Contact: Wendel Sloan at 505.562.2253
PORTALES – Dr. John Olsen says that note-perfect musicians can give bad performances, while the less technically-proficient can be awe-inspiring. "An artist's life is reflected in the emotion of their playing," says the Eastern New Mexico University music professor. "Notes are just tools which reflect and express these experiences."
John's music career began in 1953 with a vivacious Russian woman in a huge Plymouth pulling up beside the six-year-old on a New Jersey street and, with dramatic flourishing motions, waving him over.
The total stranger, a retired opera singer who lived down the street in Little Silver, N.J., wanted to know if the small boy wanted to take piano lessons. While the encounter was unusual 50 years ago, it didn't elicit quite the suspicion it would today. John told the woman, Marta Bohenna, that he would ask his parents.
The rest is – choose your cliché – history, a star was born, even (ahem) academic. No matter the choice, since that peculiar encounter, the chair of ENMU's music department has been passionate about music.
"At first, my parents were skeptical," says John. "I don't know if they didn't think I would stick with it, or were suspicious of such an unusual lady."
Eventually, John took lessons from Ms. Bohenna from 3:30-5 p.m. five days a week. His parents paid for one, while four were complimentary. He learned to play the classics, including Bach and Mozart.
"She was very strict," says John, who earned a 1982 doctor of musical arts from the University of Southern California. "I remember her hitting my fingers with a pencil when I'd play incorrectly. She taught through fear, which is not a tactic I prefer."
John, who received a 1973 master's degree from The Manhattan School of Music, has nothing but good memories of his parents' attitude. "My parents were incredibly supportive. Before it moved to Lincoln Center, my mother even started taking me to the Metropolitan Opera.
"When I was in grade school and the other kids played sports, I loved music. I played for assemblies, Christmas concerts and such. My (fraternal) twin brother was into sports, so that gave us each our own little niche, and kept us from being threats to each other."
John did have hobbies—mostly involving water: skiing, sailing and swimming. "When I was older, I bought a little boat and learned to sail." (John admits that his biggest adjustment to New Mexico has been its ocean-less terrain.)
Before Ms. Bohenna moved to Florida to escape the biting New Jersey winters, she introduced him to Greta Hilger, who played in a European trio famous in its own right.
One Saturday, Greta took John, who received a 1971 bachelor's degree in piano performance from the Hartt College of Music in Connecticut, to Albert Einstein's modest house in Princeton, N. J. Although the Nobel Prize-winning genius played violin, what the seven-year-old John remembers most is Einstein's Mickey Mouse shirt.
John, who did post-doctoral studies at Columbia University in 1986-87, studied with Greta through grammar school, then his father decided that he needed someone more acquainted with English. John enrolled in Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N. J., where he continued his music education. He also was accepted into the Juilliard Prep School, where he studied on weekends.
"My one attempt at composing ended in humiliation," John admits with the wry smile bought with time. "I composed and played what I thought was a beautiful piece. I asked what they thought. They said they loved the playing – but my composition was terrible!"
At 15, John, who had long been interested in philosophy and religion, heeded another calling – the priesthood. John's father was Lutheran and his mother was Catholic – though they never pressured him about religion.
Despite his father's misgivings, John transferred to St. Francis Seminary, a boarding/prep school on Staten Island. His father had one stipulation: his son had to continue weekend lessons at the conveniently-close Juilliard.
According to John, seminary was remarkably similar to the military. He'd get up at 5 a.m., and go to bed at 10 p.m. He was also required to participate in all the basic sports, discovering that he was bad at basketball, but excelled in track – especially the 100-yard dash. His speed also made him good at the skill positions in football.
John says that the seminary gave him a "sense of service. Living in such a community life you learn quickly about compromising and giving."
John's flirtation with the priesthood lasted until he was 19. After four years, he was becoming more aware of himself as a musician than as a priest. "All religions have some incredible things to say, but the Catholic Church was just too rigid," John explains. "On the other hand, it made me less judgmental about other religions."
John says that he felt that he could be of more service as a teacher and musician. "I found that music brings people closer together, while belief systems force a separation.
"This is why music is so remarkable: there is such integrity, beauty, honesty and purity in the work itself. No music is without emotion. The greatest artists are those in sync with their emotions. It is a synthesis far greater than I have experienced anywhere else."
The 1996-97 visiting professor of piano at the University of Montana says that 19th century romantic music accentuates this point. "I love playing this romantic music. 19th century music was the age of emotion and feeling in the melody. It is about the artist as an individual and personality."
By contrast, John, who has performed throughout the U. S. and Europe, says that in the 18th century structure was the central element, and in the 20th century it was rhythm.
"That's sad, because I think the melody is what music will be remembered for," he opines.
Although he plays classical music, the former child of the 60s is not snobbish about popular music. He went to the first-ever U. S. concert by the Rolling Stones, and has seen Heart, the Four Seasons and many other groups of that era.
"I loved the 60s and 70s," the former long-hair says admiringly. "The harmonies of the Beach Boys and the Mamas and Pappas were awesome. I respect all of those musicians, and think many were geniuses in their own way."
John, who performs at Eastern on a Concert Grand Steinway donated by alumnus Jim Slone, believes that an artist's life impacts his or her performance. "As musicians, we're the sum of our experiences. You start with an idea, then translate it into a feeling. As your emotional depth increases, so does your playing. As an artist, you have to be vulnerable enough to wear your heart on your sleeve."
No matter how nervous he may be in the wings, John says that once he hits the stage he feeds off the crowd. "You sense right away if the crowd is with you. If they're indifferent, you have to make your playing more passionate and beautiful. Music is a competitive sport: you have to be mentally and physically at your peak. To use a sports term, you have to play to win."
John says that endless practice is necessary so that the tactile skill of pressing the right keys becomes secondary to the emotions educed.
"You can play note-perfect, and still have a bad performance. Emotionally, I've never played the same piece twice." Although he has spent a lifetime in the solitary pursuit, John concedes, "I will never be perfect until I'm facing straight up or down."
Even though he has studied at such illustrious beacons as Juilliard, Columbia University, the University of Southern California, and taught at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, California State University, and other high-profile schools, he says he has stayed at ENMU because of the student-oriented philosophy.
"I've studied at places where the student was considered the lesser person than the artist-teacher. I don't like that; I find this a much healthier atmosphere because teachers are committed and dedicated to students and the growth of music in their lives. I find working at Eastern very rewarding because the emphasis is so different from the background in which I was trained."
The fourteen-year ENMU veteran says that four qualities are necessary for students to succeed: interest, talent, persistence and, most importantly, personality. "One student may be more talented, but the audience responds to the one playing with the most joy and passion."
One thing that makes music so remarkable, John notes, is the way it bridges the chasms of generation and background.
"If you are a scientist or doctor, you work every day with other experts in your field. One of the interesting things about music is that I can walk into the Music Building, and there may be a five-year-old with a violin case doing exactly what I'm doing – just on a different level."
John notes that he can go to band camps, football games, parades, even rock concerts, and feel something in common with "little kids, street kids, college kids and old professors. No one has the right to tell another that they do not have talent. Talent is like an onion: you have to peel it to get to the core. At the core, we all have one thing in common: expressing the art of music."
John says that he has never had a second's pause about his career choice. The myriad emotions expressed through his music transcend their roots into a harmonic convergence of growth and liberation.
"Music is the ultimate evolution," says John. "With help from our dexterous fingers, the real difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is in the rhythm of our souls."
John Olsen: Portrait of the Artist as a Grown Man (photo by Wendel Sloan)
John Olsen: Conducting Himself – with introspection about the pain... (photo by Wendel Sloan)
And joy that intermingle to finger-paint a keyboard-canvas of life. (photo by Wendel Sloan)
The Pianist and the Piano-Maker – This photo was taken after Henry Steinway signed the inside of Eastern's new Concert Grand Steinway piano in Steinway Hall in New York City. Mr. Steinway only signs 9-foot concert grand instruments that are exceptional products of Steinway and Sons, New York.