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
"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
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
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
"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
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
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.