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Nov. 5, 2014
A group of Northwest Missouri State University piano students received the opportunity this week to play for and learn from a duo of piano performers – one of whom was a Northwest student not too long ago.
The duo, Dr. Mai (Nagatomo) Butler and Dr. Feifei Jiang, led a master class Wednesday morning on the stage of the Charles Johnson Theater. They also performed a piano recital together Tuesday night in the theater, performing works by J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn.
For Butler, the visit to Northwest was a homecoming of sorts. A native of Japan, she came to Northwest in 2000 to pursue her bachelor’s degree in music with a piano performance emphasis and studied under the advisement of Dr. Ernest Kramer, professor of music at Northwest.
After graduating from Northwest in 2005, she continued her education, completing a master’s degree in 2008 at Ohio University and finally her doctoral degree in piano performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012. At Ohio, she won the Ohio University Concerto Competition and was runner-up in the Ohio Graves Young Artist Piano Competition. She also was the featured piano soloist with the Ohio University Orchestra.
Butler is just the second Northwest alumnus to earn a doctoral degree in the piano field. Dr. Christopher Fisher, an associate professor of piano at Ohio University who also mentored Butler while she was a student there, was the first, having earned his Doctor of Musical Arts in piano performance and pedagogy from the University of Oklahoma. Fisher earned his bachelor’s degree from Northwest in 1999.
Butler says Northwest gave her the confidence she needed to pursue advance degrees and perform at a higher level. As a Northwest student, she won the Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra’s Annual Piano Concerto Audition and performed as a piano soloist with the Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra.
“Because of the attention I got from the faculty here, because this is not a huge school, they can give attention to each student,” Butler said. “It really helped me improve my skills.”
When Butler reached out to Kramer with a request to return to Northwest and perform, he welcomed it.
“Her return to Northwest is a noteworthy event, and it should serve as a source of inspiration for our music students,” Kramer said.
During Wednesday’s master class, Butler and Jiang watched and listened to students play a variety of classical works and offered some constructive feedback to each performer. Emily Calhoun, a junior marine biology major from Sioux Falls, S.D., was among those students. Calhoun has played the piano for 12 years and is attending Northwest with the assistance of a piano scholarship.
“It was interesting, and they definitely have a lot more experience than I do,” Calhoun said after playing Bach’s Invention No. 14 in B-flat major and receiving Butler’s and Jiang’s feedback. “It’s hard with Bach because he doesn’t write any of the articulation, so you have to figure it out yourself. Now, I know what to do.”
Butler and Jiang, a China native, met and became close friends at Nebraska-Lincoln while both were working toward their doctoral degrees in piano performance. After years of performing and studying together as students, they formed a professional piano duo with a mission to collaborate on recitals and offer instruction to others who share their passion for the piano.
Today, Butler teaches piano at Harris Academy of the Arts in Lincoln, Neb., and is a collaborative pianist at Doane College in Crete, Neb. Jiang is a solo and chamber pianist and a collaborative pianist at Doane College in Crete Neb., and Nebraska-Lincoln. As a duo, they teach students to pay close attention to the details within the music they are performing and consider the story the music conveys.“The important thing we want students to understand is music is not only playing notes,” Jiang said. “It’s how you transfer your feelings and emotions to the audience. It’s all about how to make music. You have to study the score and understand the music you are playing. Then make decisions about how you want to present the music to the audience.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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