Indulging a passion — no, a grand passion — seems to be on many bucket lists. Sky-dive. See the Grand Canyon. Learn to speak Mandarin. Play the piano again. Ah, the piano. How many adults secretly long to return to the musical instrument they quit long ago?
Nancy M. Williams, an 18-year Montclair resident, was one of those adults. Once a budding teen piano performer, a combination of issues drove Williams from the piano bench.
Until 2005 when, at age 41, she was drawn back. She had been away almost 25 years.
As she made her way back into the world of lessons and practice, Williams wrote an essay about her experience, which won a literary award. Soon she was writing more about her piano journey, creating the bones of a memoir manuscript, and thinking about ways to build a reading audience. At the same time, she wished for a way to communicate with other adults engaged in serious piano learning.
It wasn’t long before Williams, with 20 years experience as a marketing and management consultant, a degree from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard Business School, decided to build her own community. That has grown into the online magazine Grand Piano Passion.
“It started as a blog in 2010, and it was extremely fulfilling. But I had always envisioned it being a magazine and this year I spent several months transforming it.”
Grand Piano Passion is now a thriving destination with a rich mix of content, including articles, interviews, profiles, features, personal essays, and reviews. Topics include not only serious piano craft, but also the thrill, challenges, frustrations, and joys of being a serious adult piano student. There are also video interviews with professional pianists. The essay that started it all is also housed on the site.
“I get to cover people who are very accomplished and fascinating. They have interesting day jobs or careers but at night and on weekends, they are piano students or performing amateurs, and it gives me a lot of pleasure to share their stories.”
Little of this would be too unusual except that Williams has been dealing with hearing loss since the age of six, and uses two hearing aids. Without them, she’ll miss words in conversation, and can’t hear the top octave on the piano. She heads the marketing committee on the board of the Hearing Health Foundation, a national organization funding research for a biological cure for hearing loss in 10 years.
“Many musicians have hearing loss. People with hearing loss listen differently and perhaps even more keenly,” she explains. “I concentrate more on listening than someone who doesn’t have a hearing loss. For anyone, that’s one of the challenges of playing the piano well, to listen deeply so you can interpret the music.”
A native of Tucson, Williams and her husband, David Theobald, who operates his own investment management company, Global Growth Investments, settled on Montclair after living in Pittsburgh and Ridgewood. They have one son who is not a piano student, and a daughter who is, taking lessons from local teacher Salvatore Mallimo. Mother and daughter are working on Christmas carol duets for the holidays.
The study of their older Victorian home is devoted to Williams’ Steinway O – a big piano though technically classified as the smallest in the Steinway concert grand series. There’s also a desk where she is polishing the final draft of her memoir, and manages the website. This year, she’s added contributing editors, regular essay writers, advice from amateur and concert pianists, and reviews of films and books in which a piano is part of the story. She’s in that study a lot.
“My goal is to practice seven days a week for one to two hours, and I usually end up with about 10 hours a week. I try to never let a day go by without practicing even if it’s just 15 minutes,” she explains. Because she also devotes so much time to her children, her piano pursuits mean sacrifice. “You cut so many other things out to make it work. You don’t really go to the movies or watch TV or spend a lot of time on the phone.”
Williams studies at the John J. Cali School of Music on the campus of Montclair State University, with Mark Pakman, who trained at the Moscow State Conservatory. She has performed at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, at the Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, SC, with the New York Piano Society and the Amateur Classical Musicians Association in Manhattan and New Jersey. Locally, she shares her talents at Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair.
Her favorite pieces include the romantic period repertoire of Chopin and Robert Schumann, as well as the music of Debussy, Franz Schubert and Beethoven.
Grand Piano Passion may describe both Williams’ love of the piano, her web magazine and something more. “I’m very committed,” she says. “This is a central part of my life.”
Photos: Piano Keys/Flickr via Creative Commons; all others courtesy Nancy Williams.