The Indy 5: American Pianists Association finalists, Part IV

Andrew Staupe appears to be an entirely normal guy. He appears to be laid-back, well-rounded, open-minded, midwestern, straightforward, and fun-loving. Which, in the music world, is not entirely normal.

Andrew, like Claire Huangci, Sean Chen, and Sara Daneshpour before him, takes center stage in the concert halls of Indianapolis this week as a finalist in the American Pianists Association competition.

Unlike his fellow finalists, and unlike many 28-year-old pianists with serious career ambitions, Andrew has not spent the last 5 years traveling the competition circuit. He didn't seriously start his piano studies until he was ten, he didn't go to Juilliard, and he has spent much of his life not locked into a practice studio for 6 hours a day. Before he got serious about piano, Andrew was a working actor and dancer in Minneapolis. He's a performance-level violinist, a jazz dabbler, the founder of a Medieval-Renaissance choral group, a history and archaeology buff, a competitive soccer and Ultimate Frisbee player, and an avid Packers fan.

What a laid-back, well-rounded, open-minded, midwestern, straightforward, fun-loving guy brings to his pass through one of the most rigorous and rewarding piano competitions in the world is surprising, refreshing, and honest. We spoke by Skype from Toronto to Houston, a few days before Andrew left for his Premiere Series week in Indy.

Lara Downes: In looking at all five of the APA finalists, I feel like your range of interests and experiences is something that really sets you apart, not only among the five, but among musicians in general. Can you talk a little about how/if you feel different because of that breadth?
Andrew Staupe: Oh, I definitely feel quite different from the other four finalists in a number of ways. The first is simple: geography. I grew up in the Twin Cities and studied at the University of Minnesota with Lydia Artymiw, and came here to Rice in Houston with Jon Kimura Parker. Most top schools, teachers, and students are concentrated in East Coast schools like Juilliard, Curtis, Manhattan School, Mannes, New England Conservatory… the schools that some of the APA finalists have attended or  are currently attending. So, in a high pressure situation, it's psychologically intimidating to compete against NY pianists in a sense because those schools are the 'best'. So in one sense that can seem like a disadvantage. But it’s also an advantage because I'm different, just based on where I grew up and studied. I'm not a cliche NY pianist like the hundreds there.
LD: Yes, as a Californian I relate! I think that “outsider status” can be a tremendous advantage as an artist. There's an independence of thought and perspective that develops when your artistic formation happens outside of the traditional environment.
AS: Yes I agree. Read any quotes from the legendary artists and they all felt like they didn't fit in. I definitely don't fit into the typical New York/East Coast pianist type. Also, most people I compete against, including the 4 other APA finalists, are singularly trained pianists from an early age onwards. I didn't have that early training. Or, I should say that I gave up on my early training because I didn't want to practice... Ironic because it's the primary thing I do now!
LD: Well, both as a performer and as someone who mentors young aspiring musicians, I think that the lack of a typical music-geek childhood might be kind of a fabulous thing! To come to this life because you really want it and love it, not just because it's the thing you've always done, is very special.
AS: But my early artistic exposure was pretty broad. I dabbled in nearly every art form. I did classical ballet, jazz and tap dancing, musical theater and regular theater, I painted and even wrote a musical based on Cleopatra (I still have the script... Revision necessary!)
LD: Hmm, maybe we can present your Cleopatra musical along with my Charlotte's Web opera that I wrote when I was seven.
AS: Definitely!
LD: Seriously though, it is so important to experience all the arts, and literature, and life, as part of learning to be a musician!
AS: Right, how can you understand Debussy without knowing Monet?
LD: But if you look at so many little kids who are diligently practicing their instruments in a vacuum, it is just so discouraging. No context or history, no way to relate the music to the rest of life.
AS: Right, don't even get started on how the system of musical education, from early to top conservatory, has to be dramatically changed... Anyway, so all these early experiences definitely made me more well-rounded, not a neurotic mess, and I think you're right when you said piano captivated me at the right time in my life, when I was around ten. And all my other skills and interests persist to this day. For example: I picked up violin at 15 and was nearly a double major in Undergrad. I'm still taking lessons, and was slightly considering doing a violin encore after one of the APA concerts!

LD: When I was a kid, there were two things I wanted to be "when I grew up" aside from a musician: an actress and an archaeologist. Now I think I've totally integrated those two interests into my piano playing/performing/understanding. I'm an archaeologist within my programming I think, or at least the history and hidden secrets are very compelling and driving to me. And I think I approach my interpretations in a way that explores the drama and and narrative of the music.
Tell me about your experiences with acting and if they informed the way you approach musical character and narrative as a pianist.

AS: I hadn't thought about the connection of character in theater to my musical interpretations, but you may be onto something...The biggest thing for me was eliminating stage fright by being onstage constantly through my early years

and not having it be a huge barrier. I still try to break down the barrier
by talking onstage especially. Acting in theater also taught me stage presence, charisma, being extremely open and honest onstage, having a passionate "megaphone" to audiences so they really internalize your message. That was all invaluable and easily transferable to concerto playing.
LD: You know, I've been listening to a lot of young artists' auditions recently (I have a competition out here myself), and I was thinking that the young singers have access to certain kinds of training having to do with their physicality and stage presence that all musicians desperately need. How strange that most soloists never really address the question of how to be onstage and how to relate to their audiences in a public way.
AS: Believe me, people listen with their EYES, I always stress that.
LD: Oh yes they do! Can you share one performance "trick" that comes from your previous stage experience?
AS: Well, in communicating onstage we were always taught to have an open physical presence, chest slightly forward and expanded, and never turning your back to an audience. For a recital, walking out is the immediate reaction. As my former teacher Lydia said: “The recital starts when you walk out!” So at all times onstage, I try to have that open concept an it seems to work, especially when one bows and verbally introduces a piece.
LD: I would think the theater training would be a tremendous help in talking with the audience.
AS: Oh yeah. I play a lot of new music or off-the-beaten-path (kinda like me!) music so introductions are necessary - any chance I get I talk to an audience! It dispels their distance, and it shakes off any nerves and makes you realize you're playing for people.
LD: Audiences are starved for human interaction with performers I think. It makes such a huge difference in a recital setting for the audience to get a sense of who the artist really is.
AS: Yeah, I totally get that. The day of the piano recital being a pseudo-Druid, mystical, "pianist as silent radio transmitter to deceased composers' souls” is phony and needs to go. It's a 19th Century  Romantic aesthetic that is false.
LD: Are you able to follow your normal performance practices in a competition setting, or do you feel any pressure to conform to the standard, traditional structure?
AS:  I play for the audience and never for the judges. Ever.
LD: What is your end goal in participating in the competition circuit?
AS: End goal? Easy. If I win this, I'm never entering another one. If I lose, I'm never entering another one!
LD: Ahah! Well, from my own perspective, what competitions should be looking for and recognizing is a complete artist, and especially someone who can thrive and be a force in the next generation, with change and growth in mind. These are really important years for identifying and developing a sense of self, a unique profile. I think in this new world, a musician has to be so many things. A flexible, forward thinker is probably the most important of those things, a person with a focus on the power of individuality, the spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship. A real, aware, connected human being!
AS: Oh entrepreneur is THE word. The practice room is the starting line, and a music career is BUSINESS. Here's a example: 2 summers ago, I realized that people hire who they know and like, and the only way to do that is to introduce yourself. So over the course of an arduous month, I researched and personally wrote to 500+ orchestras, with a cover letter, a letter of recommendation from my teacher Jackie Parker, and a link to my website and a YouTube video. And you know something, I now know a ton of these Executive Directors and conductors personally, and have worked with a few of these orchestras with many more to come. I have a manager, and still re-wrote to about 250 that originally didn't respond because I had the wrong person. No one will make your career for you even if you have a manager. You need to be your own manager, marketer, PR guy/gal, a NICE person. The mystique and aura of concert pianists has to go... I think the best ones are basically "blue collar" craftsmen that are skilled and care about their work, but don't treat a recital like it's a religious service.
LD: Well, here's something I can share with you. A good friend and frequent musical collaborator just took over a very well-respected chamber music festival, from the previous Artistic Director who is sort of a giant of the older generation. I've also just founded a new concert series in San Francisco, and my friend and I were talking about taking over as presenters from the previous generation. He said "You know, these guys grew up in a world where someone knocked on the door and said "Mr. So and So, are you ready?" And we've had to build the doors ourselves, and do our own knocking!
I know you’ve been doing some interesting work with ProMusicis?

AS: Yes, I auditioned in 2012 and won a spot on their really awesome roster. It's a really beautiful program. They fund a Carnegie debut recital and they also require outreach concerts to hospitals, prisons, etc. But last year the Executive Director told me that Pro Musicis was tanking, with insufficient funds, interest, and $7,000 debt. With such a huge legacy behind the organization, I told him “We can't let that happen.” I said that there were 85 top artists on the Pro Musicis roster and we should all network and band together and help the organization, sort of Pro Musicis 2.0! Well, a few days later he called me and said the Board loved the idea and he wrote a mass email to the artists. They responded so enthusiastically and within a few days the debt was eliminated
Due to the artists' donations word has spread and we already have $65,000. We're organizing an inaugural concert at Le Poisson Rouge, had the first pro Musicis meeting in New York last September, and I'm currently on the Board of Directors. So it's a learning curve! But by a simple idea, it saved the program. I'm hoping other music organizations emulate this model. Orchestras and such can’t be polarized. We saved Pro Musicis through unity, innovation and passion, and it's now back on course.

LD: Yes, building the doors and knocking on them!

Andrew Staupe plays Mozart with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Sunday, January 27 at 3:30pm. TICKETS

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