a kind of formal coming out in the musical world. When my Yale teacher had a recital, there would be four or five critics there. Now you don’t get a critic at all unless you come back and you’re a big name. But in those days, you got a number of reviews. It was seen as something that would launch your career. And even when I was a younger pianist, a New York debut recital was a formality, but it was important. It marked entry into professional life, and I think of it as part of my formal training.


In pianist Seymour Bernstein’s book Monsters and Angels, there’s a lovely scene of your rehearsing for the premiere—but he calls you a “professional-amateur.”

Seymour has a whole thing about the words amateur and professional. That’s his terminology. He’s using the word amateur in the sense of someone who loves the music and having that be the important word rather than professional.


Seymour Bernstein was your teacher, and so was Donald Currier.

Donald Currier was my teacher at Yale. Seymour Bernstein was the person I came to in New York. I came here after graduate school, and I had no clue what I was going to do. I basically started taking whatever work I could, playing for voice lessons, accompanying. But at the same time, I knew I wanted to do a debut recital. I entered the Concert Artists International competition (it’s really an audition). I auditioned—and what you won was an opportunity to do a debut recital. I was studying with Seymour for two years, and he was the one who helped me prepare for the debut recital.


You’ve worked out an interesting career path. How did that happen?

A lot of it has to do with personal contacts. My time at both Yale and Juilliard established relations with classmates and future colleagues. You hang out with them, you talk to them, you share jobs, people refer you, and little by little, you start to get those jobs. I remember one year I had nine W-2 forms. Eventually those sort out to a few main areas of activity. For over twenty years, I worked at the Harlem School of the Arts. And at the same time, I was teaching at the School of American Ballet, which I’ve been doing forever. And as time went on, I started doing more. I was able to find time and keep myself together enough to want to do solo projects. Then later on, I was able to do a lot of Joseph Fennimore’s music. When I first came to New York, I knew him, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with his music. That part of my piano activity has been the most challenging and rewarding. It’s really the greatest opportunity a pianist can have—to perform and record for the first time such original music of the highest quality.


Before that, weren’t you a member of a number of chamber groups?

Yes.


And you did a lot of touring. Are you still touring?

No, not as much. A lot of those tours are an extension of student life. You go to a music festival, and you get a group together. They’re great fun and it’s great experience, but you can’t make a living doing that in most cases. Eventually you need to have a regular income.


Like the jobs at the Harlem School of the Arts and the School of American Ballet.

They became stabilizing and also consuming. You have to be there; you have to produce all the time. So you can’t be doing everything else.


Did you enjoy touring?

Sure. There’s been almost no travel I’ve ever done that hasn’t been music related. Everywhere I’ve gone has been through music. I lived in Asia for two years, in Taiwan. That was between the masters and doctoral programs at Yale. Both years in Taiwan, I had string colleagues. The second year, I worked with a cellist and a violinist; we had a trio and we toured. When I went back to Yale, there were subsequent tours of Asia with them. I went with Kevin Maynor, a black bass, to South Africa. Another singer was a Swiss woman. I worked with her in New York and in Zurich. I went to Brazil with Aldo Parisot, who just passed away. He was a great cello teacher at Yale.


You recorded chamber music by George Walker.

For a number of years, I played with a chamber music group in Albany called Capitol Chamber Artists. We recorded a piece of George Walker’s. And then I met him and I learned one of his piano pieces, and I played that at my D.M.A. [Doctor of Musical Arts] recital. I called him up, and I played for him once, and he was there when we did the recording.


And you’ve also done theatre performance, The Winter’s Tale at CSC [2003].

I shared those performances with another pianist. He started the run, and that’s how I got it. That was Alan Johnson. He does a lot of new music. I loved it. I was shocked at how actors work as opposed to musicians. Of course, they’d already been doing it, and they’d been in rehearsal for months, but their whole thing was about being loose and interacting and being open. Then they would go onstage, and there was their focus. Pianists tend to be intensely focused before a performance and in our own minds. It was an interesting contrast. I remember thinking, I wish I was more like that.


Was that incidental music?

That was original music that Michael Torke wrote. I think there were a couple of songs and some sound effects.


When you accompany singers, you have to be sensitive to what they’re doing. And you would have done that for the Shakespeare songs. Do you find that difficult?

I’ve always done that. I have been playing for singers as long as I’ve been playing for anybody else. One thing I didn’t mention back in childhood history. I was our church organist at 13.


Wow—so you really knew what you were doing.

I thought I did. I had a lot of confidence. It was a small country church in Upstate New York, and the church had a little electronic Hammond organ. Now that I look back on it, that was a great training. I played all the hymns—you learn the harmony, you’re playing every Sunday. All of that is really good training because you learn how harmony works.


With church music, they have to follow you.

When you play a hymn, you have to lead the congregation because otherwise the whole thing is going to die. Any time you’re playing for a singer, you have to follow the singer.


I’m curious how the accompaniment worked when you played for dancer Jody Sperling in her pieces inspired by the work of Loïe Fuller. Did she have to keep the time that you were establishing, or did you have to watch what she was doing?

Her choreography is not like Balanchine choreography, where every step and every beat has been ordered. It’s a looser process. She is the master of that. She let me establish the musical tempo and the phrasing. We would work that out, and I’d have to stay within the framework we’d agreed on. In that case, she was more responding to me.


Did you choose the music for her performances?

She took suggestions. She would tell me, I’m planning such and such a piece, where I want to do this, and I have this kind of idea. It was always an idea about the costume or another group of people—or she had a piece with a magic lantern. She would ask for suggestions. She’s very knowledgeable about Loïe Fuller and the history of turn-of-the-century dance, and she knows about some of the music that was played for that. But a lot of times, I would go through, come up with ideas, she would okay them, and together we would decide on a musical progression.


You met Joseph Fennimore in the mid-’80s. You’ve been working with him for a long time and have recorded three albums of his piano music.

I met him and was initially interested in his music, but I also was a bit wait and see and wasn’t quite sure. He sent me some music. It took a while, but eventually it dawned on me that this is an extraordinary mind. This is somebody who doesn’t come along very often, an original creative mind whose basis is pianism. He’s a fantastic pianist. I played an early piece of his called Fox Trot, and I said, Can you recommend something else? And he said, I have a whole stack of Romances sitting on my piano that nobody has ever played. I’ll send you some. Over the years, this continued. He would send me a piece—I had no idea what it sounded like. I can usually tell when I look at a piece. I have a general idea. But I couldn’t with his. It doesn’t reveal itself right away. And over time you have to discover it. None of it is easy, but it’s very rewarding. You have to intuit a lot of it, but everything that’s in there, he has very carefully worked out. He can play it himself. There’s nothing artificially difficult or that doesn’t belong there. He’s careful about integrating all of his materials. It’s always at a certain level. Once I stopped asking the question, Is this worth my time?, I could proceed. It takes a lot of time and effort to realize his music.


Do you collaborate on the recordings?

Typically, he’s doing his thing up in Albany. I’m doing my thing here. At some point, I would say, I want to come play for you. I would go play for him, and he would give me notes. It would vary. Sometimes they would be detailed, and they would be in the moment. Sometimes it would be a general hearing, and later on I would hear about it—he would email me. He always has had helpful things to say. However his direction and his detail and his intention are all in the score. He’ll put in everything he wants. Sometimes I wish he would leave a little of that out. But it’s very much detailed in the score, and it’s up to you to figure out why and how.


Your latest album is From My Window: Five New Works for Piano by Joseph Fennimore [2018].

Yes. From my Window is all music that is relatively recent. The title piece, a set of variations on a Schubert theme, is the major work of the CD. I consider the 24 Romances for Solo Piano album from 2015 my biggest and most challenging project to date. That’s partly because the music spans some thirty-plus years, and there is a lot of it—all worth knowing. In terms of the future, Joe has some wonderful chamber music I’d like to record next. This takes quite a bit of logistical organization, though. I would have to be more active about making it happen. These things don’t happen by themselves.


What inspired you to record Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II [2004]?

I’ve always loved the music of Bach, and I’ve always loved studying it. When I was a younger pianist, I knew the importance of it, and I had worked on it. One summer I had free time, and I decided to review all the preludes and fugues that I knew. I did that, and I realized that numbered about half of them, which is a good amount. Then the question came up: What about all those I don’t know? Why is it that at conservatories and in recitals you tend to hear the famous ones, but there are some you never hear—or at least I hadn’t. I decided to slowly go through the ones I didn’t know and learn them. It became a multiyear immersion of just playing Bach, which is quite an experience. Everybody makes homage to Bach, but not everybody wants to spend enough time studying his music.


My understanding is that The Well-Tempered Clavier was a teaching tool.

There’s a didactic element to just about every piece Bach wrote. It’s his nature. And that’s true of The Well-Tempered Clavier especially. There are pieces before that that are more suitable for teaching, like the inventions and the sinfonias and some of the suites. By the time you get to The Well-Tempered Clavier, it’s more about the practice in the sense of the art of playing the keyboard and not necessarily the learning of it.


In your liner notes for the Bach CD, you acknowledge Seymour Bernstein, Joseph Fennimore, and Donald Currier. What kind of help did they give you?

I’ve been thinking about this lately. To become anything takes so much input from other people and so much generosity from your teachers, from your parents, from society in general. Everybody needs that, and pianists, we tend to be loners. But it is a tradition that is passed down. Earlier I said I consider myself self-taught. I mean that. A lot of it I had to learn myself, but at the same time I took a lot from other people.

Seymour Bernstein is an enabler. He says, Yes, you can, and he gets you ready. Donald Currier, of those three, I would consider to be the most formative teacher. What I would say he gave, more than technical skill or interpretive skill, was a sensibility, his view of what is beautiful piano playing, what is important—a beautiful sound and making a phrase genuine. Those things he really believed and could do himself. Joseph Fennimore has never really been my teacher. He’s more like a mentor and probably the most consequential. But each of those men was important.


Do you want to say more about your work on the Bach?

The Bach project was formative in that it was post university, in the midst of this professional activity. It was important, and things coalesced in terms of musicality. One of my goals was to forget everything I had read or been taught or thought I knew about playing Bach. I learned to put all that aside and start fresh. I wanted to follow a few general guidelines. What I figured out is that if you just focus on, for instance, even fingers, having an even touch, having every line independent and well-shaped and having clarity of sound, if you just do that, that’s a lot. You don’t have to start with an idea about the nature of the piece or its expression. You just play it. Over time it emerges. You start to get a sense of it, and you follow that, and that will lead you to the dynamics and the tempo and a final surface plan for the music. Often when you listen, you hear the surface, you hear the contrast, you hear the dynamics. But there’s the body of the piece that has to be there first. That’s what I think I learned overall how to do from the Bach project.

Jeffrey Middleton in concert at Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain, Trinidad, 2006.


Would you describe what you did at the Harlem School of the Arts? 

The chief person there that I was helping was Betty Allen. She was an important singer, one of the first black women who had a big career as a singer. She sang opera, lieder, and oratorio, but she stopped singing fairly early because of health problems. She turned to teaching; she sat on the boards of Carnegie Hall and many other arts organizations. She became a public face advocating music education and specifically opportunities for black singers.

Betty had a master class at the school. They would go on for hours and hours; everybody would come in and sing, and I was the pianist for that. They would come in and throw everything at me—opera and lieder. I thought I was pretty good at sight-reading, and I knew the vocal literature, but believe me, you do that for ten or fifteen years, and it’s a good apprenticeship and training not easily gotten another way. It was a unique opportunity.

Then I began coaching there, and for ten years, starting around 1990, I ran an opera workshop. This typically would be two ten-week programs per year that I directed—choosing the repertoire, casting, rehearsing, and performing. Through this work at the school, I met people from New York City Opera and worked in their education department for a number of years. We would partner with teachers from the public schools and introduce opera to their classes, culminating with them coming to see the operas. I had been a big fan of New York City Opera, and so I feel the loss even more that they are gone.

Jeffrey Middleton in concert with Oliver Lewis at Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain, Trinidad, 2006.


I read that you were involved in the Classical Music Development Foundation of Trinidad & Tobago.

I’ve been to Trinidad seven times in the summer. I’ve had a really good time with that group. I haven’t been there for two years. Their funding can change.


I found a review of Mozart’s Così fan tutte that the organization presented in 2015. Were you involved in that?

Yes. Trinidad is an interesting environment. They have a lot of talent there, but they still have to import people like conductors and coaches. I was their coach and would help them put these performances together—always by the skin of our teeth, but fun. We also did Tales of Hoffmann and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.


And you performed with steelpannist Liam Teague there.

Yes.

Jeffrey Middleton in concert with Natalia Dopwell and Liam Teague at Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain, Trinidad, circa 2007.


What about your work at the School of American Ballet?

I’m the music faculty. The School of American Ballet is the training school for the New York City Ballet. It was founded by George Balanchine. Balanchine himself was a trained musician. A lot of his choreography is predicated on his musical acuity, his knowledge of structure, and his imagination. He founded the school, and he wanted musical training to be a part of dancers’ dance training. That’s basically the reason that I’m there. I started teaching at the school in 1986. Balanchine died in ’83, and Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins took over the company. I didn’t talk to Peter Martins that much. I had to figure out myself what the program would be. When we moved into the Samuel B. & David Rose Building at Lincoln Center in ’91, the program expanded. Over the years, I’ve come up with a program I think is both practical and useful, something that’s going to help them as a dancer. The girls and the boys have different classes and different paths through the school. The girls—if they are on a regular path, doing the traditional levels through the school—have a three-year music program.

Jeffrey Middleton with students at the School of American Ballet.

The first year and a half is basic musical skills. They learn to read music; we do rhythm training. I have keyboards, and they learn to play a little bit. It’s an active musical learning. As that goes on, it becomes more of a general study, musical style, listening skills. The last year is a music history year. I teach them subjects of music history based on dance literature. One thing I’ve learned on this job is that you can cover important historical information solely with ballet music.


What a rich, varied career you’ve got going.

It’s a matter of perspective. It looks like in aggregate that there’s a lot to show for it. When you’re living this life, it doesn’t always feel that way. The point being that in a musician’s career, there are two things going on. One is personal development. You always have to be working on your craft, practicing solo music or performing or recording. And the other is the career. They’re related, but not always synched up, and you don’t always get what you want. In other words, there’s been no great plan. But the thing that’s important is that your musicianship gets stronger.


Finally, I’d like to ask you about Westbeth.

I’m very grateful to be at Westbeth because otherwise I would not have been able to do the things I’ve been able to do. Try to find an affordable rent for an apartment when you have a grand piano and you want to practice a lot. And, of course, Westbeth provides a home for an artists community. I was glad to get to know Richard Hundley, who lived upstairs. He was a lovely man. I played some of his music, and he came and heard me perform it. I played one of David Del Tredici’s pieces, and he was very helpful to me. And Susan Schweisky, who plays the flute—we performed together at one of the Westbeth music festivals. There’s lots of music at Westbeth, and I’m glad that classical music represents a part of that.

Photo credits: Headshot: Angela Owens; Queen’s Hall photos: Daniel Gomez; School of American Ballet photos: Rosalie O’Connor. All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Middleton.

To hear Middleton playing Fennimore, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFD4Kkk7deM&list=PL2gA7uMV2BCQCueVuXVMtR6rBfoYwFiCf

See dancer Jody Sperling accompanied by Jeffrey Middleton in Night Winds:

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2019 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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