Extraordinary Teaching Spaces
In my travels around the country as a clinician over the past decades, I have enjoyed meeting many new people—students of various ages, independent and community music school teachers, university professors, and music store owners. Occasionally, I have been fortunate enough to also see the home studios of some independent teachers. The variety of settings we teach in seems tobe as wide as the variety of teachers themselves. It also appears that during the career trajectory of any one of us, studio settings can and do change drastically. Sometimes we have to make do with only a corner of an apartment that's just barely big enough to shoehorn in two people and a piano; at other times we may have at our disposal an entire room or more in a house.
There is thus a spectrum of settings in which we piano teachers ply our trade within our living spaces, but this article is not about that diversity (although that's an excellent idea for an installment of another day)! In the meantime, don't miss the photos of smaller teaching spaces found on page 22. Instead, I would like to share with you two exceptional studio-homes that reside on one side of that spectrum, the WOW-I-certainly-wouldn't-mind-having-THAT-as-my-studio! side.
The first article describes a home used by a husband and wife who both teach piano full-time in Anchorage, Alaska. When I first saw the residence of Cindy and Dean Epperson in August of 2011, I thought it was not only a perfect setting for two teachers under one roof, but it was also exquisitely beautiful and expressive in a warm yet peaceful way—a Brahms slow movement in edifice form.
The second essay conveys the amazing story of how a young person's musings about a quintessential home studio came into actual physical being forty years later! Located outside of Syracuse, New York, the studio-home complex of Pat DeAngelis and her husband, Tony, is jaw-dropping inits utility, artfulness, excitement, size, and splendor (I do not exaggerate). For this one, think the end of Debussy's La mer.
I wish to sincerely thank both of these families for their cordial hospitality and generosity in devoting so much time for interviews and follow-up phone calls and e-mails, and also for allowing us to photograph their homes (as well as providing some of their own photos). I additionally wish to thank the DeAngelis's daughter, Maria De Angelis, who also was interviewed and later barraged with zillions of follow-up questions (OK, here I exaggerate); you will read about her special connection to the studio in the article. Finally, I wish to thank Patti Gallagher of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Steve Rosenfeld of Manlius, New York, without whom I would likely have never learned about these exceptional families and their remarkable home studios.
Read on, dear reader, and dream on...
Space for two to tango- separately!
with Cynthia and Dean Epperson
The layout and construction of most homes are not conducive to two people teaching music at the same time. Most houses are simply not large enough, and, even if they are, they may not provide the spatial separation and sound insulation that allow for a professionally operated dual studio.
The home of Cindy and Dean Epperson in Anchorage, Alaska, is not only an ideal situation for two teachers, it is also aesthetically appealing and inspiring. Their three-story brown cedar house sits halfway up a long winding hill dotted with other homes and surrounded by lofty trees. After you pull into their driveway and parkin the back, you climb one flight of wooden stairs and enter the second floor through a narrow hallway that opens up into a livingroom atrium which functions as the waiting area for both studios.The tall ceiling and third-floor balcony overlooking this expanse, all constructed of beautiful wood, create an atmosphere that is both uplifting and yet surprisingly tranquil.
Sound insulation supreme
Despite the maestoso openness of this part of the house, there isno sound interference between the two studios. Dean's is on the second floor, just to the left of the waiting room, but is offset from the main footprint of the house because it was an addition constructed by the previous owners as a family room. Cindy's studio,on the other hand, is located one flight up on the third floor, as farremoved from Dean's studio as the house permits (it was originally a bedroom). Before the Eppersons taught their first lessons in the home,they further bolstered sound control by equipping Dean's studio with two exterior-type doors, the same kind one would putin the main entrance of a house. These heavy pine doors block virtually any sound from escaping or entering the studio. Cindy can even accompany a student playing trumpet or tuba in her studio while Dean is teaching in his, and he can't even tell!
They also chose to address vertical sound control, since their master bedroom is located directly above Dean's studio. Installing extra insulation in the ceiling solved that problem in a cost-effeciive way. They also put carpets beneath the pianos to dampen the volume and reduce some of the brightness of sound caused by reverberation throughout the house.
Creature comforts for students and families
The waiting area is markedly uncluttered, considering that it also serves as a personal living room. It has a sofa and several comfortable chairs, a few tables, and of course wireless internet service. There are also beautiful views through the oversized windows and glass doors. This is no accident. In Alaska, it's vital—practically and psychologically—that as much outside light as possible be permitted into homes, since natural light is at such a premium during several months of the year. (It's practically worshipped during the other months—it seems as if everyone plants flowers in Alaska! In the words of Patti Gallagher, "Summer is a miracle here.") Accordingly, the Eppersons installed several skylights, as well as windows in all of the house's interior doors.
There are dedicated bathrooms located immediately outside each studio. These not only provide convenience and privacy, but also minimize extraneous foot traffic throughout different parts of the house.
Finding the right home
When the Eppersons conducted their house search in 1996, they knew that they wanted the house to work as a dual-studio, with maximum separation between the two teaching spaces. At first, they thought that a split-level ranch home might yield the desired setup; they envisioned one studio in a far bedroom with the other in the basement on the other side. However, when they actually looked at a few, they were too small to work well in the long run, so they had to increase their original budget and start looking at different kinds of homes. After seeing about six more, they came upon, well, The One. Cindy said, "The day we saw it, we knew it was going to work!" It was very close to meeting all the requirements they had, so they knew that only a few minor modifications were needed. Although 3,400 square feet and three floors were more than what they originally envisioned, they made it work financially through extra teaching and careful planning.
Each of the two studios is fully equipped, commensurate with the available space in each. Dean, who tends to teach more advanced students, has two grand pianos, side by side—a Steinway "B" and a Yamaha Conservatory C5. He also has a keyboard synthesizer that he uses mainly as a drum machine. His score and CD library fills most of the available wall space, along with a desk and photocopy machine for producing forms and billing. There's enough space next to the pianos to accommodate small chamber music ensembles and group lessons.
Cindy's studio also has two pianos: a Boston grand, model GP-178 PE, and a Yamaha U1 upright. She also has a keyboard synthesizer, but she uses hers mainly as a MIDI input device for music notation software. Her complete music library, including an extensive ensemble music collection, is also readily accessible. Due to the smaller studio space, her photocopier and computer equipment are located in a converted closet that now functions as a desk area.
Despite the best planning,there is no getting around the fact that having two studios in one home magnifies the problems that must be dealt with for professional practices to thrive and prosper in the long run.
One of these involves car traffic. Parking can be a problem with so many people coming and going at the same time, particularly because there is no on-street parking allowed in the Eppersons' neighborhood. Cars must turn into their driveway and then park in the back of the house, sometimes creating gridlock if parents don't use common sense. Both Cindy and Dean proactively do "parented" with their new student families, advising them of do's and don'ts concerning the parking situation. It generally works because,as Cindy says, "Parents are trainable!" They also report that their dual-practice has not caused any problems with neighbors; they believe this is due to their actively addressing the car traffic and parking issues.
Foot traffic is another consideration. The Eppersons consider it crucial that the house entrance is separate from the teaching areas,so that no students traipse through a studio while a lesson is in progress. They think of a doctor's office as an ideal professional model; in both settings, the clients come and go through a separate public area, while the professional interacts privately with a client elsewhere. For this reason, they consider their waiting room area to be essential, because they feel that it's unprofessional for students to be waiting around in a studio while another person's lesson is taking place.
There are other challenges, some of which overlap with those of operating any home studio. But when there are two practices in one structure, the pitfalls loom even larger. Both Eppersons consider it vital that they keep their home in an appropriate way to create a professional environment for their students' families and for themselves.Cindy put it this way, "We try to be very careful about making the house not look like a house! Dishes should not be in the sink, the house is picked up—no laundry baskets sitting around. It should look as much like a business as possible." They never cook while the other is teaching, and, since they coordinate their schedules, that's an easy directive to follow. Their office areas and bedrooms have closed doors so students never go into or see those areas. They also keep their two (very cute!) dogs, Maggie and Makenna, upstairs and gated off from the professional areas.
The cost of doing business
Many in-home professional teachers must shoulder, completely on their own, the legal and financial burdens that currently exist for independent teachers; the Eppersons are no exception, except that these problems are doubled. They each purchase their own personal liability insurance for their respective practices since that turns out to be financially advantageous to buying joint coverage, although the cost is still high (the plan offered by MTNA is not available in the state of Alaska). They do collectively purchase their health insurance as a family, but the savings generated by this are small and the monthly premiums are extremely high. For that reason as well as others, they emphasize that "we never offer family discounts!"
Teaching in harmony
Of course it takes more than just sound insulation and instruments for two people to successfully teach in the same home. The Eppersons made some strategic decisions right from the beginning that they believed would enhance their chances of succeeding at two separate but related issues: 1. operating two flourishing professional teaching practices in one building, and 2. still having a life and a successful marriage!
As you can see from the descriptions of their individual studios, they decided that each person's teaching practice would be virtually self-sufficient.Their respective studios and equipment are not only self-contained, but they each have their own separate studio phone number and they don't do make-up lessons for their partner's students. Although they do share awaiting room area and some space in the third-floor office, as Dean says, "We each have our own stuff." They also pool their students for solo and duet recitals that they hold at local churches and universities, and occasionally one of them will work with one of the other's students for a specific purpose.But for the most part, their professional practices are run independently of one another. They do acknowledge that some couples may find success with a different plan, but this one works very well for them.
They decided early on that the only way they could still "have a life" in this duo-teacher household was that they would teach on the same days, and they each would start and stop teaching at the same time. They emphasize the particular importance of the ending time being the same (they currently aim for 7 p.m.). They even try to schedule their last lesson of the day with families they know are responsible about consistently being on time to pick up that student.
Now that's planning!
Cynthia Epperson has taught piano in Anchorage since 1986. Along with her husband, Dean Epperson, she maintains a studio in their home on the Anchorage hillside where she teaches approximately forty-five students a week.
A nationally certified teacher with the Music Teachers National Association, Ms. Epperson is actively involved in both the local and state organizations, and is the Immediate Past President of the Alaska Music Teachers Association. She is much sought after as a skilled instrumental and vocal accompanist. In addition to her work as a musician and teacher, she is a registered nurse with extensive experience in the rehabilitation of repetitive motion injuries and is frequently consulted by local insurance companies and physicians. Pianists, piano teachers, and other instrumentalists also consult her when they or their students experience pain and other symptoms of the upper extremities.
Dean Epperson received his undergraduate degree in music from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and earned his master's degree in music at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. Mr. Epperson has performed numerous concerts throughout Alaska as both soloist and chamber musician. He has appeared as guest soloist with the Anchorage Chamber Symphony, the Anchorage Civic Orchestra, the Anchorage Youth Symphony, and the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.
As a teacher, he divides his time between a private piano studio in his home and teaching Functional Piano, Beginning Class Piano, and private lessons at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Dean has been involved with MTNA on many levels and in many capacities. He has served as a member of the MTNA National Executive Board, as president of the Northwest Division, as Northwest Division Competition Coordinator, and as President of the Alaska Music Teachers Association. Dean received his Permanent Professional Certification in 1998, and in April 2005 was named an MTNA Foundation Fellow for his distinguished service to the music teaching profession. An active member of the Alaska Music Teachers Association, Mr. Epperson is committed to continuing education and professional development in piano teaching, and he is a dedicated musician whose love and devotion to music have inspired hundreds of students during his teaching career.
A dream studio forty years in the making
with Patricia and Maria DeAngelis
Imagine that you could build your dream home piano studio! What would it look like—what would it be like? How big would it be? How much natural light would you want it to have? What equipment and amenities (besides a few fine pianos) would it have? What other uses should it be built for, besides teaching and practicing? Would it be part of your house, or adjoin it?
These questions and many more started swirling around in Pat DeAngelis's head when she was a seventeen-year old high-schooler living in Syracuse, New York. She was taking the Regents Exams, standardized tests now required by that state (at the time they were optional). She was asked to write an essay on her favorite room, but instead of describing something from her previous experience, she fantasized about what an ideal home piano studio would be. From that day onward, she never stopped thinking about it, allowing the vision to grow, evolve, and mature.
Serendipity - or not?
Fast forward decades ahead. Pat went to college, graduated, started a piano studio, got married, had children, and led a busy musical life teaching in her home. Although she was content with her domestic professional life, she was not happy with the impact that the teaching had on her family. Her husband, Tony, taught high school music and band all day, had numerous private bassoon students,and played in the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. When he came home after a long day of music, it was almost impossible to avoid the sound of more playing and teaching. In Pat's words, it became "a little oppressive" for him.1 As the years passed, she occasionally scoped out homes for sale, trying to find one that might offer the possibility of having her studio isolated from the house.
Meanwhile, her dream-studio concept flourished. She regularly shared her vision in increasing detail with Tony and her young daughter, Maria, who already was showing an artistic bent in music and drawing (she was studying art privately with a local public school art teacher). All during Maria's childhood, she heard her mother repeatedly talk about her dream. Maria apparently took it all in . . .
Fast forward several more years. Maria got a bachelors degree in philosophy, then decided she wanted to study architecture professionally. She was accepted into the masters program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and drove off to Cambridge. As she delved into courses in design, materials, and acoustics,she started to acquire the skills needed to put her mother's dream onto paper in a professional and sophisticated way. Each class in her program required a terminal project, so Maria used different aspects of the home-studio to fulfill those assignments. Detailed drawings of different parts of the studio and home gradually came into being, overseen by some of the country's best architectural and acoustics practitioners.
Fast forward three more years. Back in the Syracuse area, Pat and Tony were attending a concert when they happened to run into Reginald Adams, Maria's childhood art teacher. He told them that the undeveloped 2.2 acre lot next to his house was up for sale, and he thought they might be interested in looking at it. (Incidentally,Reginald had designed and built his own house, but Maria never knew that in the years she studied with him as a child.) The DeAngelises looked at the property, and Pat realized that this raw piece of land just might provide the launching pad for her dream. They purchased the lot knowing they were going to transform Pat's vision and Maria's interpretations of that vision into physical reality.
The studio and home would be independent structures of roughly equal size—about 1,500 square feet each—joined by a connecting hallway and atrium that would be indoors but mainly glass.There would be a distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright motif—a long,straight, stone retaining wall that would physically unify the strutures by running their entire length like a spine: outside the atrium, through it, then through the house and beyond into the garden. This part of the structure would also emphasize that the house would be built right into the earth on the brow of a hill (rather than destroying the pre-existing landscape during construction). Pat now calls this wall her home's "fugue subject."
Pat wanted the studio to be large enough to seat up to eighty people so that recitals and other concerts could be held there, so the basic design chosen for the studio was a "pole barn" construction: a structure supported by poles set in the ground and anchored by concrete, with the framing horizontal to the poles. This kind of construction made it possible to have wide-open spaces with unobstructed views and great acoustical possibilities. The ceiling would be about eight feet high at the front of the studio, then lead upward to the back, where its apex would be approximately eighteen feet high.
Maria's conception of the space was daring—strange angles, no two walls exactly parallel to each other. She later said this design was "something only an architecture student would do!" But it was also done for acoustical reasons: to avoid creating any dead spots where sound waves cross each other. The megaphone shape also helps project the sound to the furthest reaches of the room.
The plans also called for a loft in the back of the hall (a design feature that Maria said was popular when she was at school in the early 1990s) that served several purposes. It provided balcony seating for dozens of people, and it also served as the drop ceiling for a kitchenette and bathroom on the ground level in the back of the hall.
Let the building begin!
In 1990, Pat and Tony made the plunge and decided to embark upon building. Since Maria was hundreds of miles away and still technically not licensed as an architect, the family searched out a local builder-architect who would serve as a general contractor and who also would be willing to work with Maria's design layouts and specifications.
They chose Bill Ferraldo of Harmony Architectural Associates (such an apt name!), who used most of Maria's designs in the construction. However, he made some modifications that Maria described as being innovative. Her original design called for a standard inverted-V gable roof, but Bill suggested making it a "three-triangle" design (see the aerial photo on p. 15) that was more aesthetically pleasing and better from an acoustical standpoint. He also changed the pattern of the windows so they were less symmetrical, mirroring the asymmetry of the walls. He also needed to improvise some mid-construction design modifications when they decided to make the studio and its foundation slightly bigger. He achieved this by creating steel-beamed cantilevering over the garage so that no further concrete needed to be poured.
The most significant change he made concerned the studio's ceiling. Although Maria's design called for wood to be used for walls and floors, she followed mainstream practice in choosing the ceiling material to be gypsum board. Pat started to feel uncomfortable with that, concerned that the resultant sound wouldn't be "round enough." She wanted a wood ceiling but didn't want the original cost estimate to skyrocket. Bill came up with a creative and cost-effective solution: he used the same material from the outside of the studio—cedar clapboard—on the interior ceiling. It worked magnificently. It looked great, required no maintenance, and ultimately provided the warm kind of sound that the rest of the studio design fostered.
Bill and his construction crew worked through 1990 and into 1991. Meanwhile, he stayed in touch with Maria, and Pat and Tony stopped by regularly to monitor and give feedback. When it was completed in June of 1991, it was indeed a dream space waiting to be occupied. Bill is so happy with the result that he still frequently brings prospective clients by, twenty-two years later, to view it as a model of his work.
Equipping the studio
The two most important furnishings were a rebuilt Steinway "B" and a new grand piano purchased especially for the birth of the studio: a magnificent-sounding 7'4" Falcone. There is also a rarely-played, semi-broken-down harpsichord—Pat calls it her "dinosaur"—whose main function appears to be that of a very attractive table!
Stereo equipment had been installed right into the walls during construction: an elaborate state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen amplifier with numerous speakers on the floor,walls,and ceiling. Pat hired a professional engineer to select and install digital recording equipment (incredibly progressive—remember, this was 1990!) and studio-quality microphones. Almost an entire wall was devoted to shelving and storing her collection of scores, books, and recordings, which used to be kept in seven different places in her previous home.
The kitchenette was equipped with a sink, small refrigerator, and a stovetop. A couch across from the pianos is also a foldaway bed, and the bathroom has a shower, allowing the studio to double as a marvelous self-sufficient "guest room." There's even another fold-away in the back of the balcony.
The day after construction was completed, Pat and Tony bought seventy wooden folding chairs (on sale!), so that adequate seating for any event could be provided on both the ground floor and in the balcony.
A decision had been made years earlier that any artwork adorning the studio would come only from local artists. Therefore, there was very little at first but as the first few years passed, a collection of eclectic and tasteful statues, paintings, wall angels ("DeAngelis,"remember?), and other art objects proliferated.
The atrium and waiting area
The entrance to the studio building leads into a hallway, which on the left is faced with the stone retaining wall mentioned above. To the right is an inner wall that displays photos of current and former students. About ten feet beyond on the right is the door to the studio proper.
The hallway continues into the atrium, which connects to the house. It's about fifteen feet long and has windows on both sides. Families who choose to wait during lessons can either use the couch and chairs in the studio, or they can park themselves at the far end of the atrium where there are chairs and a large table. With the light streaming in and the view of the studio building and surrounding trees,I cannot imagine a more stunning waiting area anywhere!
A multi-use space
Of course, the studio is used mainly for Pat's teaching, practicing,and studio recitals, which enjoy comfortable seating for a large audience and excellent acoustics with easy recording capabilities. The proximity of the kitchenette makes preparation of refreshments a breeze. There is also more than enough space for group lessons, chamber music, and classes of almost any size.
This ideal concert venue inspired Pat and Tony to sponsor an in-house lecture series for ten years. It featured the late British musicologist Dr. William D. West, who lectured while numerous local area artists, including Pat, performed. The DeAngelises also continue to make the space available to various non-profit organizations for benefit concerts and events.
The excellent instruments, combined with the superb acoustics of the hall, have made it a popular place for Syracuse-area pianists to record commercial CDs. The first one recorded there took place just a few months after the studio's contents were moved in. Two jazz musicians, pianist Michael Kanan and alto sax player Nat Su (friends of Maria) recorded an album for a Swiss label, percaso production. They had no title for the album when they were finished, but since they enjoyed the acoustics and ambiance of the recording sessions so much, they decided to call it Maria's Place!
This writer's impression
I first saw the studio in 2009 when I was doing lectures in the Syracuse area. A friend, pianist and teacher Steve Rosenfeld, had studied with Pat when he was a teenager, and he wanted me to see her home teaching situation (he didn't reveal ahead of time what I was about to see).
I remember walking into the studio—gasping—stopping. I could not believe that this hall was someone's personal studio! It was almost as large as some small churches' sanctuaries, and was very artistically designed and decorated. Steve played on the Falcone (which has a superb sound and touch) while I strolled the premises, taking in the view and sound from all over, including the balcony—magnifique! Pat then gave me a tour, and by the time I played the pianos and saw the recording equipment, artwork, atrium, house, and surrounding grounds—I was absolutely over-whelmed!
When I revisited the studio recently, I thought the effect might be less dramatic but I was mistaken. Believe me, folks, for a piano teacher, this is like walking into the Keyboard Sistine Chapel.
I wondered how it must feel to design a building and then be able to move through it. The closest thing to that that we musicians get to experience is composing a piece and then hearing someone else play it. So I asked Maria, who now lives in New York City, how she feels when she goes back to visit her parents and walks into the studio-home. "I always love it!" She added that it's a slightly strange sensation because it's like coming home—not to a home she actually lived in, but one created in her imagination.
She also marvels at how "quite brave" her parents were to use designs from their daughter—unorthodox designs at that—for a major, costly structure in a part of the country that is architecturally conservative.
Maria concluded by sharing an even more powerful feeling that comes over her when she's in the studio. As she's gotten older and has broadened her professional life, she's gained a deepening appreciation of the value of collaboration. She views the physical reality of those structures and their on going usefulness in people's lives as a supreme testament to the collaboration of many people over much time: her mother, father, and herself, then her teachers and colleagues at MIT, Reginald, Bill and his workers and suppliers, her mother's students and families, and the audiences that attend concerts and events there.
And now, this writer, and you, the reader!
Patricia DeAngelis is a pianist, and teacher of nearly 60 years in Central New York. She has created a life in music that integrates the elements of performance, education, community building, composition and arranging, and producing. As a highly respected piano teacher, Pat has mentored hundreds of private students,many of whom have won awards and scholarships to such schools as the Eastman School of Music, Curtis Institute, Indiana University, Manhattan School of Music, University of Maryland,and Ithaca College. Her performance life, as both soloist and ensemble player in over 2,000 concerts, has led her to Carnegie (Weill Recital Hall) as well as dozens of other concert and on-the-airvenues throughout the Northeast and Canada. She has taught (L'Ecole d 'Hindemith, Vevey) and studied in Europe, and counts Leon Fletcher, Gyorgy Sébok, Victor Babin, Ernst Bacon, and George Mulfinger among her teachers. She has held faculty positions at Colgate University and LeMoyne College, where an annual piano competition/festival has been instated in her name. Alongside her busy teaching schedule, Pat manages, as a volunteer, a classical music series now in its twelfth se-son, at OASIS, a national learning center for mature adults.
Maria De Angel is is a writer, proofreader, and editor in New York City. She returned to New York from France, where she sang jazz. Prior to that she lived in Syracuse near her parents' chronicled studio, where she ran a busy holistic health practice and produced several sold-out Cabaret shows. She has a Masters in Architecture from MIT, where she won the Newman Medal for Acoustics. Her BA is in Philosophy from Georgetown University. Her restless and inquiring mind has led her to many interesting adventures in music and the arts, including a successful decade-long songwriting collaboration with now 85-year-old Phi Klein, and work in public relations. She has also worked as a licensed architect, and producer of five CDs of her songs with her favorite NewYork jazz piano trio.
Bruce Berr has been an independent teacher and university professor of piano and pedagogy for a long time. He is known nationally as a clinician, educational composer and arranger, and author on a wide variety of topics related to teaching, music, and piano. His column on personal observations, "ad lib," appears regularly in American Music Teacher magazine, and he has been editor of the Rhythm department for Keyboard Companion and Clavier Companion since 1997. Explore his website at BruceBerr.com