On March 10, sixteen-year-old pianists Clara Gerdes and Hannah Wang, both students in the Queens University of Charlotte Music Academy, won the grand prize in the senior piano duet category at the national finals of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) competition in Anaheim, California. Their teacher is Dr. Paul Nitsch, the Carolyn G. McMahon Professor of Music and Macavity Artist-In-Residence at Queens.
"These two girls are special talents. This is the first time either of them has entered this competition, and they are the first duet team from the Southeast region ever to win a grand prize at the national level. It's exciting to see their success come so quickly."
- Dr. Nitsch
Added Dr. Emily Seelbinder, chair of the Departments of Music, Theater and Dance, "This is exciting not only for these talented and hard-working musicians, but also for their amazing teacher and the other great teachers in Queens' Music Department. It's one thing to be able to perform at a high level, it's quite another to nurture those skills in others. Our faculty work with students of all ages and levels of ability, and they are able to adapt their instruction to the needs and interests of those students in extraordinary ways. That's definitely been the case in Paul's work with Hannah and Clara."
Practice Makes Perfect
To make it to the national stage, MTNA contestants must first win at their state and regional competitions. Junior high, high school and college-age musicians compete in six categories including brass, solo piano, piano duet, strings, voice and woodwinds.
The duo performed two pieces: "Sonata for Piano Four Hands," by Paul Hindemith and the overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Felix Mendelssohn. They spent many hours in each other's homes and on the Queens campus practicing those pieces and developing the poise and teamwork that earned them accolades from MTNA judges throughout the competition. Dr. Paul Stewart of UNC Greensboro, a past president of MTNA who heard them play in Anaheim, described them as the most impressive performers in a very strong field: "They performed with perfect balance, sensitive ensemble and musical refinement."
Clara and Hannah met while attending a "Fun with Chamber Music" summer camp at Queens. There they discovered the joys of musical collaboration. Playing duets, Clara explains, "is less selfish than playing solo. When you play solo you're really concentrating on playing, but in a duet, it's equal parts playing and listening."
Learning from Leon Fleisher
Dr. Nitsch, who holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music at Case Western University with a specialty in collaborative piano, has helped his students find just the right balance of playing and listening.
In doing so, Dr. Nitsch is passing along lessons he learned from his extraordinary teachers. Among those is Leon Fleisher, whose career as a pianist was cut short in the 1960s by a debilitating injury to his right hand. When he came to Queens to play a concert in 2008, Fleisher said that his injury had made him a better teacher of music: when he could not show his students how to play, he had to find other ways to communicate how pianists can draw from their instrument all that it can express.
"There is not a day that goes by," says Dr. Nitsch, "that I don't find myself using the lessons I learned from Leon Fleisher."
Clearly these lessons have broadened his students' understanding of the piano and working with other musicians. Says Hannah, "Four hands can just do a lot more than two; the range of sounds you can produce is just so much greater. Something that was impossible with one pair of hands suddenly becomes possible with four." To which Clara adds, "And two artistic heads are better than one!"
Charlotte Observer Video
Clara Gerdes and Hannah Wang are the first North Carolina Winners of a national piano duet contest. The pair won the Music Teachers National Association Senior Piano Duet finals in Anaheim, CA. on March 10, 2013