On Wednesday Jan. 23, Dan Saunders, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, shared anecdotes with students and community members about his experience as an internationally renowned pianist in a lecture titled “My Life in Music.” This address was the first of the 2013 Distinguished Speakers Series.
Director of College Union and Activities Chip Matthews opened the event by describing the Distinguished Speaker Series as an opportunity for faculty and staff to “come together” to support “extended learning.”
Activities Commission Concert Coordinator Jenny Keller introduced Saunders and recounted several of his achievements in the professional musical arena, including his accompaniments to several of the world's prominent vocalists, his performances at the White House, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, his appearances on several television shows and his various stints as a conductor of orchestras abroad.
Opening his address with a disclaimer, Saunders said, “I make music; I don't lecture.”
He went on to talk about the individuals in his life who have had an impact on him.
“I have recently become aware of how important my mentors have been to me, not just as a musician but as a person,” Saunders said. “They have sparked in me an interest in mentoring."
"I hope you learn something from my mistakes as well as my successes,” he said.
During the lecture, Saunders recalled some of his earliest memories growing up in Perry, N.Y., including the first time he laid eyes on a piano, his childhood piano lessons, his performances at Baptist church services and his time in the Perry Central School band.
Addressing life in a small town, Saunders said, “We really stick together even when we are apart.”
Saunders said that he “fled to Chicago” after high school, where he attended Wheaton College and “eked out a bachelor's degree” because he was “too busy performing.” According to Saunders, it was in college that he began to dream of becoming the “world's greatest concert pianist.”
During his time in Chicago, American concert pianist William Browning, who he says did not charge him for piano lessons, mentored Saunders.
After college, Saunders studied music in Europe, starting with a scholarship to the American Institute of Musical Studies in Austria and continuing with studies in London under Australian pianist Geoffrey Parsons.
According to Saunders, Parsons told him that he had the “rare ability to make the piano sing.”
Reflecting on his time abroad, Saunders told students, “Take this time to travel, see the world, take chances. You never know what is going to happen.”
Saunders then discussed his initial experience walking into the Met for an audition and described it as a “lesson in humble pie,” because he was hired as a rehearsal pianist rather than a concert pianist.
In his fifth season at the Met, Saunders was promoted to assistant conductor, a job which he said he finds challenging because, as he said, "no two days are alike" and he is responsible for being able to sing all of the opera parts.
“I am passionate about passing on what I have learned to young musicians,” Saunders said. “My highest aspiration is no longer to be concerned with becoming the world's greatest [concert pianist]. When I am working with an individual who is motivated, it is really gratifying to teach.”
During the address, Saunders performed Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-Sharp Minor for the audience. According to Saunders, this was his first public solo performance in over 20 years.