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Passing the Torch

Cascadia Composers' In Good Hands expands students' horizons and brings music to the next generations.


The typical piano recital goes something like this: assigned standard works by teachers, students dutifully perform some bite-sized Bach, a morsel of Mozart, a sampling of Schumann, maybe a token 20th century work created a century or more before they were born. Parents proudly applaud. Then the students go home and listen to the music they really like, the music of their time, until it’s time to practice Ye Olde Masters again. After a few years, many student recitalists find other outlets for their musical interests.

What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if students could play music from their own time and place? And instead of merely “reciting” standard rep that’s been played zillions of times by as many students — what if they could also engage creatively with the music they’re playing?

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That was the vision Cascadia Composers founder David Bernstein suggested to Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray in 2009. Before moving to Oregon, Bernstein had been involved in a program in Cleveland, where he was a music professor, that connected area composers to piano students. A concert of music by Northwest composers, performed by Portland-area piano students, would make a splendid addition to a summer festival almost entirely dominated by music from centuries ago and oceans away, Gray and Bernstein thought.

The 2018 In Good Hands performers

This Saturday afternoon, July 11, Cascadia presents its 10th annual In Good Hands recital, featuring student performers from both the Portland and Eugene metro areas will play new music written by eleven Cascadia Composers members. Anyone interested in the future of Oregon music can tune in via Zoom or at the archived video on the Cascadia website. It’s a milestone for a program that not only provides unique educational benefits for its student participants, but also bolsters contemporary Oregon classical music’s future.

Matching Music to Students

Many if not most classic European composers (Ravel, Prokofiev, Schumann, Bartok etc.) enjoyed, and/or paid the bills by teaching and writing music for students. Many Cascadia Composers are piano teachers too, including Dan Brugh, the 2009 Oregon Music Teachers Association Composer of the Year, whom Bernstein and Gray tapped to lead what Gray dubbed In Good Hands. Brugh quickly realized that managing a score call and recital program, and coordinating among Cascadia, OMTA, and PPI, demanded hyper organized help. 

He found it in Cascadia president Jan Mittelstaedt, and the two have traded off the lead role and shared most of the managerial duties ever since. Other members of the organization have helped out in different ways, from getting programs printed to obtaining the roses that participating composers charmingly present to the students who play their pieces at the recital — a symbolic passing on of the legacy of keeping Oregon music flowering through succeeding generations. 


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Cascadia supplies a database of compositions suitable for student performers at various skill levels, supplied by member composers in response to an annual call for scores. OMTA publicizes the program to its member teachers, and those interested peruse the available scores (including recordings and program notes) for those they think suitable to their students’ interests and educational needs. Once a student and teacher agree on a piece, they get to meet with the composer to discuss its background, technical issues, adjustments if necessary, and so on. 

Dan Brugh congratulates an In Good Hands performer.

The pieces are as varied in style as the composers and students, with some students occasionally even embracing works written in the 20th century 12-tone modernist style. But in general, composers look to grab students with “catchy, rhythmic pieces that engage them initially and not too difficult technically or notationally,” says Eugene composer Paul Safar, who has several students participating in this year’s program.

Another longtime participant, Portland’s Dianne Davies, recalled a meeting at which participating teacher “Irene Huang said students like ‘melody, melody, melody.’ If it doesn’t have a melody, kids don’t want to play it. They also like consistent and driving rhythm. It has to have one of those two, and it’s best if it has both.”

Veteran teachers like Davies and Mittelstaedt tailor pieces to students’ interests and educational needs. “When I compose for students, I think about what they do well,” Mittelstaedt explains, “for example, if they like fast pieces, if they can do a five finger pattern fast, if they can move around the keyboard. It’s a different kind of composing when you’re writing for students.”

Going Virtual 

The recitals initially took place at the World Forestry Center during PPI’s annual summer festival. They differ from standard recitals because they’d involve a dozen on more students from various teachers instead of just one. Moreover, the programs consisted entirely of contemporary music rather than pedagogical classics, with a much greater variety of styles, ranging from neo-romantic to jazzy and many others.  

But after three years, Gray retired, putting IGH on hold, its future in doubt. After skipping a year, Brugh determined that In Good Hands must survive, solely as a Cascadia Composers initiative. Since then, Mittelstaedt says, the series has occasionally looked beyond the usual single-pianist format to include Tomas Svoboda’s Canon for Unlimited Voices featuring 14 (!) pianists, another Svoboda composition for organ, works for toy pianos (courtesy of Cascadia’s Jennifer Wright), solo flute, voice, and even combos (flute, violin and piano, flute and cello). The annual recitals moved from Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall to The Old Church Concert Hall to Portland Piano Company and for the last two summers, back to PSU.

Portland Piano International’s Harold Gray

Until this year, that is. With the pandemic scuttling so many performances, In Good Hands faced its toughest challenge since separating from PPI: how to continue performances when crowds of the size that thronged previous concerts weren’t permitted?


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Once again, Dan Brugh said, “I will not let it die. It’s too important for young people and the composers. I will do anything I have to to make sure it continues. It could have ended [in 2014 after PPI pulled out]. It could have ended this year. I said, ‘we can do video.’” 

So, like many others in this plagued spring and summer, In Good Hands is going online. Students will record their own performances and Cascadia will stream it live and then archive the video. And with physical distance no longer posing a barrier, this year’s virtual performance will also be the first time students from Eugene will be participating. 

“With this pandemic [response], we’re teaching students how to embrace technology and videos,” Brugh says. “It’s important that students realize that they should have a YouTube station. It’s pushing us all into this new level of artistry. I hope we continue this live streaming even if we come back to live performances, maybe some combo of pre-recorded performances and some live, with students doing their own recordings.”

Expanding Horizons 

Teaching students about video making and streaming will be only the latest aspect of In Good Hands’s contribution to Oregon musical education. Compared to performing classics of past centuries, playing new music “opens up their ears to new sounds, new techniques, new things to learn,” says Safar. “Every composer’s got a different voice. It’s so important not be boxed into any particular genre, especially antiquated ones. When I was younger, [playing new music] helped me  not be afraid of it, to take it on its own terms. Learning new music can’t help but expand them musically, whether they end up becoming professional musicians or not.”  

Composer, teacher and pianist Paul Safar

Not only does participating in IGH keep students practicing music over the summer when many stop taking regular lessons, the program also provides a unique motivation for study that standard recitals can’t. Portland teacher Irene Huang, who has 13 students participating this year, normally plays through the classics when introducing them to her students and helps them understand various ways they’ve been interpreted. But Huang, whose own musical education was dominated standard classical repertoire, she can’t do that with new, unfamiliar music. 

“I hand the music to the students and tell them, ‘This is fresh out of the oven. I’m not playing it for you because I’ve never played it. You’ll be in charge — take it home bring it back to me and let me know what have you learned,’” Huang explains. “So they get to be the teacher. It’s more a motivation to them to be in charge instead of ‘this is what my teacher assigned me and I need to follow what she said.’ And when I tell them ‘you’ll be premiering this piece, and it’s never been played before in public and you’ll be the first one — that sends them to the moon!”

Because of that sense of ownership, Huang says, performing in In Good Hands especially encourages reticent performers. “Most of my students are Asian,” she laughs, “and some can be shy and timid, so sometimes it’s hard to get them up there to perform. Through In Good Hands, many of my students become not as passive. They’re very happy and excited to show everyone what they’ve learned.”


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Finding Their Voices

Students’ personal stake in the music also comes from their personal connection to the composers. Working with composers on their interpretations gives students an opportunity to divine what the composers intended in a way that’s impossible to do with long-dead composers. “If composer and students are working together and the composer explains their motivation and inspiration in writing the piece, or gives suggestions on how want it played, it helps them a lot,” Mittelstaedt says. For example, one of this year’s performers, a student of Safar’s, is playing her “Dusk,” and she was explaining how she imagined the different sections sounded. “This area is like velvet,” she told him. “Imagine you’re touching velvet — that’s how you’d play it.” 

Composer, teacher and pianist Jan Mittelstaedt

In a piece called “Childhood Memories,” a student didn’t understand why the middle section was dark and spooky. “It’s about the things you’re afraid of, like the monster in the closet,” composer Dianne Davies told her. One piece of hers played by one of Huang’s students is based on a story about a jaguar chasing its prey, and Davies allows students to inform their performances of the ending based on whether they think the jaguar caught its victim or not.

“I’m honored to be part of In the Good Hands concert,” wrote Huang’s 11-year-old student Thalia Wong. “When I play piano, I try to imagine what the composers try to express in their music. This time, I get to personally connect with the composers! I love that they can give me feedback for my performance. This helps me to understand the music more, and makes it more special. It’s also exciting to be the first to perform this brand new piece of music.”

Davies, Brugh and Safar also acknowledge how educational it can be for students to bring their own interpretations to a work, even if different from their own original intentions. “It was really touching to hear a student play a piece of mine called “Lonesome Waltz,” Davies recalls. “She didn’t play it exactly how I envisioned it, but it was incredible to hear someone play a piece I’d written with such deep emotional attachment that she made something I’d brought into existence mean something to her, too.”  

Brugh had a similar experience, when a teacher suggested a student play his piece without using the pedal that adds reverberation. Brugh heard it and said “bathe it in pedal! But the teacher said ‘I told her not to do that!’ That’s the beauty of In Good Hands. The teacher, composer and student come together and they learn from each other.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide how to interpret the music, as long they keep the spirit of the music, Brugh says. “To learn the expression of a new piece, to make it their own benefits the students musically. You’re not just learning it by rote, but you really learn about yourself and what music means to you. You’re teaching a student to find their own voice.”

This year, some composers are even able to give students rehearsal feedback because the students can send them videos of their practices. One student this year even said participating in the process has made him more interested in doing his own composition. “I recently learned the piece entitled “Snowbound” by Jan Mittelstaedt for part of my syllabus Level 6 exam,” wrote student Tyler Raven. “I enjoyed learning and performing it. It was awesome to then be able to meet Jan. I was able to play the piece for her and we talked about what the piece was about, what inspired her to write it, and discussed different parts of it. This program was a great way for me to learn about a composer and has inspired me to continue to write my own music.” 


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Enriching Oregon Music

Composers benefit too.  “As a composer you realize the value of writing a piece that’s not hard,” Brugh explains. “We all write these extraordinarily complex pieces with big concepts but this year I wrote a piece called “Martian Camper” and it’s fun and it’s still music. You don’t always have to reinvent the world. In simplifying, sometimes you get closer to your inner voice.” 

Davies has gained valuable perspective from IGH. “It’s made me more aware of different subject matters to write about,” she says. “My first pieces were about me — my childhood memories. The other pieces have been about topics that students would be interested in,” like disappearing wildlife threatened by humans’ encroachment on their habitats. “I’m finishing my second set of Rainforest Animals,” inspired by endangered species like jaguar, Toucan Macaw, three toed sloth, golden poison dart frog. “Kids care more than adults — they’re worried about their world. So in thinking about what students want to play, my perspective has changed. It’s expanded beyond myself.” 

Composer, teacher and pianist Dianne Davies

Even teachers benefit from IGH. “Seeing my students wanting to learn something new out of their teacher’s comfort zone helps me get out of my comfort zone to play more contemporary music,” Huang says. “My tastes and appreciation of contemporary music has changed through these years. I’m starting to enjoy Oregon music more. The different rhythmic and tone colors have been getting into my ear and head more. I feel like I’m getting a little bit younger through exposure to new music.”

As IGH teachers, students, and audience members gain exposure to contemporary Oregon music, they, in turn, provide the next generations of Oregon music performers and listeners. “The hope is that it will carry over” beyond the recital performance,” Mittelstaedt says. “We’re also training future listeners. The more experiences with Oregon music they have like this, the more they’ll understand it.”

Safar, who’s had music played in almost every IGH recital, has seen the legacy growing as In Good Hands begins its second decade of seeding Oregon music. “Early on, one student played a piece of mine,” he recalls. “His hands were so little he couldn’t even reach the octaves. Maybe four or five years later, he played a piano duet of mine with another student — and he was all grown up, no longer a 10 year old, still playing my music.” 


You can Zoom into this year’s virtual In Good Hands performance at 3 pm Saturday, July 11. After the event, see videos of the performances at Cascadia Composers website. Teachers, parents, and students interested in the program should contact Jan Mittelstaedt at janrmitt@gmail.com.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.


One Response

  1. Thanx, Brett, for a wonderful article about an absolutely fabulous project that is happily ongoing . . .

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