By Matt Rogers
Some argue the best way to ensure success, whether it is in music, sports, or writing, is to start training at a young age. Get those future prodigies started early, and it will best prepare them for the future.Others assert it’s best to let children grow up away from formal training, allowing them a chance to figure out on their own whether they want to pursue a particular field.
When tenor Jon English takes the stage alongside pianist Sar-Shalom Strong on Nov. 15 at Hamilton College, one thing will be clear: Both strategies can work just fine.
English, the youngest of eight siblings, barely spoke growing up. He was so quiet that his parents thought he might have been autistic. They requested the school psychologist evaluate him. That psychologist concluded that English was not autistic, and made the following two observations: Jon was fascinated with food, and he loved to sing.
“And here I am, a fat tenor 55 years later,” he jokes.
Unlike many successful musicians, English did not grow up with organized music lessons. For the first few years of his life, his family struggled to make ends meet, and music was simply a luxury the Englishes could not afford. That did, however, start to change a bit when English enrolled at Fayetteville- Manlius High School. “My choir director, Bruce Campbell, would give me lessons whenever he had the time during the day at school because I couldn’t afford a voice teacher,” English says. “I credit him for really helping chart the path of my entire future life.”
Because of his passion for music, English planned on attending SUNY Fredonia. But a high school guidance counselor unintentionally gave him the motivation to try something different. A teacher had suggested English apply to Eastman School of Music, one of the premier music schools in the nation. “So I went to my guidance counselor and I said, ‘Hey I heard about this Eastman School of Music,’ and he literally laughed at me,” English recalls. “The reason I applied [to Eastman] was a way to thumb my nose at this guidance counselor. Sort of like an unofficial ‘F-U’.”
The Syracuse native was accepted with nearly a full scholarship, and it was there that English blossomed musically. He worked with internationally renowned composers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists. “It literally gave me the foundation for the rest of my life,” he says.
Since then, English’s life has been a whirlwind. He spent 20 years performing in Boston, notably with the Boston Symphony. He also has taught at MIT and Holy Cross College, in addition to his current post at Syracuse University, where he teaches voice classes and an arts history course. He performs often, sometimes with Symphoria, the premier symphony in Central New York, and other times with individual pianists, as is the case with his performance with Strong.
While English did not engage in formal lessons growing up, his counterpart, Sar-Shalom Strong, took the more established path. The Utica native, who still lives in the house he grew up in, started playing the piano
English and Strong set to perform at Hamilton College
when he was four. Music was always a big part of his family growing up, and since then, two of his siblings have become professional musicians. It did not take long for Strong to show his musical prowess. “When Sar first began working with me, I did recognize very early on that he had an extraordinary gift for music,” Strong’s former piano teacher Charlie Beno says. “Sar had those musical instincts in abundance.”
Strong went to Knox College, and later studied with a concert pianist in Minneapolis. But at that time, he says he did not give his full effort to music. “I didn’t work as hard as I needed to at that stage in the game,” he says. “I could play a lot of the notes well, but I needed some help.”
His musical career was put on hold as he worked as a manager at a piano store in Syracuse. His life changed, however, when a woman came into the store, and asked him to play something for her. He distinctly remembers her saying “You’ve got all this ability, but honey, you need some technical help.” That woman was Barbara Lounsberry, a retired concert pianist, and she offered to give Strong lessons for free. She fixed his technique, and with that help, Strong could play longer without his hands hurting. “And that’s when I really said, “OK, I’m gonna make a go of it 100 percent as a musician.”
He went on to accompany and attend Syracuse University, and also secured a role in the now-defunct Syracuse Symphony, where he played keyboard on numerous occasions. He currently teaches lessons at Hamilton College, and says his schedule is still jam-packed with performances. Strong will perform more than a dozen times from September to December.
When Strong and English get together on the 15th to perform, the two, who by English’s estimation have performed “about a half a dozen times,” will play one of English’s favorite song cycles, Franz Schubert’s “Die Winterreise”. “The first time I heard it I was 18 years old at Eastman,” he says. “And it immediately captivated me. It mesmerized me. It has everything. Oh my God, the music is astounding.”
The song cycle is approximately 80 minutes and chronicles a young man’s journey and all the emotions that go with it. English calls it one of the most difficult pieces in the history of music, but he is extremely excited to get a chance to work with Strong. “Sar represents the height of having a great partner musically,” he says. “Working with Sar is like putting on your favorite pair of jeans. They just fit and they feel great and you’re comfortable.”
Likewise, Strong appreciates every chance to perform with English, even though it does not always go as planned. “Jon is so much fun to play with,” he says. “He’s also a very spontaneous performer.So you have to be on your toes.And it will be a wild ride. It will be a fun time.”