Stephany Tiernan Composer, pianist, author, teacher, educational leader and Steinway Artist, has been active in the presentation of new music since the ‘70s. She is Chair Emerita of the Piano Department and a Professor at Berklee College of Music. She has been teaching composition, analysis and piano for over 40 years and has influenced many of the successful composers and pianists of today. She is the author of a book/video on Contemporary Piano Technique, published by Berklee Press/Hal Leonard called Contemporary Technique : Coordinating Breathe, Movement and Sound, developed by Stephany as a continuation of the groundbreaking work of Mme. Margaret Chaloff. This approach to piano technique has been used by thousands of pianists worldwide.
She has performed much of the world’s greatest contemporary piano literature in many of its’ prestigious halls. Performances have included music by Charles Ives, John Cage, Henry Cowell and many others. She has performed and recorded much of her own piano music and her works are often inspired by her interest and studies in Irish culture and language. She has used visual imagery, poetry, ancient sean-nós singing, celtic symbols, festivals, holy places, etc. for her inspiration and has created pieces that connect her to her Irish roots. Her piano compositions, including a piano quintet, are featured on her CD, “Hauntings:Scream of Consciousness”.
Dedicated to the art of improvisation, her collaborations with internationally acclaimed jazz pianist, JoAnne Brackeen, resulted in their widely acclaimed piano duet recording called “Which is Which”, which eliminates the boundaries between classical and jazz piano playing.
Background and inspiration
I grew up in the Boston suburbs in a very musical and artistic family with 4 siblings, all close in age. Everyone either sang, played an instrument, painted, sketched, sculpted or danced. There was an excess of passion and volatility that often comes with creativity, but, nevertheless, we had an ordered and ideal childhood in many ways, including a disciplined catholic education that was administered by the notoriously strict Sisters of Notre Dame. My father had the most significant musical influence on my life and he was a serious piano lover. Although he played popular tunes on the piano and sang harmony parts with my mother while they played in the evenings, his true passion was listening to me play and encouraging my musical development. I adored him and first enjoyed piano playing because it gave him so much pleasure and it came easily. I really had wanted to be a dancer. I performed in all the local community shows from age 3-7. I loved dancing, ballet, tap, acrobatics, with a passion, but a childhood illness forced me to sit at the piano and limit my dancing to the keys.
So my father took me to Constance Sylvester, my childhood piano teacher, and I happily practiced piano for the next 7 years until my father passed away and I lost my incentive to practice. At 12 years old, I was hired by Virginia Williams, the legendary founder and director of the Boston Ballet, to play for the classes in her school. Since I had a lot of dancing experience and could read anything she put in front of me, I had quite a bit of work for a few years. Later, I found more work in vocal accompanying. I was hired by the famous vocal coach, David McClosky, in downtown Boston where I worked for a while with many well known opera stars. Although, eventually, I lost interest in all the dance and vocal accompanying and took a few years vacation from playing piano to figure out how music would fit into my life!
And I did! I discovered Berklee and jazz and began my studies there in 1970, the year after my son was born. I loved jazz and was very influenced by the teachers I studied with while I was there, particularly Herb Pomeroy. But the teacher that influenced me the most was the beloved Madame Chaloff who was an independent piano teacher in Boston, mother and teacher of the legendary baritone saxophone player, Serge Chaloff and teacher of many of the legendary pianists of today! She helped rekindle my passion for music and taught me an amazing piano technique that has served as the foundation for what I teach today and for the book/video I wrote that was published by Berklee/Hal Leonard called “Contemporary Piano Technique: coordinating breath, movement and sound”.
Musical elements: Playing the piano, versus playing on piano
The piano needs to be an extension of yourself. It must become your voice in order for you to make it sing. It should feel like the music comes from deep inside you. Not just from your head and your heart, but from your toes to the top of your head. In order to connect to the intuitive, artistic, spiritual side of your musical nature, you must learn to breathe out the music as naturally as when you speak. Every sound, inflection, dynamic, articulation, etc. is a musical manifestation of what you feel and anything that gets in the way of that, needs to be eliminated. All extra physical motions and affectations only detract from that musical expression. The only reason we need to talk about piano technique is because the music is not coming out the way we hear it and feel it. By focusing our awareness on the breath, we become more aware of what a rich and vital source of energy is always available to us and how to channel that energy through the physical movements that are necessary to make the sounds we hear. It also gets you in touch with how you feel. Then you can make the piano sing!
About your compositions "Ostara" and "Dryadic Harmony"
Much of my music has been influenced by my study of Irish language and culture. Some of the pieces have literal musical references to Gaelic songs or instrumental music, while other’s are more influenced by Celtic symbols, festivals or places. Other pieces have been influenced by certain timbrel aspects of Irish music such as the drone, while others are written to celebrate certain festivals of the ancient Celtic calendar. My piano piece called Ostara was written in 1996 to celebrate the vernal equinox, the first day of Spring. Ostara is a Celtic word for this day and this piece is one of 8 pieces written to celebrate each of the festivals of the ancient Celtic calendar.
Ostara is from these “sun cycles” and is a musical representation of Spring. It takes countless musical, melodic fragments and “spins” them into a fluid fabric of pianism. The effect is of a steady stream of spiraling, energetic impressions. The piece is very pianistic, with a steady pulse and a great harmonic richness. It is a lot of fun to play, although is a bit difficult. In Ostara, I chose the simplest idea to be the “seed” for all of the melodic and harmonic fragments, much like a tiny side ready to sprout and burst out into a complex plant, bush, flower or tree. All the ideas are inside this seed just waiting to burst out and awaken to the warmth and light of Spring. It is just a half step and a minor third that creates everything.
Dryadic Harmony, a piano peace that is part of the “Sun Cycles”, was also written in 1996 and is a celebration of the ancient Celtic New year of Samhain (pronounced Sowen) on October 31st. It is also known as Ancestor Night or Feast of the Dead. On Samhain the veil between the worlds of spirit and matter is lifted and it is possible to hear or see a particular type of Celtic spirit, the fairies. Dryads are tree spirits or tree ladies. The are enchanting wisps of pure light, sometimes gently colored and are capricious and open to human contact. They make beautiful music with their voices, sounds which are very compelling to humans. Their songs and appearance subtly alter as they flit from tree to tree. This piece is dedicated to my sister, June Black, who was born on Halloween and is definitely a witch! A good one, of course, and a great astrologist and psychic.
There are little snippets of Irish tunes that represent the tree spirits as they flit from branch to branch and colors and textures that allow the spirits to appear and disappear at will. The sostenuto pedal is very important in this piece and is like the veil that can be lifted to hear the sound of the spirits.
Your vision on Education
It is my belief that if one is lucky enough to have the resources and time to commit to the study of music, whether it be at a school or with a private mentor or instructor, they should plummet the depths of all that is known about the subject. Dig deep and question everything. Don’t be satisfied with just learning the materials of music such as harmony, counterpoint, analysis, ear-training or history. Explore everything you have learned until all the pieces come together from having been absorbed in every pore of your body, until the subjects themselves disappear and become one thing…..music that is directly connected to your body and soul. I know that sounds lofty, but for me, music has always had a deep spiritual connection to my life and moves me in ways that language, images or other art forms do not. It has an immediacy and directness that places me in the present, the best place to be! It is also my belief that if one is lucky enough to find work as a teacher of music, they have been given an extraordinary responsibility in the shaping of a student’s relationship with music in their life. They can have a huge impact on how a student develops their gifts and must reflect carefully on every word, assignment or attitude about the world and music’s place in it.
It is a learning experience that never stops as we try new ways to inspire, encourage and deliver concrete techniques and advice with every assignment. But most importantly, we need to teach the student to teach themselves, to question the purpose of everything and to trust the beauty and gift that they have so that they are able to pursue their goal with a strong sense of purpose and determination to learn their craft the best that they can in order to serve the higher goal of musical expression.
Spiritual implication on teaching and composing music
The teacher learns from the student as each student bring new challenges. One needs to be in love with music and have a fierce desire to share that passion with a student, otherwise, teaching is too taxing and exhausting! But, even more, one has to really care about the student and their progress and be thoughtful and often courageous in telling them what they need to know about that progress and how to overcome the obstacles that are keeping them from doing their best. In other words, one has to have conviction born of serious reflection about what is right for the student. This is what brings it into the spiritual dimension.
Love of music and learning and sharing and guiding the student to experience the same dedication and passion you have for music.
Current and future projects
I am presently writing additional piano etudes (There are 9 right now) for my collection of etudes called Dynamic Etudes. They are sort of like sound choreography’s written to draw out the performer’s ability to use the piano in the most pianist and expressive way using a contemporary music language. Chopin has had a lot of influence on me, both musically and pianistically, and I am writing music that, although a little technically challenging, is a pleasure to play. Something that uses all the built in expressive devices to play music that connects to the soul, to the heart and to the mind. I am also working on an opera, but not ready to talk much about it. I am hoping that the Met performs it someday and I think it is quite unique. Maybe a secret, even. Don’t want to give away to much about it yet!