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Ginger Yang Hwalek

Practicing Piano
UMaine teacher named best in the nation by the Music Teachers National Association

About the Photo:  Ginger Yang Hwalek, named the 2006 Teacher of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association, is a University of Maine instructor, professional accompanist and chamber musician who, with soprano Nancy Ogle, has recorded three CDs of contemporary American art songs on the Capstone Records label.

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Ginger Yang Hwalek was 4 when she started playing the piano. She was in the second grade when she knew, without a doubt, that her life's calling was to be a pianist, and she was a college student when it became clear that teaching not a solo career was the passion she would pursue.

This spring, her lifetime of devotion to piano performance and pedagogy reached a pinnacle when she was named the 2006 Teacher of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association.

Like the other milestones in her professional career, Hwalek says the national recognition has been "life changing."

"To me, this is like the Oscar for piano teaching," Hwalek says of the honor from the 24,000-member professional organization. "It reinforces all the grassroots work that I do as a teacher."

Hwalek, an instructor in the University of Maine School of Performing Arts since 1982, has an exemplary, versatile teaching style that is rigorous and widely respected, physically and psychologically challenging, requiring students to think both abstractly and concretely multitasking at the highest artistic performance levels.

The training she offers reflects her own instruction in the Midwest in the '70s.

Soon after placing first in a competition in her home state of Indiana, which earned her a solo spotlight with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, Hwalek began studying under renowned pianist Robert Hamilton. She was in ninth grade.

As an undergraduate at Indiana University, she was a pupil of Hamilton's mentor, Sidney Foster, and Hans Boepple. Her graduate work took her to Wichita State University, where she again was Hamilton's pupil, as well as a student of piano pedagogy pioneer Marguerite Miller.

The intimacy and emotion of chamber music that she discovered at both universities became the focus of her doctoral work at Northwestern, where she studied with Robert Weirich.

In preparing to teach the instrument she loved, Hwalek learned important lessons about communicating the phrasing in a piece of music, the value of tone quality and the use of imagery to help students visualize the connection between the brain and fingers, heightening sensory perception of the keys. Above all, she came to recognize the individuality each student pianist brings to the instrument.

"Every student has his or her own concepts of how to play piano," says Hwalek, who directs UMaine's Chamber Music Program and Maine Summer Youth Music. "At Wichita, I learned the importance of customizing the piano learning process to each person. Without seeing that difference in each student, you won't teach piano successfully."

Knowing the whole student involves understanding "where they see themselves going, where their parents want them to go, the speed at which they learn, the music that's right for them," she says. "That's why a piano class with up to 12 students in one room, each with his or her own keyboard, is a real challenge."

That heightened awareness of the young pianist's personality and aspirations is key to building trust between teacher and student. With such an alliance, Hwalek says, the student responds to the lessons knowing the teacher understands the performer's potential and aspirations.

Such understanding is particularly important with the precollege- and college-age students with whom Hwalek now works most. Those in private lessons transfer to her studio after outgrowing their previous programs or because they are ready for "a new view of the piano." They usually spend a year in transition with Hwalek, understanding her performance standards and allowing her to get a grasp on "what makes them tick." At this performance level, they are taking on very involved works that require an understanding of the musical message and the composer's style.

"My job is to teach students to play in different styles without sacrificing their own personalities," says Hwalek. "Part of the challenge is to not only teach them this music, but also how to express themselves."

Hwalek's hope is that, no matter where their careers take them, the students will be lifelong, active music participants and patrons. She wants them to know that, in their formative years, they studied with someone for whom music was very important and who knew how important music was to them.

For nearly a quarter-century, Maine audiences have come to know Hwalek and her students. Like their mentor, Hwalek's students make a clear statement about how the music has infused their lives.

As a professional accompanist and chamber musician, Hwalek's hope is that her audiences hear a new interpretation and leave entertained.

"That's important," she says, "because I'm teaching while I'm playing. Through the music, I'm conveying beauty, energy, thought; maybe for the first time pulling (emotions and memories) out from deep inside them."

by Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2006

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