Matthew Aucoin—composer, conductor, MacArthur fellow, artist-in-residence at Los Angeles Opera, co-artistic director of the American Modern Opera Company, and all-around music-world star—had a surprising message for chamber music students at The Rivers School Conservatory.
As a piano student at RSC, back in the aughts, he looked around at his peers and thought to himself, “I’m not the best pianist in this school, never mind in the world. So what chance would I have to be a professional musician?” That discouraging mindset kept him from considering a career in music until years later, when he was part way through his undergraduate studies.
Aucoin returned to the Conservatory recently, accompanied by pianist Connor Hanick and cellist Coleman Itzkoff, to lead a workshop for students in the Conservatory Program. Hanick and Itzkoff, acclaimed musicians in their own right, treated the students to a partial performance of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3. Although the two had only been playing the piece since the previous day, it came together seamlessly, conveying all of its emotion and musical dialogue. A few students followed along from their seats with an extra copy of the score that Hanick had brought along.
Hanick and Itzkoff then spoke about the piece, sharing their insights into it. They pondered the questions asked—and ultimately answered—in the music, which dates from Beethoven’s middle period. Hanick said that the sonata displays the composer’s “quintessential robust heroism,” and Itzkoff spoke of how the sonata form always, in his view, reflects the hero’s journey, a myth pattern described and popularized by Joseph Campbell. “There are no coincidences in Beethoven,” he noted.
The students then had an opportunity to ask the professionals a few questions. Sadie Carroll ’23 spoke up first, not with a query but with praise: “You expressed all the emotions. Good job.” She, along with other students, was awed by the fact that the music had come together in a single day.
Piano student Katherine Liu ’23, nursing a sore wrist, wondered if the musicians had ever coped with injuries. “I’ve had to cool it for a couple of months,” said Hanick, acknowledging that it can be “scary not to be able to play.” But, he added, “If you’re nice to yourself and take care of it, you’ll be ok.”
Hanick and Itzkoff were asked about the life of a professional musician in New York. Itzkoff described a situation of feast and famine, as far as music opportunities are concerned. And Hanick said that, as a pianist, he has no shortage of offers but has to limit himself to choosing those that are most valuable to him. “If I said yes to everything, I’d be burnt out in a year.”
A student asked about the training that had taken them to careers in music. All three had combined music studies with other subjects in college—Hanick at Northwestern, Itzkoff at Rice, Aucoin at Harvard—which they agreed ultimately gave them a more expansive approach to their art and a broader lens through which to view music. All went on to pursue graduate studies in music, but that was hardly the end of the road, in terms of education. As Hanick noted, “The work never stops.”
For Aucoin, the work began in earnest after he got past the painful knowledge that he would not be the best pianist among his peers. “At some point in college, I decided to take the plunge and pursue music,” he said. He realized that a career in music could take a form other than performing—as his professional path readily demonstrates. “Don’t be discouraged by how many impressive musicians there are around you,” he said. “There are a lot of paths into a creative career. The thing is, you’ve got to take that plunge.”