National Piano Month with Mr. Setzer

Riley GriffithArts, Faculty Spotlight, Music, News & Events, Spotlight

More Than a Music Teacher.

We interviewed one of our newest faculty, music teacher Mr. Joe Setzer for National Piano Month. Read on to learn why Mr. Setzer is so much more than a music teacher.

St. Luke's: How old were you when you started playing the piano?
Mr. Joe Setzer: I started playing the piano in 3rd or 4th grade. I begged my parents to let me take lessons - they never suggested it or required it. My parents are not musical people and they were reluctant to let me learn the piano, but I persisted.

SL:   What made you want to start taking piano lessons?
JS:   As a young boy, I always wanted to learn how to play the organ. I would regularly hear it in church and was always fascinated with the size of the instrument, the variety of sounds it could produce, and the role of the church organist. So in order to learn the organ, one must first learn the piano.

SL:   First song you learned to play?
JS:   It takes many weeks and months of work to get to where one can “play a song.” However, I distinctly remember loving this piece in a beginner piano book that sounded like a native american dance. The left hand had this repeating ostinato and the right hand played a melody on top of that. I drove my parents and my brother crazy playing that piece over and over!

SL:   What is the most advanced piece you've mastered?
JS:   In my junior year of high school, I made the switch from piano to organ and then decided shortly after to pursue a college degree in music studying the organ. I’ve played lots of complicated organ music of many different styles by many different composers. The most complex piece that comes to mind is Johann S. Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 4 in E Minor. In a trio sonata, both hands and feet are controlling three different musical lines at the same time. Bach wrote 6 Trio Sonatas for the organ and it has been said that if you can play all 6 then you can play any piece of music. I would say that to this day I’m still working on mastering this piece. To “master” a piece of music is a never ending pursuit!

SL:   What type of music do you like to play the most?
JS:   Tough question! I’m most certainly into “classical music” or to use a better term “art music.” The complexity of this style of music, the dedication of the composer, performer, and audience is something that really excites me. Art music is a broad category, but one of its central characteristics is that it transforms us and calls us to be better people. This genre of music seeks to challenge and to lift our spirits, to provide us with beauty, order, and awe, and to showcase our full potential as human beings. Sometimes though, I let my hair down and play more light hearted music. During the height of the pandemic, I learned a lot of Scott Joplin ragtime tunes. Those pieces were a nice counterpoint to all the fear and anxiety in the world.

SL:   Where all have you played the piano (church, college, weddings, teacher, etc.)?
JS:   Music will take you to so many different places. In my very short career as a musician, I have probably been on 10 different choir tours -5 of these trips were in Europe (most of these overseas tours were completely free or relatively inexpensive.) The coolest place I’ve ever played the piano was in this small town in north Denmark called Strandby. I was there to accompany (on piano) my home church choir and we sang for this Scandinavian festival called “Midsommer.” This celebration takes place on the summer solstice and it’s an event where family and friends all come home and celebrate. A central part of this festival is where each town in Denmark burns a fake witch. This is a symbolic act where the witch representing darkness is burned away by a restorative fire on the longest/ brightest day of the year. Each town burns their own witch and there seemed to be a competition for who could build the biggest fire! This is a tradition that has happened for thousands of years and it was a remarkable cultural experience to be a part of.

Each week you can find me at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church playing the organ and conducting the choir for Sunday services.

SL:   What advice would you give a young person who is thinking about getting into piano lessons?
JS:   There is no such thing as “musical talent.” It takes many years of hard work to become proficient at the piano or really any instrument. It’s just like playing a sport, learning a language, or working out. Having a daily and consistent routine is the only path to success.

SL:   What advice would you give to someone who is older and is thinking about taking piano lessons?
JS:   Embrace the challenges and the sacrifices that have to be made in order to learn. Everyone of all ages can learn music and studying the piano will dramatically change your life.

SL:   What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about giving up on the piano?
JS:   Perform for someone - this will give you a purpose, a reason to practice, and it will show you how playing the piano enriches the lives of others.

SL:   What are some advantages of being a piano player?
JS:   There are so many! Artists teach people how to see. You are involved in a special role in the world that allows you to bring order and beauty to people’s lives. There are also many social benefits because not many people can actually play the piano. Also playing music is a great way to relieve stress and to get your mind off the whims and woes of the world. There’s something great about being able to focus your mind and attention on learning a piece of music vs all the other things you can do in a day. There’s nothing like it!

SL:   Describe the best performance you have ever given. What made it special?
JS:   In the summer of 2019 I played a concert for the Charlotte North Carolina chapter of the American Guild of Organists. During one of the pieces titled Apparition de l'église éternelle (Apparition of the eternal church) by 20th century French composer Oliver Messiaen, I had this profound out of body experience. It is hauntingly beautiful music that is about 10 minutes long that reaches a ffff climax featuring a C major chord. This chord has historically been interpreted to represent the concept, sound, or feeling of eternity. In the midst of performing, my whole being was fully engrossed in bringing that experience of eternity to the audience. Time slowed down around me and my mind was at peace.

SL:   How do you cope when dealing with a disinterested or disrespectful audience?
JS:   This is a very philosophical question. Aristotle used to teach that a speaker or orator should learn everything they can about their audience so that they could appropriately communicate with them. It’s the same for athletes, musicians, comedians, cheerleaders, actors, politicians, etc. I’ve always enjoyed challenging audiences with new music or music that is not expected so that I can get some kind of reaction, positive or negative. This opens the door to allow for a great conversation and a way to get to know that individual better. It definitely takes some real confidence and it’s not easy. I find solace in knowing that changing the perspective of a person who is disinterested or disengaged makes the world a better place. The phrase “I was blind, but now I see” from the hymn Amazing Grace comes to mind.

SL:   As a piano teacher, what do you think makes a good pianist?
JS:   Eagerness to learn, courage, patience, and perseverance!

SL:   What would you consider the three most important traits of a good piano teacher?
JS:   A good piano teacher really has the same character traits as a good sports coach. They have high expectations, they love to teach and to learn, they are knowledgeable, and they are fully invested in your personal development not just as a musician but as a human being.

SL:   What advice would you give to someone hoping to build a career as a pianist?
JS:   Prepare to work really hard! There are thousands of people trying to make a career as a pianist and it is super competitive. Also, consider learning the organ. One can make a career as an organist much easier than as a pianist.

SL:   As a musician, what is your definition of success?
JS:   Success is when a person tries their absolute best on any given task. They don’t cut corners, cheat, give up, or attempt anything with apathy. In all aspects of life this will add up to something approaching success. It is inevitable that you will fall short of some goal, but it is important to keep working hard and to persevere!

SL:   A fellow pianist has trouble memorizing a piece. How would you help them?
JS:   There are three elements of musical memory: aural memory, harmonic memory, and visual memory. We can memorize what the physical musical score looks like, memorize what it sounds like, and memorize the harmonic structure. All three of these angles will aid in playing well from memory and they each take time to develop. In the Sherlock Holmes TV series (which I highly recommend), Sherlock was depicted as having this “memory palace” in his mind where he would store memories of very specific events behind different closed doors. This is not a fictitious depiction of human memory, and it is well researched that we can actually create these “memory palaces'' with some effort. It used to be common for academic institutions and schools to encourage this type of memory development through the process of memorizing verse or poetry. The benefits of stretching our minds in these ways are immense so I say embrace the struggle of learning to memorize a piece of music - it will get easier with time and practice.

SL:   What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
JS:   For the St. Luke’s choir program I have created a list of objectives for our ensemble. These are some of the concepts that I find most important to instill into students.

    • Learn the value of excellence and discipline through a vigorous pursuit of beauty.
    • Develop a rich ensemble community that is both supportive and competitive.
    • Contribute to the wider world through our singing, making it better one step at a time.
    • Acquire advanced musicianship through regular performance, and the deep study of great works of art, the 1982 Hymnal, music theory, ear training, and music history.
    • Understand diversity and discover imaginative ways to create conformity of diversity.

SL:   What is your idea of perfect happiness?
JS:   Working hard on something and accomplishing a goal that provides meaning and comfort for our weary world. Also, that feeling after completing a long run or intense workout.

SL:   What is your most treasured possession?
JS:   My most treasured material possession would probably be my cellphone. It’s simply amazing what a cellphone can do!

SL:   What methods do you use to teach piano?
JS:   Many different kinds. I teach all students how to read music first, as that will serve them well in many other capacities later in life. Eurhythmics, or the process of expressing music and rhythm through the body is another approach that I commonly use. An example of something I would do is have a student walk quarter notes, half notes, or whole notes in different styles while singing a phrase or melody line from a piece of music. It dramatically affects how the music sounds! A well executed dance or sports maneuver generally has a flow or rhythm that is very similar to executing a musical phrase with good rhythm and flow. In other words, musicians can benefit from dancing or learning various sport maneuvers and athletes can benefit from learning how to execute a musical phrase!

Thanks Mr. Setzer!   We can't wait to hear how the program develops.