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Piano Playing Pyrotechnics Featured in Alumni Seminar with Music Teacher Cheney Doane

Technical feats of classical piano playing by Music Teacher Cheney Doane mesmerized a virtual audience for the second Alumni Seminar of the Year of Togetherness

Entitled “The Fault in Our Ears," the event explored the ways that human expectations about sound and harmony shape our interaction with classical music, and by extension, with a variety of musical pieces. Doane was seated at a grand piano onstage in the Johnson Theater, and nimble camera work by students from the NA-TV crew gave viewers close-up shots of his hands as he performed.

He opened humorously with “A Shave and a Haircut, 5 Cents!" to demonstrate the intensity of our anticipation of musical resolution, and how listeners are bothered by an unfinished tune. “We need and want resolution of the tension," he said.

Doane followed that ditty with Prelude 1 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach from the Well-Tempered Clavier, a piece that has been used in films and television shows, so it is familiar to many listeners. He slowed down sections to demonstrate how the introduction of a new note introduces an element of uncertainty. “By introducing a new note, the unexpected, you take your ears on a quasi-journey," he said. “You're not satisfied until it gets back to the home chord."

He followed that performance with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Major, Opus 32, No. 5. He noted that Rachmaninoff was a “monster pianist," and he also had enormous hands, so his pieces feature immense technical challenges--which Doane proceeded to demonstrate. 

At various intervals, Doane paused to answer questions from the virtual audience and from the host and organizer of the series, Teacher-Coach Tom Duquette. He dipped into the connections between classical music and popular genres, playing a bit of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah" to explore its chord progressions. He also played some Beethoven, including a portion of the “Emperor" Concerto at Headmaster Dennis Manning's request.

Like most teachers at Norfolk Academy, Mr. Doane is also an athlete and coach, so it was not surprising that he got an audience question about the intersection of athletics and music, and how each discipline can fuel excellence in the other one. Piano playing does develop ambidexterity, so that is helpful in sports, he noted, but the main benefit comes from dedication about practicing, which he described as “failing for hours at a time."

“You take the principle of getting better every day, and you apply it to any sport or any instrument," he said.

The final seminar in this year's series, scheduled for the spring (and with the hope of an in-person option), will be an exploration of dance with Dance Master Elbert Watson. 


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