The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview, we sat down with piano instructor Brian Hickman to learn about his career path, his teaching philosophy, his interests, and more.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello! My name is Erica Reid. I’m the Marketing Manager for the Center for Musical Arts, and as always we are talking to our different faculty members about their roles at the Center and their passions. Today I have the joy of meeting a brand new faculty member for the Center, Brian Hickman. Hi, Brian, how are you today?
Brian Hickman: Doing well, Erica. Good to talk to you.
Center: Yeah, it’s nice to talk to you too. Can you just give me the rundown to… what brought you, what has your musical journey been so far, and what brought you to the Center?
Brian: Okay, so that’s a very circuitous path and interesting journey. But I started my music education in the deep South. I’m from Mississippi. So I was studying initially with my choir teacher in middle school. And from there it just kind of went on, and I went to college at Jackson State University, and I got my bachelor’s in piano, I got my master’s at Mississippi College.
Once I left there, I kind of went on a bit of a personal journey, spent some time in New Hampshire, New England area, just doing work with church music. And that was an interesting journey. And then after a year up in New England, I returned to Mississippi and decided, well, I might as well go on to get further study in music. And I decided to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder for two years, just to do some post-graduate study in musicology.
After my time there, I decided to move on. I started working with the [Center for Musical Arts] and I was with the CMA for a year back from 2009 to 2010. And after that year, an opportunity opened up for me to go to San Diego. So I went to San Diego and began teaching down there for eight years, and just had a wonderful time there.
After that period was over, I bounced back to Mississippi [laughs] and I was there teaching in public schools for three years. I taught choral music and then I decided, well, I think it’s time to settle down. So I want to go somewhere to settle down and I couldn’t think of a better place than Colorado.
And so I reached out to CMA and I sent an email saying, “Hey, look, are you looking for piano teachers? I’m coming to Colorado this summer.” And they were like, “Oh yeah, by the way, yes we are. So why don’t you come on? We’ll be happy to have you back.” So they just opened with open arms, had me come back. And so I’m just excited to be here.
Center: Well, welcome back! It does sound like a circuitous journey. But in my experience, talking to faculty, I feel like many people, they didn’t follow a path they imagined for themselves when they were 20. They followed the path that opened up in front of them. And I just wonder if that in itself isn’t a lesson for students of music. Do you feel… It sounds like you’ve loved your journey. Have you enjoyed letting it take you where it took you?
Brian: I do now. [laughs] At certain points, at a certain point, I was so frustrated with it because it was like, I was just trying to have a normal career as an academic and a musician and it just wasn’t happening. I kept trying, and it just wasn’t happening. And so I decided, well, let’s just see where this goes, and I just let go.
After I began to let go, it became fun. I started really, really enjoying it. And now I feel, I will say this, I have such an excitement for life and excitement for, well, what’s next? What am I going to experience today? And so I look forward to the day now. But yeah, it wasn’t always that way.
Center: I think that’s a lesson for life, but I also think it’s one everyone has to figure out for themselves. I don’t think it’s something that… That sense of surrender. [laughs] It’s a hard lesson to learn, I think.
Brian: It is.
Center: So I’d like to talk about your teaching philosophy a little bit. And in particular, there was a line that you put in your bio that reminds me a lot of what Kathy Kucsan, one of the co-founders of the Center, talks about a lot. But you said, “Mr. Hickman seeks to explore the meaning of being human in an increasingly digital world.” And Kathy talks a lot about how music connects us to our humanity. Can you talk about that, why it’s important, and any other elements of your teaching philosophy?
Brian: Sure. I seek to understand this meaning of being human, because in our current experience, it’s so different from how we first emerged on this planet. You know, where we, it was just us in the elements back at that time. It was us learning how to interact with the rhythms and the seasons, and day and night, and work and rest, and all that.
And then all of a sudden, as we are now in this computer age, we are faced with, well, what does this mean now? Because our sense and experience of the world is so different than it was maybe 500 years ago where they had limited technology. Now it’s like, we not only have reality, we have virtual reality, you know. We can have real instruments and we have virtual musical instruments. We have these types of things.
So I kind of like to think about this in three different aspects, three facets of this question. I want to try to understand more about that line between human and digital interaction. Well, you know, where does humanity end and the digital world begin, or that digital expression begin? And it’s not always such a clear line. And because we depend so much on our devices nowadays. And so it’s just really interesting to think about that.
So the other thing I would like to consider in this, is the interconnectedness of our real personas and our virtual personas. Because we present ourselves differently in person versus online. So we are… I think we have to be aware of that. We need to really work to be aware of that because I think sometimes we can allow ourselves to get lost in the digital world. And we forget that there is an actual real expression, there’s a real person on the other side of the screen. And we have to be careful of that.
And so I guess that ties into my third facet that I want to mention was, which was how these virtual realities affect our ability to connect to the natural world. Okay? So we have in our day, I guess you could say such a strong tendency of our… At least I noticed this in my students. It was very different from when I was a kid. You know, I grew up out in the country, so I was able to go outside and run around in the grass and climb trees and whatever. But so many of our kids are on their screens nowadays. And we forget that we were once connected as a species to the natural world. We forget it.
And my journey is that I strive to really connect, try to connect and remain connected to the natural rhythms of life. We can’t leave that. If we do, then there’s something about our psyche, something about the soul of the human that I think becomes emaciated. It becomes maybe even sickly because we’ve disconnected ourselves from the source of our existence, which is really the natural world.
Now, am I saying that digital things are bad? Not at all, because I feel like they are a wonderful way to expand and extend our capabilities as humans to think and to create and to produce all kinds of things.
Center: I was going to say, maybe we shouldn’t have done this interview over Zoom. [laughs]
Brian: [laughs] Well, I would have been happy to come in. I really would have. So yeah, we want to not lose that connection. Even though we may enjoy and utilize the new things and the new technologies, we have to remember that our being is still very much a natural being.
And we have to, because I think really it is that connection to the human, to the natural thing inside of us, that allows us to have music that reaches out and touches. And the music that we create can actually touch the soul of another human being. Which is to me much more important than having all of the latest bells and whistles on a computer. Even though even those can be used, they’re wonderful, but they should never replace the essence of being human. So I know that’s a lot. It’s a lot to think about.
Center: Well, can you give me… No, I think, of course, we’re all thinking about this balance, right? How much can a tool like Zoom help us? I’m getting to meet you for the first time in this way. And how much does it hinder us and where, where do we balance that? Can you give me an example of how you bring that into the classroom?
Brian: Okay, sure. How do I bring that in the classroom? Like as far as like my… If I have a philosophy of teaching.
Brian: Okay. My philosophy of teaching, it kind of centers around a few things. It is more about teaching students how to learn rather than just what to learn. So I’m a very big proponent of making sure that my students are self-aware, that they follow their curiosity. And then I’m also looking for this balance of structure and freedom.
My goal as their teacher is to produce students who are self-sufficient, self-motivated. So I should be able to teach myself out of a job. [laughs] That’s my goal. Because my goal is that when I produce students that they go out and they are going out as fully self-developed and aware of who they are, so that then what they create is unique to them.
So yeah. I may start out providing a lot of structure, especially for my young students. But as they progress, I more and more kind of back away and I start asking more questions than I give answers. Okay. And then I want them to start asking these critical questions and also looking at a certain subject matter from not just one angle. You know, flip this thing over it, look on the other side, go around, climb on top of it, dig under it. Let’s look at as many angles as we can, so that if you say you understand something, you can say that you understand it from different vantage points. And so I really want them to do that. And I know I’m still kind of talking on a very broad level, but I think this is probably the best I can do without getting lost in the weeds of details. [laughs]
But yeah, I want them to follow their curiosity. I want them to really seek to understand for themselves and don’t just believe what I say just because I said it. I want them to be willing to question me [laughs], the questions that, well, maybe I don’t agree with it that way, but maybe I could see it from another angle.
And I love this dialogue. I want them to have it. I want them to have that dialogue with me, because just as they’re learning, I also am continually learning. And so in a way, this is my way of really connecting to them and showing them that I value them and I value their opinions and what they believe.
So, and hopefully it gives them the confidence, not only in the music studio but maybe in other aspects of life, to be more confident in speaking up and speaking their own thoughts and opinions about things. And also being willing to give solid, valid reasons behind why they may think a certain way or believe a certain way.
Center: I think that sounds fantastic. So let’s talk about the piano as a tool for this kind of thinking. What drew you to the piano? What makes it your instrument? I think of the piano as a very foundational instrument for any kind of music you’re doing. But tell me about your experiences, why it is your tool for exploring these ideas you’re talking to me about.
Brian: I find that the piano is my… It’s almost like an extension of me now, to be honest. I started playing piano simply because my mom suggested that I try it. That was all it took! And so once I started, I realized, hey, I’m actually pretty good at this, so let me continue.
And so it just became over time, my expression, it was the extension of myself. It’s like the instrument and myself are like one, and that’s the way that I think about it. But I love the beauty, the sound of the piano, it’s just really what drew me. It is how it is so wonderfully complex.
There is room for dynamics and for shading and color and nuance and the ability to shape a phrase in a way that can just stir the soul. I love that the piano has such capabilities. And it seems like, at least for me, I find that the instrument is just infinitely deep. And the more that I learn about it, the more I realize I don’t know a thing, and I just keep digging and keep learning.
And so I guess in that way, it’s kind of like, you know, I’m drawn to the immediacy of its expression, but I’m also drawn to the depth and complexity that it provides.
Center: So this is fascinating to me. I can’t tell you how many times in these interviews, when I ask about that, how did you choose your instrument? It’s almost happenstance in some way. Nancy Brace saw the harp on The Lawrence Welk Show and said, “I want that.” Steve Christopher saw Louis Armstrong play the trumpet and said, “I want that.” Your mom said, “Sit here on this bench. What do you think of this?” And you said, “I want that.”
And I just can’t help but wonder, would the same thing have happened if your mom handed you a violin? Or was the piano something that was always going to call to you? And I wonder how we can also introduce to more students who just haven’t sat down at a keyboard, who just haven’t touched a trumpet, or how can we do more of that? Because I think that initial invitation to an instrument can change your life.
Brian: Yeah, it can. Yeah. I don’t know what would have happened had my mom stuck a violin in my hand. I don’t know. I love the violin and I love string instruments. My guess would be that I probably would have taken it and run with it too.
Center: Does your mom play the piano?
Brian: Actually, no. I am the one lone artist in the family [laughs], so nobody else is musical.
Center: Well, I’m so glad. I’m so glad she did. So do you have a life outside of music? [laughs] I always ask this question and very often music is everything, but what are you doing outside of your time practicing teaching, performing?
Brian: Oh, well, I like to do some other things. Like, of course, I spend time a lot in nature, as much as I can. So hiking, which is probably one of the big motivations of me moving out here is that I can get out to the mountains. I’ve always dreamt of the mountain, so I love being out there. So I love hiking. I love getting out and go running, but mainly just for health reasons, just want to stay in shape and healthy and all. I spend a lot of time reading, so philosophy and poetry, and those are my favorites. But also, some fiction as well.
Center: You know I love to hear that. Do you have a favorite poet? Not to put you on the spot, but…
Brian: Yes, I do. And I don’t know if it’s lame, but I am a big fan of Whitman. One of my favorite, all time favorite… Because he speaks in a way that is just so resonant with how I think. And so I just, I love, anytime I open up anything of Whitman, I just get carried away in his writing.
Center: Whitman is the piano of American poetry.
Center: Foundational. So much of the rest of American poetry is built on a lot of Whitman’s thoughts and aesthetics, but also rich and deep in its own right.
Center: He’s his own voice, but he’s also a voice that so many have built upon. So I’m going to call him the piano of American poetry. So you’re welcome to love him.
Brian: Okay, awesome. [laughs]
Center: [laughs] Okay, well, before we get down this… I have a feeling this conversation could go on for a long time. Do you have anything else that you’d like to say here, especially that a potential student, someone who’s never played the piano, somebody who’s curious about music but hasn’t really engaged? Is there anything they should know about you, about the Center, about piano?
Brian: About me, about the Center, about piano? Yeah, I think about me, I can start there. That students who come to me, just get ready to put your thinking caps on, because I’m going to make you think. That is my modus operandi. So, you know, that’s just what I do. Be ready to put some thoughts and some work behind what you do and what you study. And of course I will do my very best to keep things lively and interesting and hopefully intriguing, that’ll keep you coming back.
As far as, like, there were a couple of thoughts I did have in mind. As you study piano or any musical instrument, ask yourself why you want to study. And you may not know the answer right away. Maybe it’s just curiosity at first, but hopefully, at least over time, my advice would be that somewhere in your reasons why should be that: one, you want a creative outlet; and two, you’re seeking advancement of understanding and connection to the world. Okay. So that through your music you’re looking to have a deeper understanding and experience of what it is to be human, and through that, being able to communicate that to your audience.
And the second thing is this. Students, as you are studying music, go out and live life, get out into the world and experience something. Because this is the essence, the substance of music. This is what music is made of. So what use is it to have all the technical skill to play the instrument, and yet because you have not lived life there’s nothing in your soul, there’s nothing to say?
So I want you to have something to say when you sit down. And even if you’re not the most technically proficient musician, at least be the most connected, personally aware and connected humanly so that when you play your few simple notes, it will reach out and touch somebody. So those would be my bits of advice for them.
Center: You’re talking to the writer in me, for sure. I think this is just good life advice and yeah, I think it’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much. This has been a total joy to talk to you. I know I’m not alone in being so glad that you chose Colorado and Boulder/Lafayette to settle down.
Brian: Well, this is definitely a pleasure and I am so excited to be here and I’m so happy to call Boulder my home. So I look forward to being a part of this community for a long time.