Scott Holden shares his passion for piano
By Sarah Ostler Hill
He has been known to instruct his students to move their fingers “like Olympic divers” or to play a piece “more brown.” His tactics may sound strange, but Professor Scott Holden is not only an accomplished pianist in his own right, he is also an inspiring and motivating teacher in BYU’s School of Music.
When asked why music was important, Holden paused briefly before taking a deep breath and replying, “It’s the antidote to all of the violence and corruption that is constantly in our headlines. Beauty, truth, expression. It’s the noble antithesis of much of the world.”
Holden would know. He has seen how music has served as a language between two peoples who would otherwise be incommunicado. He spoke of performing in countries that have been enemies of the United States, specifically the time he played in Vietnam.
“There I was, playing Gershwin in the heart of Hanoi, to a big crowd of very enthusiastic Vietnamese,” Holden recounted. “They were very accepting and generous. But it was also surreal. To be in a place that has had such anti-American sentiment, and playing Gershwinn — I mean, what’s more American than that?”
Discovering the Magic in Music
Holden has a hard time remembering his life without piano. He began taking music lessons when he was six and has been told by his parents that he would practice multiple times a day, sometimes sneaking in to climb up on the piano bench. He loved the piano, but when he attended the Interlochen Music Festival in Michigan as a teenager he had a transformative experience.
“I found my voice as a person,” said Holden. “There I was, among other musicians, going to concerts, exposed to a very high level of talent. What I once considered an option made a magical impression on me.”
This magical impression made it impossible for Holden to see himself doing anything else for the rest of his life. His parents were, as he called them, “cautiously supportive,” as they recognized what a difficult and highly competitive field he was considering.
“I always recommend to students if there’s something else they might do and be fairly happy, do that,” Holden laughed. But for Holden, he didn’t feel like anything else would be a viable option. “I call it sweet slavery. You have to be a little bit crazy to do this, but I look forward to going to work every day.”
This work is the weaving of discipline and emotion. Music, and performing it all over the world, has taught Holden empathy in a way that nothing else could. He explained how music can express emotions that you can’t necessarily verbalize, or how it helps you understand emotions you may not have experienced yet.
“I was playing a benefit concert in memory of a teacher who had died of cancer,” he recounted. “As I was playing, I thought of this person and how they had fought and who they had left behind and how this scho
larship fundraiser would keep their memory alive, and I just felt very moved. The emotions infused its way into the music. It was a piece I had played many times, but it took on new meaning.”
Music has also taught him a lot of discipline and the power of persistence, not to mention how to deal with pressure and stress. But it is also there in times of happiness and rejoicing.
“My most spiritual experiences usually involve music-making,” Holden reminisced. “I’ve been to many temple dedications. I can’t remember specific things that were said, but I can remember the music that was there, how I felt singing ‘The Spirit of God.’ Hearing from a General Authority is incredible, but the music brands the Spirit into my soul.”
There almost seems to be a musicality to the way Holden speaks of the power of music, perhaps summarized nicely when he concludes, “Think of the ‘Last Supper.’ What was the last thing they did? Sang a hymn. In the absence of words, there’s always music.”
Bringing Music and Musicians to Life
Holden’s fingers float and fly over the piano keys as one who has done both mental and physical work to get to this point. He is careful to study and memorize, but cautions against planning a performance down to every detail. “I don’t calculate every exact phrase. It can become stiff and insincere. I’ve done my work, so the music is there and I’m not thinking about what the notes are. Then I let it just happen.”
Holden likes to speak to the audience about what they will hear. He believes audiences connect better with the message when they understand the intention.
“If they know the backstory, it becomes a much more meaningful piece, not just some abstract dead white guy,” he noted, a little impishly. “A piece of musical composition can be a breathing, living kind of work. I’m always flattered when someone enjoys my performance, but it is
a far better compliment when I hear they request a recording or want to learn more about the composer.”
Holden sees his job to educate about the composer, not just the technique. He particularly delights in finding pieces or composers people haven’t heard before.
“Great music exists because it can be performed in so many possible ways,” he said. Holden is very conscious of trying to recognize and stay true to what the composer intended, but also put a “fresh face” on the piece.
“I try not to just come up with something different, but find the balance between my and the composer’s truth,” he explains. This balancing act may be one reason he is so fascinated with “first recordings.”
Most people wouldn’t even consider that there might be recordings from Liszt’s students or Chopin’s stude
nts’ students. But they exist, and according to Holden, it’s something he really sweats over.
“Their style of playing is so different than today,” he begins. “When you hear a pianist from the 1920s playing Chopin or Liszt, it makes me question what the composer had in mind. When those so close to the original source of the composition perform it so differently than pianists today, it makes me question what is musical truth.”
There’s a pendulum, Holden says, of playing what the composer wanted, and letting the performers express themselves. Today’s performers strive to be true to the music as it was written. In the 19th century, the performer’s intention mattered more than the composer’s.
“There were some major liberties taken with the score,” Holden said, almost incredulous with this news. “Students of Liszt added notes, or omitted sections, to the point where you think it’s just wrong. And yet they were so close to him, he would have given them approval.”
Back in the day, schools of piano on Russia, England and Germany represented different styles. “Those individual styles look more pronounced in this day when the world has become smaller and more mainstream,” he explained. “Back then, there was a kind of elegance, aristocracy and spontaneity we just don’t often hear any more.”
Teaching the Next Generation
Today, Holden continues to perfect his technique and explore his interpretations and pass that on to others. He is impressed with his students who seem equally dedicated. Holden has a deal with his students that they can practice in his office any time they want if he’s not there.
“These students work so hard,” he sounds almost awestruck. “Most days when I get to the office at 6:30 am, I find students already hard at work,
and have been for some time. And they’re very bright in all areas, not just music.”
He proudly speaks of his students who just recently won first, second and third in the Utah Music Teachers Association Concerto competition earlier this year. Holden also speaks admiringly of a student who, as a freshman, won the school concerto competition playing one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire, and then “learned another severely difficult sonata as a surprise to [Holden] just a few weeks later to perform in his recital.” The way Holden speaks of his students is similar to a loving father praising his children.
He also admires the students who are hard-working and very talented, but also devoted to the gospel. “These students have the spiritual depth that they are willing to leave the piano for a mission. It is very humbling and exciting. They are great, smart, and well-grounded musicians, but they also have a bigger vision of things.”
From his earlier discovery that nothing else would make him happy, to his personal success as a performer, to his students who praise his instruction and excel in their own right, it is not surprising to hear the smile in Holden’s voice as he says, “I love going to work. I have a great job.”
He looks forward to working with his students, who he says he gets to know very well over the weekly sessions they have for four years. “As a teacher, I have to find the tricky balance between understanding their gifts and helping them find their own voice without becoming my marionette.”
Rounding Out a Life in Music
While Holden is fully committed to music and furthering the success of others, he also recognizes how it integrates with his own spirituality. “Music takes an enormous amount of time. The mental and emotional energy that goes into it can be incredibly draining. But I also hope I’m living my life in a way that my Heavenly Father will look at and see that there was more to my life than ju
Holden also speaks lovingly of his family, spending time in the desert, and long-distance cycling. He loves all music genres and encourages others to listen to all kinds of music and sounds.
“Whether it’s German folk songs or pop or jazz, listen to it,” he said. “Read and learn about art and literature and poetry. Underline things when you read books. Be curious. Always learn more.”
This passion for learning is what has taken Holden to some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. But while playing in Moscow or Carnegie Hall are deserving of pride, Holden maintains that his proudest moments, professionally speaking, have nothing to do with the location or size of his audience.
“When I play a phrase perfectly marrying the composer’s intentions of truth and my intention, and someone is there to hear it, that is my proudest moment,” he said, before laughing and adding, “It’s a rare thing.”
When he isn’t teaching, Scott Holden can most likely be found in his office, working on that phrase, perhaps playing it a little more brown, perhaps diving his fingers into the keys. And, hopefully, someone is there to hear it.