Dr. Jason Denman, an English professor at Utica College, gave a piano performance that aired on WPNR-FM Jackson Lunch Hour Series on Wednesday, April 7.
According to Denman, his ventures into piano playing started at around six or seven when his mother, who played the piano herself, tried to teach him. However, after a few months of lessons, they made the mutual decision to quit.
A little later in life though, Denman decided to pick music back up again.
“When I was in eighth grade, I got really interested in the trumpet,” Denman said. “My dad was a pretty good trumpeter, so he taught me for a while. Very quickly I got just totally immersed in music in ways I hadn’t been before, and I started learning the piano again simultaneously.”
Denman said that he eventually dropped the trumpet and focused more on the piano, and despite his mother being a pianist he was fairly self-taught. This meant that when he eventually got an instructor at around 18 years old, he had to change and fix a lot of bad habits.
“I would show up with a piece half learned, and I would have added a beat to a critical bar for no reason,” Denman said. “He’d have to fix my counting or my terrible fingering.”
Denman said that his experiences with his instructor were what made him realize that being a musician wasn’t necessarily what he wanted for his future.
“You can be so talented and not have a career,” Denman said. “At the time, I was taking lessons from him, he was in his early to mid-30s and I think he wanted to be a performer but ended up as a teacher and I think he felt a little bit stunted. That was kind of a wake-up call for me because the tough thing about music is you have to be insanely talented and insanely dedicated and insanely lucky and that’s pretty brutal.”
Around this time, Denman was enrolled in a local community college and found himself gravitating toward his English professors.
“One of my professors knew I was starting to drift toward being a teacher, and she just said, ‘Hey I want you to teach my class next week,’ which was not something they really did there and I did it I was like ok this is what I wanna do’,” Denman said.
Denman said when he transferred to the University of California, Davis to be an English major and started thinking about graduate work, he made a clear decision that piano was something that he loved but that he was going to do strictly for himself.
“This decision was also conditioned by the fact that my music teacher sent me to a competition once,” Denman said. “It was a fairly small thing, and I prepared a set of pieces and I won one of them and I was happy about that. But I also had a complete memory lapse and had stop piece halfway through and just kind of sigh and leave the stage.”
Denman said that whenever he performed, he’d feel anxious, but in the classroom, he felt completely at ease and unself-conscious.
When it comes to balancing teaching and music, Denman said it’s about taking advantage of little scraps of time.
“As human beings, I feel like we should all be as well rounded as we want to be,” Denman said. “If I have 20 minutes to myself and I want to play, I will. You can’t always have long periods too, but if you keep your mind engaged and just give yourself 10 minutes here or an hour there, you’re still you, still using that part of your brain that makes you happy.”
Denman’s WPNR performance ended with a left-hand piece, which has a story behind it. For the last two years, Denman has suffered from tendonitis in his right elbow. He urged fellow musicians to remember that playing an instrument can have a physical toll.
“I want to remind anybody who’s in anything – whether it’s a sport or musical instrument – you have to find ways to do it that are healthy,” Denman said. “Find ways to do it that don’t give you repetitive strain conditions.”
Anyone interested in listening to Denman’s performance can do so here.