The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview we spoke with piano and voice instructor Raouf Zaidan about his love of music, his history with opera (in many languages!), and more.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello! My name is Erica Reid, I’m the Marketing Manager at the Center for Musical Arts, and this is the newest interview in our series talking to the different faculty members that we have on staff. Today we are talking to Raouf Zaidan. How are you?
Raouf Zaidan: I’m very well, very glad to be chatting with you Erica.
Center: You know, I just, I got a chance to see you perform recently. I was at our annual Crescendo [fundraising] event and I got a chance to see you on the stage, and ever since I’ve been really interested to talk to you. Can you tell me a little bit about your history with the Center?
Raouf: Yes. When I finished with my doctoral degree at CU Boulder, I didn’t want to leave Colorado because I love Colorado! I heard about this, the new Center in Lafayette, and I have this thing about community [schools] as a place where real learning happens with music. And it’s kind of away from the traditional way that we teach music. And at the back of my mind, I thought, “Oh, maybe that could be a place I could work at.”
But I did go back to Egypt, that’s where I’m from. And when Peggy Bruns said, “Raouf, what about coming and forming a choir for us at Lafayette,” – it used to be called the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts – I jumped at it. I said, yes, I’m coming. I’d love to.
And that was the beginning of my past student days in the United States. And it was my goal from the beginning that I wanted to settle here and become a citizen, you know? So then I worked a couple of years at Lafayette and then at the Rocky – at the [Center for Musical Arts] now – and then I went on just to be a professor in South Dakota and New York. Went back to Egypt to take care of my mother. And now I’m back again where I wanted to be from the very beginning.
Center: Oh my, welcome back!
Raouf: Thank you.
Center: Well Raouf, you say that the main focus of your career, and I want to quote this because I love this, is “the area between your Egyptian cultural roots and international opera and music theater.” Can you tell me about the ways that those intersect for you?
Raouf: Yes, and I’m a very privileged person. I was very lucky. I had a British mother, I had an Egyptian father. I grew up in Egypt, which is a place of many, many cultures and many histories.
And when I fell in love, completely, passionately, with music, as a boy, as a pianist to begin with, and then realized that singing was going to call me strongly, I know that my father was very worried about this. And he said, it’s not a career. You know, singing – you know what you hear from all parents when they care for their children. They think – and I told [him], “No dad, I have no choice. This is what I love. I want to do this particular thing.”
And his idea of opera was the old fashioned Cairo Opera House where you went to see Italian operas or French operas and you wore, and it was for the upper classes and it was, and I had a very completely different idea.
My idea was music is something that belongs to everybody. And this is why, it’s a long story really, but I ended up being the first person to do Mozart operas in Egyptian, in our language, including Figaro and Leporello and Papageno. In fact, that night [at Crescendo] I sang one verse of them.
Because I believe that when you sing opera, you’re telling a story. When you’re singing opera, you are telling, you are connecting with your audience in their language. So in America, I love singing in English. When I was in Vienna, German was perfect. Egypt, Arabic was great as well.
So, but the point here is that you are not hiding behind, you’re not singing just notes, no, you’re actually telling a story. You’re expressing true emotions in the language that your public will get, we hope.
Center: So, Raouf, if you have this incredible singing background. At the Center, you’re primarily teaching piano. Can you tell me what drew you to voice and piano as instruments?
Raouf: Well, as a boy, and generally we begin with piano with children and I was a child at that time in Egypt. A human voice begins to be trainable once you’ve passed puberty. So it was natural that I would start with piano and I actually loved piano.
And I had a teacher who was a Greek teacher, she was amazing. And she said, I told her once I want to be a singer. And she said, “Work hard at piano and one day you’ll get to your singing.” And I’ll never forget that, that she had heard Maria Callas, the great opera singer in Greece. So she knew what she was talking about.
And I gave myself heart and body and soul to piano and trained and worked hard. And it did get me where I wanted because when I went to London, I did join piano and singing and everybody was happy. And it turns out that the Royal College of Music, one of the great institutions of the world, whatever instrument you do, your second instrument is always piano.
And the reason is it’s a wonderful instrument for grounding us, for teaching us the basics of music. It also teaches discipline. You know, you have to work hard to be a pianist! And sometimes people think singing is you just open your mouth and you sing. Well, no, if you’ve been through piano, you know that you have to train, you have to warm up, you have to learn how to do it perfectly. Many, many skills you have to learn.
So when they told me, they asked me this time, this is the need we have here. I’m going, great! It’s where I started and where I would be glad to start many new people, many of these young people and adults if they want, to learn this amazing instrument, the piano, which is such a wonderful basis for other things.
But if I see somebody who is interested in singing coming in for a piano lesson, I’m going to think of little Raouf in Cairo when he said to his teacher, “I want to be a singer.” And I’ll probably say the same thing, “Work hard at piano, and we’ll get you to the goal you have,” you know?
Center: Okay, so I like to ask about teaching philosophy, and I think you’ve touched on some pieces of this, including possibly storytelling, but is there anything else you’d like to say about how you approach your teaching philosophy?
Raouf: I learned everything upside down as a child and as a grown-up. In other words, it was always, “Why didn’t they tell me that at the beginning?” A simple thing is middle C. It’s a note that everybody assumes everybody knows what it is. Or a dotted half note, how long is that?
I decided as a teacher that I was going to make sure that whenever I started with anybody, I made sure that they knew the simplest thing, and we go always from the known to the unknown, and always from the simple to the more complex. And it sounds boring, what I’m saying here, but actually what I’m saying is you look at a child or a grown-up or the person who comes to learn from you, and you really, you need to get to know them and understand what they know.
Don’t assume anything. You don’t assume, “Oh, well of course, if they’re a bright child and 10 years old, they know what middle C is.” No, you check, you make sure you, and you find out. Once you know that’s sure, then that’s one more brick in the building of a great musician.
But they surprise me. My students surprise me all the time with things. I have to tell them, I want questions. I want you to – I need to know where we are. I can’t teach you until I know you. And hopefully it’s a team effort you do with a student, something I love doing.
Center: Oh, that sounds so important and so welcoming to me. I do a lot of writing about things like classical music and my least favorite phrase is “of course.” People will say something like, “Of course, Mozart was a student of Salieri,” or what have you. And for a lot of people, that’s new information!
And I think when we assume something, that’s when people start to feel a distance between them and the music and “I should already know this,” “I should have already heard this.” And so I try to take out “of course,” or “as you already know,” wherever I can because we just can’t assume anybody knows something that we feel like is familiar.
Raouf: Yeah. And it’s the little things that sometimes are the really important things. I mean, it could be the tiniest thing that you might not think is important, but it could be the thing that that kid will take for the rest of their life and it’ll be a beam of light on everything else they do. So you might be, as you say, “of course”-ing something that, not at all! It has happened to me a few times as a child, even as a young adult. And then I wanted to say, no, I don’t know that. Tell me.
Center: Yeah! And then you open the door for so many more questions and the questions become more and more complex. And you’ve made an environment where those questions are welcome because you’ve shown that nothing is too small to ask about or to understand together. I think that sounds like a really healthy environment for a student.
Raouf: You put it beautifully.
Center: Thank you. Words are my music. [laughs] So, okay. I have read that you have played over 80 principal roles in opera and musicals. I would love to know if you’ve had a favorite role or a memory that you’d like to share with us from that time on the stage?
Raouf: You know, I’ll go back to The Marriage of Figaro, the role I did in Arabic. And I was the first Figaro to do it. The Marriage of Figaro is an opera, a rather revolutionary opera, about the barber or the servant fighting his master, the Count, who’s trying to delay his marriage, the barber’s marriage, because he wants the girl. He wants Susanna, the girl. And so the opera begins with a wonderful bedroom scene where Figaro is about, it’s the day of his marriage, he’s measuring and he’s saying “five foot, six foot, seven foot,” he’s measuring where he’s going to put the bed. It’s as mundane as that. And I remember doing that in Arabic and people told me, “Raouf, what’s this, you are an actor! You are not just a singer!” And I said, well, I was measuring a bed and all that.
And then there’s a moment where Figaro is furious against his master because his master, his wife-to-be tells him that the master was flirting with her. And he says, “If you are after a little amusement, you may go dancing, but I’ll play the tune.” And it’s a very strong criticism of the Count. And in Egypt, we had a dictatorial system. People told me, “How come you sang it with so much passion?” And I said, “Very easy. I just thought of the government we have here.” And yes, and when Mozart wrote that opera, he wrote it in a time when the French Revolution was about to happen.So it really was a struggle to – so I guess Figaro has to be the opera that comes close to my heart.
I also loved doing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, because it brought together many aspects of my life. The idea of the father, tradition, you love your daughter, but you believe in tradition. The tension between that. So that was another role I loved in the musical theater side of things.
Center: Can I just say that the passion you have for this subject matter is really infectious, and it just seems like even just having these memories, you just derive a lot of joy from the music you have made in your life and the music that you will help students make in the future.
Raouf: Oh, absolutely.
Center: So I never get very far with this question, but when you’re not teaching or listening to music, what else fills your life? Everybody just tells me more music that they play or make. [laughs] But do you have things outside of music that are interesting you these days?
Raouf: Well, coming from Egypt, I know the food and the kinds of things we have in Egypt. I’ve been fascinated by combining, creating new recipes out of these wonderful… So I love cooking. In fact, I love making Thai soups or curry or something, or an Egyptian thing. And I love cooking for my friends.
By the way, cooking is another side of diversity. It’s like, bring in a new ingredient, a new flavor, a new smell. So that’s a hobby of mine.
And I love sailing. Whenever I’m near water, I’ll go and see if there’s a sailboat that I can go out on. And I was known in Egypt as “the singing sailor.” By the way, singers and sailors have something in common, they use breath or air. The idea of a boat being pulled along by the natural wind or a voice being vibrating on a free stream of air. There’s a parallel there.
Center: Oh my gosh, Raouf, how beautiful.
Raouf: Thank you.
Center: Well, is there anything we haven’t covered here that you think would be useful for potential students of piano or possibly of voice in the future, to know about you or how you approach music or anything like that?
Raouf: Just come and talk to me. Come and ask questions. Come and try. What I really believe in is doing a session, a free session, where we get to know each other. And I find out what the student is looking for, what their dreams are, what they want to know. And they find out how I teach.
And I always say, you know what, during that one session, forgive me if it sounds like I’m baby-talking to you, I’m not baby-talking to you. Basically, I want to find out what you know. Because once I know what you know, I’ll be able to go to the next step. And building you up as a musician is a great thing.
So I welcome students to come. Don’t be scared about the music lesson. The music lesson is a chance to grow. And training a musician is, I think, one of the most important things for life, because – you train a person to do things with their body. Singers, particularly, I mean they’re actually learning how to do something they’re doing all the time, the breathing. But pianists, they’re using their hands, rhythm.
So some people say, well, why music? And I say, because it’s really showing you a way of doing things. It’s a way that’ll inform everything else you do in your life. If you’re a rocket scientist, music is going to be something that will show you the way. So that’s why I think I’m so glad we have this amazing Center here and focusing on music completely.
Center: All right. Well, thank you so much. I so appreciate your time today, Raouf. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Raouf: Thank you. Thank you, Erica.