Slade Trammel will be joining the KSA piano faculty in February. Well known in this region as both a performer and teacher, we are thrilled to have Slade joining our KSA faculty roster. KSA co-director Wesley Baldwin and Slade sat down for a conversation about his thoughts on music, piano, and teaching.
Wesley Baldwin: We are so excited to have you joining the faculty at KSA. Would you tell us a bit about your journey with music as a pianist? How did you start and what got you excited about or kept you going during the years? What should we know about your background and your current activities?
Slade Trammell: Oh well, as far as when I started: I grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina. Piano was something that nobody else really did, and that could be what attracted me in part. My mom had taken piano was a kid, so we always had a piano at the house. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to plunk things out. Eventually we found a teacher. Later, when I was fifteen, I began to study with the great David Brunell here in Knoxville. After that, I had several years with Earl Wild. He had been my favorite pianist for many years, even as a college student. I had many of his recordings—he was instrumental in the Romantic revival of the 70s. After Earl died I spent a few years commuting and studying with Ruth Slenczynska in New York.
He is not a pianist, but no musician has influenced me more than the conductor and flutist Serge Fournier. I studied conducting with him for many years, but also play my piano pieces for him. As of 2021, I have been picking his brain for literally half of my life! He has been my mentor in all things music and otherwise. His ear, his knowledge, and his experience are absolutely without peer.
Wesley Baldwin: Wow that’s spectacular. What got you started with teaching piano and what do you enjoy about teaching? Did you always know you wanted to teach?
Slade Trammell: I taught my first lesson in North Carolina when I was growing up. I was 14 and my teacher asked me to listen to a few of her students. I immediately loved the communication, and the trial-and-error that leads to solutions. I can’t think of a single musician I admire, and maybe you feel the same way, who hasn’t devoted at least some time to teaching. Even Rachmaninoff, who notoriously hated to teach, made some time to pass along what he knew. At the end of the day, any of us who has devoted considerable time to mastering our instruments has an obligation to pass it on. Any art form that loses this will fall flat. The more time goes on, the more alternatives kids have for their attention and focus. Thus, I think we have even more of an obligation to teach young students. I hope I inspire them. And I know that my students inspire me. I have noticed that a problem-solving session with even a beginner can lead to a different perspective in my own playing from time to time.
Wesley Baldwin: Great. Is there anything unique about teaching kids versus adults that you enjoy?
Slade Trammell: They are generally much more honest and upfront about what works for them and what doesn’t. You can also watch young students learn and grow over years, which is great. I teach one boy who has just turned 18. I’ve taught him since he was four. Just to see how he’s grown from a little boy into a young man is a pretty fulfilling thing.
Wesley Baldwin: That’s beautiful. How does Dr Suzuki’s idea that every child can learn to play an instrument, via a pathway similar to the way they will learn their native tongue,
inform your attitudes about teaching young students?
Slade Trammell: Well, I’m not a scientific person, but even from a scientific perspective, we know that is the same part of the brain that controls languages. My wife (also a pianist) gets really annoyed when people talk about talent. She thinks, instead, that hard work based on one’s own background and style of learning determines success, at any level. I find this philosophy completely in line with Dr. Suzuki’s very true assertion that every child can learn to play an instrument.
And the other the other side of that is that there are many adults who say “I’m tone deaf,” or “I have no musical ability.” But very often, you can find it. I find that with adult students you can spend five minutes, show them a few basic things, and then they can start to tap into something that’s already there for themselves to express. What’s more important than that? It’s just another form of expression, the same as our speech, the same as our language, writing, painting, etc. So that’s what I want to do. I want to give them a path to tap into what they already have. Everyone has something they can express on their instrument.
Wesley Baldwin: Beautiful. So back to that whole topic of teaching young kids: what are your hopes when you start teaching a young child piano? What do you think they might get out of the experience? What would you say a potential piano student could get out of the experience of piano lessons from an early age?
Slade Trammell: Well, my greatest hope for anyone who comes to me at any age, but especially for these young children, is a lifelong love of music. I think we all know that that the arts cannot survive without more people who grow up to love music and feel connected to it. I strive to give all of my students all of the tools they need to order to have the most options available to them, as professionals or life-long amateurs. That is my obligation.
Wesley Baldwin: We are elated that you are joining the Knoxville Suzuki Academy piano faculty, and will be excited to see you mentoring many young KSA students going forward. We excited for this next chapter with you at the KSA.
Slade Trammell: So am I! Thank you, Wesley!