Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I come from a long line of amateur musicians, and I don’t ever remember a time when there wasn’t music making in the form of piano playing or singing in my home. My mother was a swing band pianist in the 1940s, so she played often – both classical music and her swing/boogie woogie/jazz. My sisters and I all had lessons, and for me, eventually, it became a calling. There is just nothing like the sound of a beautiful piano, beautifully played.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Beyond my early childhood exposure to all types of music (classical, boogie woogie, jazz, swing, hymn singing, and pop), and my main teacher, Rebecca Penneys, who taught me the real mechanics of the piano, there have been several big influences. Listening to the “old dead pianists” (aka the 19th century stars), has taught me about beauty, line, style, and poetry; my personal hero is Artur Rubinstein. In addition, the process of recording my 18 CDs has been a huge influence on how and what I play – having to listen to oneself with the intensity necessary for editing has been one of my most brutal, yet effective teachers. Another huge influence has been in watching the career of YoYo Ma unfold– seeing how he has continually challenged himself in terms of genre, embracing all forms of music (while never losing his classical roots and wings); it has been fascinating to observe all the ways he has found to deliver music to everyone. This has encouraged me and inspired me to take music out of the concert hall and think and perform outside the typical classical “box.”
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There have been 2 great challenges – 1
) finding the courage to leave my faculty position at Wake Forest University Music Dept. I had found that my “mission” as a musician had changed from being primarily a teacher of classical music to a performer who wanted to teach through my performances. Many colleagues thought it was risky or crazy to leave a great job but I felt that it was necessary for me to be true to myself; 2) finding the courage to begin crafting new types of programs, using classical music as a base. I feel strongly that in order to help “save” classical music, it is necessary to find creative approaches to making old music “new.” Consequently over the last 10 years, I have used my energies to create programs that are multi-disciplinary in nature. Examples are: my one woman theatre show/concert “REMEMBERING FREDERIC: A Musical Conversation Between Chopin and George Sand,” a documentary film “REMEMBERING FREDERIC: The Genius of Chopin” (filmed in U.S. France, and Poland), a “filmscape” featuring nature scenes and Impressionist paintings to accompany a Debussy piano concert (twist on a “silent” movie), a program of “FRENCH POETRY AND THE MUSIC OF DEBUSSY AND RAVEL,” “CHOPIN MEETS THE BEATLES,” a piano concert featuring pairs of Chopin pieces with my Chopin-inspired original arrangements of favorite Beatles tunes, and my duo collaboration with fellow Fulbrighter, jazz pianist Stan Breckenridge, resulting in concerts combining classical and jazz music.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
“Chopin Meets The Beatles” is the project that has felt for me like the biggest risk, artistically. At the same time, it has been the most successful and rewarding concert program and recording that I have done, because it appeals to two very different audience bases. Like most classical pianists, I was taught that other types of music were inferior to classical music/”art music.” The following experience/performance is what released me from that misconception: I had been making repeated performance trips to Poland, and in 2013, was asked to do something very unusual for World Music Day. A piano was put on a “potato cart” and pulled through the streets of Warsaw, with various pianists performing, not only while moving (playing while jiggling around on cobblestones with trams and buses going by was definitely an unusual experience), but also while “parked” at various places around town, and drawing a crowd. I was the lucky pianist to be playing while parked outside of The Church of the Holy Cross, where Chopin’s heart resides. It was a beautiful day, I was playing Chopin and having a wonderful time, when a limousine pulled up next to me, the window rolled down and Paul McCartney smiled and gave me a “thumbs up.” This was literally the moment when I realized that, with Chopin on my right and Paul McCartney on my left, I could marry these two types of music. This is how my arrangements and this program evolved.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Because of the convention of requiring pianists to play programs featuring music from Bach to “contemporary” composers (meaning nothing rarely past the 1960s), it took me awhile to find my strengths. I believe my strengths are Chopin, Debussy, my arrangements of others’ music, and most recently, my discovery that I have my own compositional voice (“Three Scenes from Poland,” 2019, available on Spotify).
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am inspired by themes that come to me, often while I am practicing. They are sometimes based on a composer’s anniversary (e.g. Chopin’s 200th birthday, Beethoven’s 250th birthday), something of a seasonal nature, or in collaboration with another artistic form (theatre, film, dance, visual art, poetry). My main focus is to follow my “voice” and create programs that will appeal to diverse audiences.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My favourite venues have been in Poland. Beyond playing several outdoor concerts in Poland, and having played in some wonderful palaces, I particularly have loved my most unusual venue to date – the elegant Stary Browar Shopping Mall, in Poznan, Poland.
The ideal venue for me includes beautiful acoustics and a beautiful piano. But, more importantly, it includes the sense that I can feel the audience and their reactions.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are thousands of amazing musicians who have influenced me in one way or another. But the following individuals have brought not only revelatory music to my life, but have life stories and philosophies that have inspired me greatly: Artur Rubinstein, Marion McPartland, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, The Beatles, YoYo Ma,
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable concert experience occurred during a series of 4 benefit concerts I played in 2019, in memory of a young Fulbright colleague and friend who passed away unexpectedly. I created a scholarship in his name for Fulbright Poland, and had the opportunity to perform my “Three Scenes from Poland” composition – I. Field of Poppies, II. Gray November, III. Golden Summer: Michael and Briana’s Song. While playing the second movement, I heard loud sobbing. As I was performing, I wondered if I should stop, in case something terrible had happened. Then I realized that because this was a memorial concert, this was a cathartic response. I had just never had this experience before. It confirmed my feeling that music can go where words just can’t, and that part of my mission as a performer is to bring comfort to people.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
My definition of success has changed in the 30+ years since I was a student. In my younger years, I accepted the typical definition of success – winning competitions, playing in the biggest halls and recording for big labels. But, as the world has changed and I have changed, so has my definition. I think the most successful musicians are the ones in it for the long haul, who continue to find ways to grow and stretch themselves, both pianistically and creatively. Success also is finding your own “voice” and being the pianist you feel you were meant to be- not someone else’s image of who you should be or how you should make music.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Learn your craft, work hard, find your own voice, keep stretching yourself creatively, and give your gift to the world. Don’t be afraid to experiment with genres other than classical – this will only enhance your playing. Learn to improvise and arrange. Most of all, remember that failures only mean something if you let them define you. Never stop challenging yourself.
What is your present state of mind?
My present state of mind is highly optimistic for the new year/new decade. Having begun the last 10 years feeling as though I was “leaving the shore” for uncharted territory, I now feel confidence in my mission of trying to keep classical music alive by enhancing my programs with additional art forms and genres. I am optimistic about continuing to encourage the classical world to become as inclusive as possible, particularly when it comes to audience demographics.
Pamela Howland is a gifted American pianist, Steinway Artist, 2017-18 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Poland, arranger/composer, and educator based in North Carolina. Her passion for promoting classical music has led her to develop a unique style of performance which allows her audiences to go away educated and entertained, feeling they have learned something about themselves as well as the music.
Trained at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the Eastman School of Music, where she received the Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance and Literature, she has appeared from coast to coast in the United States as both soloist and chamber musician. She spent her 2017-2018 Fulbright year as a visiting professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, teaching about American music, continuing her research on Chopin, and performing 35 events in Poland and Denmark.
She has toured Poland many times under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, been selected as a touring artist for the state of North Carolina, toured in Colombia, South America, and been featured on live U.S. National Public Radio broadcasts in Minnesota, New York, and North Carolina. As a longtime educator, she has taught at universities in NY, MN, NC (for many years at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC). Her documentary film, REMEMBERING FREDERIC: The Genius of Chopin, featuring legendary actress Rosemary Harris, premiered at the RiverRun International Film Festival in 2012, and was selected as one of three “Films with Class.”
Howland has recorded 18 CDs, has 10,000 monthly listeners on SPOTIFY, and her version of Chopin’s “Farewell Waltz, has nearly 11 MILLION listens. She has recently returned from a short visit as artist-in-residence to the University of Lisbon-Portugal. She will be returning to Poland for concerts in May, 2020.