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6 minutes reading time (1129 words)

Mind Matters: Retirement: A response

In the September/October issue of Clavier Companion, my wife, Julie Jaffee Nagel, wrote an eloquent column entitled "Retirement." When it appeared, she showed me the article and asked me to read it. I did, and it was not long before I started to develop a large lump in my throat. At the end, when I read the dedication in context, I had tears in my eyes. I also felt the great desire to write a response to her beautiful tribute to the complexity that is both my retirement and retirement in general. 

I spent my final two years on the faculty aware that the last movement of my career symphony would end May 31, 2016. My teaching load was somewhat reduced, my responsibilities became by choice more than by requirement, and as the actual day neared, my focus of attention wavered between teaching and ending. Never one to remember things with razor sharp acuity, I forgot some lessons I had to reschedule. I was more disorganized than usual, often preoccupied with the mechanics of concluding this career symphony. In my defense, I would say the first movement of the symphony began in September of 1969. Forty-seven years of being in room 3038 for scheduled lessons, or in the recital hall for student programs, or in the chairman's office for staff meetings, or in the conference room for a standing committee meeting, or rehearsals for a Trout Quintet, or auditions, juries, recital approvals and graduation recitals, special programs involving guests or visitors from administration, or the myriad other activities that punctuate faculty life, all those activities identified in that Brucknerlike sentence—all these melodies of my academic symphony were about to reach a final cadence. The tonic chord was hard to prepare; my voice leading was sometimes poor. And to be truthful, as I reflect on the coda of my career, I recall a welter of emotions that even today, four months into the opening movement of my new symphony, I am hard pressed to define or understand. 

I am more able to define what I did not feel. I did Retirement: A response by Louis Nagel I not feel a huge sense of nostalgia until the very last day, when I surrendered the keys to my room that I had lived in for so long. I did not feel that I was eager to be out of there, nor despondent upon leaving. I could claim a sort of neutral emotional state, but that doesn't feel right either. It is safe to say that in the summer months I had time to reflect upon the past nearly half century (what a wonderful thing that a living person can define the passage of time with those words). I thought about all that I did in those years. I got to know hundreds of young students and watch them develop during a few years of their lives. I worked with them on a huge variety of compositions ranging from early Haydn and Mozart sonatas and variations, through the complexities of Bach, the power of Beethoven, the beauties of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and the later Romantics, and on to what music I felt I could honestly teach in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. I studied many scores with students apart from suggesting fingerings, correcting misreadings, and analyzing structure. And I heard them play but I also was part of their lives. I heard and saw them be human beings. I heard about their problems. I explored their uncertainties about career, or relationships, or health, and so much more. And most of all, I learned from them. I learned about the lives of each and every one who chose to share their lives with me. And while the purpose of our weekly sessions together was ostensibly to polish to a presentable level a Beethoven sonata or Debussy prelude, those lessons always seemed to grow into something bigger than just how to play legato octaves or the articulations Beethoven demanded in the second movement. Often I heard a remarkable creativity in their preparations of pieces that gratified me and reaffirmed our studies together. Some of those students have kept in touch with me throughout our careers, and I take tremendous pleasure in being friends with them.

There must be a purpose to those lessons. There must be a reason why I, as a piano professor found it important to ask students about their other courses, or their health, or their opinions of the Michigan football team after the last game. And I believe that the great lessons I learned from teaching dealt with the holistic nature of music. Not all of our students will emerge on the international scene playing the Chopin Études faster than (name your favorite artist). Not all will pursue music as a career. But hopefully all will learn life lessons from analyzing the different works they study, or performing (with greater or lesser success) in studio classes, recitals, or competitions. And hopefully all will remember something of the knowledge and wisdom that I may have shared with them, in addition to the many puns or anecdotes with which I punctuated lessons. If they go on to careers in music, wonderful. If they redirect to law or medicine or business, I hope that learning how to play a dominant to tonic resolution expressively will still have some meaning and relevance for them. I will indeed miss my interactions with the students. I will miss the vibrancy of the future that all the students represent. I will miss the creativity that often challenged me to rethink my own ideas. I will miss the joy of feeling that I had a small part in the development of a wonderful person. And I will miss the steady diet of hearing the piano repertoire in all its vast glory, played well, indifferently, or even poorly. Our repertoire is a treasure, and it was my privilege to share a portion of it with our students and pass along what I have learned from the great teachers and schooling Julie and I had at Juilliard when we were in our teens and early twenties.

Julie and I shared our Juilliard experiences. We met there, dated there, were married while we were there, and began our careers while still students. She has been with me every step of the way, through hiring to retiring and I hope, as we begin a new movement of our symphony together, for years to come. She understands every thought I have. And her words about retirement were far more insightful than I could ever hope mine to be. Therefore, I offer this column to be my thanks to her for sharing such a beautiful exploration of retirement and dedicating it to me.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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