Sarah Masterson, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My mom is a piano teacher, so music and piano have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was pretty indecisive in college – my undergraduate degree is actually in physics – but I just couldn’t quite seem to quit music. Ultimately, I decided to try auditioning for grad school to see what happened….and here I am, thanks to the help of a lot of great teachers, family, and friends along the way.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

In general, not having attended an Ivy League or elite conservatory can make it very difficult to build a career in academia or music.

More specifically, recording my recent album (of Philippa Schuyler’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’) initially seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I knew basically nothing about the recording industry, and I teach at a small college in a small town in the south, where we don’t have recording equipment, a recording engineer on staff, or funding set aside for this type of project.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Definitely this album, which is my first recording. I spent several years working on reassembling and transcribing the score, fundraising for the recording costs, and then actually recording the music. The album trailer tells more about the extensive research process that went into creating it, as well as Schuyler’s fascinating life story. 

 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I’ve always especially enjoyed programming music that audiences haven’t heard before. Growing up, my piano teacher would never let me play the “greatest hits” – no Clair de Lune or Moonlight Sonata. She would always say that everyone else was playing that, and why would I want to be exactly like everyone else? That has really stuck with me and has led me to an interest in lesser-known American composers (especially women). Some of my recent favourite composers to program (aside from Schuyler) are Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

One positive aspect to performing not being my main source of income is that I have the luxury of being able to program less well known music that interests me – which is what ultimately led to my Philippa Schuyler recording. It isn’t a very commercially attractive prospect on paper – a recording of an hourlong solo piano work written by a 20th-century American woman who is pretty unfamiliar to most people. But it was a fascinating topic to research, and assembling and interpreting the score was a very rewarding project. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how engaging audiences have seemed to find the music so far.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Whatever venue I am playing in! While I’ve known pianists who wouldn’t play in certain venues because of the quality of piano or acoustics, etc, I feel strongly that part of my job as a musician is to give an engaging and effective performance on the instrument in front of me, for the audience that I have. I’ve played for large crowds and for audiences of four, and sometimes the audiences of four are the most appreciative and lead to the most interesting post-concert conversations.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Programming more new music and diverse repertoire. The music and the performers should reflect the people we want to attract….and so should the venues. Large, fancy concert halls that house performances of music written by white men hundreds of years ago just don’t necessarily seem relevant to wider audiences. Putting aside issues of diversity, there are also issues of class and money. Ticket prices eliminate quite a lot of potential audience members – I know that I personally don’t go to that many professional concerts because I can’t afford the tickets. If that’s true of a music professor, it’s probably true for a lot of the population. High prices, dress code expectations, and lack of diversity in performers and music all send a message to a lot of people that this is neither meant for them nor relevant to them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my favourite experiences was the first time I performed at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford. I didn’t have much experience with truly “new” music before that, and it introduced me to the wide variety of possibilities that are out there.

As a musician, what is your definition of success? What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

This isn’t going to be the most romantic answer, but to me, success as a musician means making enough money to pay my bills and have nice things like health insurance. I know too many wonderful musicians and fantastic educators who continue to struggle – I’m well aware that as a tenured professor, I’ve won the golden ticket.

That said, advice I would give to my students (aside from being practical about financial concerns and student loans) is simply to be themselves and have an open mind. Explore as many different kinds of music as they possibly can, and then try to figure out what matters to them. And once they’ve figured out what kind of music they want to perform, teach, and/or write, don’t be afraid to be weird! The world has countless people who have played and recorded Beethoven and tried to write music like him; we need more young people expressing their own unique thoughts and experiences.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

I do feel like this is being discussed more and more these days, but diversity in the music industry (especially classical music) continues to be a big issue. We should be brainstorming as much as possible about how to improve diversity of all kinds – race, gender, region, class, etc. I really think that’s the only viable way forward for classical music long-term.

Sarah Masterson’s album of Philippa Duke Schuyler’s unpublished piano work ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ was released on 1 April on the Centaur Label


Dr. Sarah Masterson is currently Associate Professor of Piano and Music Theory at Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina, where she serves as the Coordinator of Music Theory, Director of Department of Music Social Media, and the founding Artistic Director of the W. Darr Wise Piano Competition. Dr. Masterson’s research focuses on the work of 20th-century American women composers, and she maintains an active schedule of related performances, lecture-recitals, and presentations. Her recording of Philippa Schuyler’s unpublished piano work “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” will be released on April 1, 2022 on Centaur Records.

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