International Young Artists Project, Italy

Personal Statement

Qing Li was one of the first piano students I taught while an assistant lecturer during graduate school. He was a graduate physics student, and had zero physical and musical aptitude for piano playing. I was thankful to get him through one semester of lessons, where he tried very hard to do what I asked, but still ended up sounding like he was chopping wood rather than making music.

He then signed up for a second semester. I was dismayed at the prospect of having to put my ears through more wood chopping.

Yet something remarkable happened at the beginning of that second semester. At the second lesson, Qing Li had a breakthrough! He began playing expressively, in a manner where his physical movements supported and facilitated the musical intent of the piece – and continued to do so during the rest of his studies.

This happened over 25 years ago and was my first real insight into the great rewards of teaching, regardless of the level of the student. Qing Li was an intermediate pianist, but that didn’t lessen his accomplishment, or the sense of pride I had in it.

I’ve since taught many advanced and highly talented students, some of whom were very successful in competitions and had “the right stuff” to be a professional musician. But I’ve never forgotten Qing Li, and the impact his success had on me.

It is wonderful to be feted as a performer following a concert. Nonetheless, the gratification one gets from helping people become better musicians is more meaningful and long-lasting.

It is wonderful to be feted as a performer following a concert. Nonetheless, the gratification one gets from helping people become better musicians – where they can express themselves at the instrument in a more technically capable and musically artistic manner – is definitely more meaningful and long-lasting.

I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be a piano teacher. When asked during my undergrad years by a classmate, “So, what are you going to do after finishing school – teach?”, I replied with great assurance, “Me? No, I’ll NEVER teach!”

It all started with a toy xylophone when I was about nine or ten. I would bash around on that thing relentlessly, undeterred by the fact that I only had two mallets and a range of about one octave. I seemed to have a fascination for resonance created by striking objects: bells and chiming clocks were among my favorites, and hearing those sounds would pretty much send me into orbit. I was, in a nutshell, a sweet but somewhat weird kid.

Eventually I began to feel frustrated by the limitations of my percussive buddy. It was at this point that I asked my parents for piano lessons – a request they turned down, due to lack of money and piano at home.

We were living in Germany at the time; when my German grandmother – whom we called “Omi” – got wind of the situation, she marched down to a piano store in downtown Munich and secured a rental piano and piano teacher in one fell swoop. Had Omi been born 50 years later, I have no doubt that she would’ve been leading corporate takeovers. I was glad she was on my side.

I credit Ylda Novik with giving me the keys to the kingdom of being a professional musician. The one who unlocked the kingdom’s door, however, was my next teacher: Nelita True.

With UNC colleague Clara Yang and former teacher Nelita True

Since these humble beginnings, I have had a variety of wonderful teachers – and a few that were not so hot, as well. In retrospect, I learned a lot from all of them. I seriously thought my first teacher walked on water and was the best thing since sliced bread; however, once I got to my second teacher, Ylda Novik, I realized, much to my chagrin, that Herr V. hadn’t taught me doodly-squat (one of my dad’s expressions).

Suddenly, I was thrust into a world of nuance, detail, and requirement that left my head spinning. I had stomach aches the first couple months of lessons – but I was thrilled by the challenge. I also loved the camaraderie that she created among her students; I am still friends with some of these people 40 years later. It was an incredibly stimulating and rich musical/social environment, and I credit Mama Ylda (our family moniker for her) with giving me the keys to the kingdom of being a professional musician.The one who unlocked the kingdom’s door, however, was my next teacher: Nelita True. Mama Ylda tragically died of cancer at age 54 during my junior year of high school. I – along with the rest of her brood – was devastated, and could not imagine myself going to another teacher.

But after about six months of grieving, I did. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I have always been someone who feels things intensely – especially music. Unfortunately, this can translate into debilitating physical tension – which, in turn, can pretty much wreck one’s musical expression, while also hurting like hell. Whereas Mrs. Novik made me aware of my tension and was able to lessen it to some degree, it still caused lots of problems: I often received only honorable mention in competitions because of my harsh sound – thus, I became her “Honorable Tommy”. Though somewhat amusing, this title was definitely a thorn in my side.

I adored Nelita and my lessons with her, as I received such a thorough grounding in the nuts and bolts of both the musical and technical elements of piano playing.

Nelita changed all that within one – yes, ONE! – lesson. I played Prokofiev Sonata No. 3 for her and beat the living crap out of the piece; she later confessed that I demonstrated one of the the most God-awful piano sounds she’d ever heard. With her trademark grace, humor, and patience she showed me how to remedy this by releasing my weight into the keys. It was a revelation for me! I thought piano playing just had to hurt as a matter of course, and couldn’t imagine that it could actually be easy and effortless. Gone was my egregious sound, and I proceeded to win prizes in every competition I entered that year.

I ended up attending the University of Maryland at College Park in order to study with Nelita. I adored her and having lessons with her, as I received such a thorough grounding in the nuts and bolts of both the musical and technical elements of piano playing. I am eternally grateful for that wonderful time, and strive to convey this pedagogical clarity – and humor – in my teaching, as well.

In the middle of my undergrad studies, my father was transferred to Germany. My mother was not keen on the idea of me staying behind in the States, and thus I ended up completing my junior year at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, where I worked with Ludwig Hoffmann, a renowned German pianist and teacher.

Working with Hoffmann was quite the eye-opener. The essence of his pedagogy can be found in this assessment he made of one of his student’s performances: “I love how Hermann plays the Symphonic Etudes. He plays so few wrong notes!”

My pianistic pedigree, as it were, is varied and colorful. My teaching reflects this mix in a way that is uniquely mine: passionate, playful, dedicated, and always challenging.

Recital at Tagesstätte für Helfende Hände, Munich, Germany

And thus my year was one of trying to play as cleanly and evenly as possible; lessons consisted of devising fingerings and redistributions towards this end, with minimal attention to interpretive issues. There was also much discussion of pedal, most notably in finding passages to use the sostenuto (middle) pedal. It was anything but inspiring work – though it was a valuable lesson in seeing that different teachers value and emphasize different things, some of which can be diametrically opposed to one’s own values and training. I do still, however, have an openness towards redistributing difficult technical passages that my other teachers did not share – so I got something out of that tedious year back in the heimat (homeland).

After a wonderful senior year back in the States with Nelita, I ended up in my home state of California for graduate work. This was at the University of Southern California (or the University of Spoiled Children, as it was referred to by some) with artist teacher John Perry.

JP was – and still is – a formidable personality: brimming with vitality, a razor-sharp wit, and one of the most nuanced set of ears on the planet. Hearing him work in studio/masterclass was often highly entertaining and revelatory, as it was here that he truly shone, transforming students on the spot with his unflinching dedication to meaningful, personal musicianship grounded in stylistic awareness. His understanding and connection to Schubert is peerless, in my opinion – in fact, his understanding and teaching of Classical style in general is something quite special, so I made sure to study a lot of this repertoire with him – especially Beethoven, to whom we both feel very connected. But we also had great lessons on Bach, Debussy/Ravel, Albéniz, Barber sonata, Chopin, Rachmaninoff – we covered a lot of ground in my time at USC. I also was privileged to work as his teaching assistant, giving me the opportunity to teach his studio during my final two years at USC. What a joy to teach top talent and repertoire!

My pianistic pedigree, as it were, is varied and colorful. My teaching reflects this mix in a way that is uniquely mine: passionate, playful, dedicated, and always challenging. I welcome the opportunity to work with anyone who loves playing the piano and is serious about becoming the best pianist he/she can be.

Saarburg International Music Festival, Germany

In Person and Online Services

Private Lesson / Consultation

A one-on-one lesson, usually one hour in length, though it can be longer or shorter, depending on individual needs. It is also possible to schedule an “open” lesson, which will usually be somewhere between 1-2 hours, depending on how much time is needed to work the repertoire in question. One or multiple pieces can be presented. “Tune-up” sessions are also available, to spot-check certain passages in relation to previously-discussed musical and/or technical issues. These are generally 20-40 minutes in length.

Masterclass / Group Lesson

Instruction with multiple participants, usually with an audience. The repertoire performed in the class can be unrelated, or it could be grouped around a stylistic period (Classical, Romantic, etc.), a specific composer, or a genre (concerto). Length is usually 2-3 hours for one class, with 4-6 students performing.

In Person

In-person lessons are taught at my home studio, or at another teacher’s studio. I do travel throughout the west coast and the US, and can arrange to work as a consultant with teachers on-site at their respective studios. Masterclasses are held at locations away from my home studio: teacher studios, music teacher meetings/conventions, universities, and other institutions.

Online

Online private lessons are taught via Skype, or Facetime if both parties have Mac devices. Masterclasses can be taught online, as well. For skeptics: online work can be an effective and productive forum, where issues of technique and interpretation can be addressed at a high level.

Injury Rehab / Prevention

I have had extensive experience in this area, both with my own injury and other students.  Please see the injury page for more information.

Best Candidates for My Studio

I work best with students who are highly motivated and practice consistently; this usually means several hours a day. I have had excellent success with precollege and college students: many have won prizes in competitions throughout the country, and have received financial offers at top music institutions. I also enjoy working with intermediate-advanced adult students for whom piano study is avocational, but who are serious, focused students committed to reaching their highest level of pianistic development. I am happy to work with someone just once, occasionally, or on a regular basis.

How to Get Started

If interested in working with me, please email me: thomas@otten.studio. Please include information about your background and current repertoire, as well as current/future goals. We can then set up a time to talk by phone to discuss these items, thus determining whether we might be a good match.

Teacher Consultations

Private teachers interested in consultation lessons/masterclasses for their studios are most welcome to contact me, as well! I have done this work for teachers around the country – both in person and online – and enjoy it greatly. In your initial email, please let me know how many students you’d like me to work with, their repertoire, pertinent information as to their strengths/weaknesses, and what our goals are for the coachings.

I was always doubtful about piano lessons through Skype, but was very pleasantly surprised after an initial session with Dr. Otten. It really works! What a concept!

— Olga Urick Nolan, prize-winning studio, Cary, NC

Other Services

Workshops for Music Teachers on a Variety of Topics and Repertoire

Technique/Injury Prevention: It’s All in How You Move

Pedaling: How to Use It, and Not Abuse It

Sculpt Your Sound Like Michelangelo: The “Perfect” Sound and How to Achieve It

Audition/Recital Preparation: What Does It Take?

How Do I Get My Student to Sound Artistic?

My Favorite Teaching Repertoire from All Eras: includes Telemann Fantasies, early Haydn Sonatas, Grieg Lyric Pieces, Shostakovich Preludes, Turina Gypsy Dances

Survey of Intermediate-Advanced Repertoire

Music of the Baroque/Classical/Romantic/Impressionistic/Contemporary Eras: Differences in Articulation, Tone, Pedal, Rubato

African American Repertoire: Neglected and Unknown Gems

The Piano Music of Joe Utterback: Jazz for Everyone

Franz Liszt: It’s Not Just Flash and Trash

Debussy and Ravel: Let There Be Light! The Magical World of Impressionism

Beethoven Sonatas: The Pianist’s Bible – Something for Everyone

Seminar on Concerto Repertoire

Did You Shower Today? The Joys of Piano Duets

Play on the Vowel! The Art of Vocal Accompanying

Repertoire Consultation for Studio Teachers

Suggestions for appropriate repertoire for students, to help maximize musical/technical development

Repertoire Consultation for Auditions / Competitions / Recital Programs

For teachers, competitors, music school auditionees who would like assistance in planning effective programs

Masterclass Videos: UNC Chapel Hill Studio Class

Laura Yang

Notturno – Respighi

Ethan Chu

Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58, second movement – Chopin

Andrew Zalesak

Soirée dans Grenade & Jardins sous la pluie (Estampes) – Debussy

Ethan Chu

Sonata No. 3 – Ginastera

Lee Treml

To a Water Lily – MacDowell

Marc Besson

Prelude in D Minor, Op. 34, No. 24 – Shostakovich

Sara Compinsky Masterclass Series, Los Angeles

Student Testimonials

Dr. Otten is not only a world-class artist, but a phenomenal teacher. He is devoted as a mentor, and persistent in challenging students to reach their full potential. For the diligent student, there is no limit to what one can achieve under his guidance. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Otten genuinely believes in and loves his students. A wizard of soundscapes, he offers indispensable knowledge as an educator, and intimately shares the magic and beauty of music. He is a brilliant communicator, a true listener, an honest and caring teacher who has my eternal gratitude.

Sam Gingher, DMA, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Thomas Otten’s guidance and encouragement were essential to my development as a young pianist. In his students he cultivates not only a strong basis in piano technique but also a sense of musical creativity, inquisitiveness, and critical thinking. His emphasis on injury prevention always kept me in good physical health. But most importantly, he was willing to meet me at my level, and able to push me far beyond what I had thought possible.

Aaron Likness, DMA Candidate, CUNY Graduate Center, New York

Dr. Otten has revealed enormous patience and persistence in his teachings with me. I have had some enormous technical hurdles to cross and his support of me has been above the call of duty. I have enormous respect for his knowledge and his gift as a pedagogue of the highest caliber, not to mention his exceptional gifts as a performer!

— Kent State Student

I love my piano lessons with Dr. Otten via Skype. Both sound and image quality have been excellent, and I’ve even picked up fingering improvements when watching him demonstrate passages on his piano.  Dr. Otten is a wonderful teacher with decades of experience and a sensitive ear, which provides for a very natural and enthusiastic lesson – even through the cloud!

 — Eric M., Carrboro, NC

Dr. Otten is a mesmerizing and lucid expositor of musical concepts and pianoforte technique and style. It is truly an honor and privilege to be his student. He is fair, kind and holds all to high standards, which is conducive to a very high-quality learning environment. His musical comments are exquisite, and I can only repeat that it is a true pleasure and honor to learn from this master. He has opened my ears to truly listening, and it has unlocked a whole new realm of perception that had been neglected for so long in my life.

— UNC Student

Dr. Otten’s dedication to his students 
is exceptional. He has provided 
guidance in the fields of music, art, 
and performance that has been consistently insightful and creative.

— Kent State Student

Teacher Testimonials

I just want to say thank you for your incredible lecture-recital and masterclass. Everyone absolutely loved both, and thought you were fabulous. My students couldn’t stop talking about you. You also inspired me, and I felt I taught better than ever today, too! Thanks for all you do for our profession.

— Prof. Ingrid Clarfield, Westminster Choir College, Princeton, NJ

 

Dr. Otten is a member of a select group of musicians: the artist teacher, who teaches and performs at an exceptionally high level. It is rare to encounter someone who gives so generously and passionately to his students, audiences, and colleagues alike. His intensity and commitment are inspiring and even challenging, but tempered with a wonderful playfulness and warmth. We are fortunate in our music profession to have such a unique fellow member.

—Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink, Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC

The work Dr. Otten did with my students was enormously skilled. The acuteness of his ear, exceptional knowledge of style, understanding of physiology, and the ability to pinpoint the individual strengths and weaknesses of each performer accurately was seriously impressive.

— Robert McDonald, The Juilliard School, NY

My students have had in-person and Skype lessons with Dr. Otten. His high-energy involvement sparks a student’s creative side as well as activating critical listening. Lessons are engaging on physical, mental, and emotional levels – very interactive and fun for all involved. When I need to get comments that are straight to the point and solutions to students’ musical/technical problems, Dr. Otten is my first choice: his suggestions are deeply connected to the music.

— Olga Urick Nolan, prize-winning studio, Cary, NC