McEwan Walters still remembers the music that first drew him in: an album of harpsichord music, borrowed from a bookmobile that served his small hometown in rural Canada.
“It was Wanda Landowska, playing the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’,” he says. “I was so fascinated by the sound of that music.”
A recording of Chopin’s waltzes by pianist Dinu Lipatti, distributed at that same bookmobile, got him hooked on piano. “How could these sounds sound like that?” he recalls thinking.
That love of music has driven him ever since, motivating him to move to the United States for university study, to live throughout Canada teaching and performing, and eventually to come to Philadelphia, where he received a master’s degree at Temple University. He has now taught at Settlement for over 25 years, where he has found that “many of my students are really self-propelled.”
Other things that have remained constant over the years have been students’ unlikely exposure to classical music through cartoons on TV, and that “they all want to play ‘Für Elise’,” that famously-catchy Beethoven piece.
For his beginning students, Walters begins by getting them oriented toward the instrument: Identifying middle C and then all of the C’s up an down the keyboard, then playing all the black keys with different combinations of fingers. These exercises, Walters says, helps them “find out where their fingers are.”
Along with method books and beginning songs, Walters also assigns his students works from “Mikrokosmos,” a series of piano pieces written by composer Bela Bartok. While introducing piano basics, some of the pieces contains hints of the modern sounds and dissonant intervals that Bartok used in his other compositions.
“It gets them used to different sounds or different chords,” he says, punctuating his statement with a loud, slightly dissonant chord that spans a large section of the keyboard. Similar instances to reflect on “What does that sound like?” crop up frequently during his lessons.
“Kids assimilate sounds so readily,” he says. “They don’t think about bad sounds or good sounds – they just love all of them.”
Walters himself remains fascinated by sounds of all kinds: Gregorian chant, French Baroque organ music, contemporary music.
He even continues to take lessons himself, with fellow piano faculty member Michael Caruso, and his excitement as he plays bits of pieces he’s currently working on – advanced-level works by Schumann and Chopin – is palpable.
“Do you have a minute? Can I play just one more?” he asks, before diving enthusiastically into the next piece.