On Teaching: Gene Roan

July 20, 2021
Eugene Roan
Eugene Roan at a clavichord

Thinking about Gene Roan

This month I share thoughts about my teacher Gene Roan, as the ninetieth anniversary of his birth took place recently. He was born June 8, 1931, and died in 2006 at the age of 75. This recent birthday, significant yet also sad, has led me to think about him quite a lot. On June 8, I posted a lengthy commemoration of Gene on Facebook, recounting some of my interactions with him and reflections on what he meant to me. This was met with a gratifyingly large amount of favorable comment, with many colleagues and friends chipping in with some of their own memories. It was this experience that led me to feel that I should not miss the opportunity to commemorate Gene here. I studied with him formally off and on from the fall of 1974 through 1986. Gene and I remained colleagues in and around Westminster Choir College and close friends until his death on September 21, 2006, after a long illness.

I wrote a column about my other principal organ teacher, Paul Jordan, on the occasion of his death in early 2015. I had been studying with Paul, formally and informally, in New Haven, where I grew up and he worked, for several years when in the summer of 1974 I faced the prospect of going off to college at
Princeton. That was all very well, but working with Paul was so compelling that I was distraught about having to make any sort of change. As I recall, I initially assumed that I would continue to study with him, taking lessons when I was home, and maybe keeping in touch by phone. However, he made plans to leave New Haven that summer, taking a faculty job at the State University of New York at Binghamton, so I asked him to recommend a teacher in Princeton. Paul phoned his friend, the renowned choral conductor and teacher Helen Kemp, who was on the Westminster faculty at the time. He described what I was like as a student and what I might be looking for, and she remarked, “Well, I think Gene Roan is interested in Baroque music.” And thus, very casually, the whole rest of the course of my professional life was set.

I was pretty shy as a seventeen-year-old, so it took me a few weeks to call Professor Roan, even though I was very eager to resume organ lessons. (I also arrived at Princeton with a very nice letter of introduction to William Scheide from a mutual friend. I was too shy to follow up on that, which I have always regretted.) Roan and I arranged to meet at the console of the organ in the Princeton University Chapel. When we had both arrived we talked for a few minutes and then repaired to a small diner a few blocks away to continue chatting over tea. I felt comfortable with him right away. But I also had a concern; he had not asked to hear me play. Did this mean that he had already decided against taking me as a student? I could not imagine that an experienced, august teacher would agree to start working with a student without experiencing their playing. I had assumed that this event was in part going to be an audition. But none of this was true, and we made an appointment for our first actual lesson shortly thereafter. I was left a bit nervous that perhaps when he heard me play some doubt would creep in.

In fact, Gene had taught me his first lesson: how a prospective student already plays is the least important matter about that student. What matters is that they have decided that they want to study. By the time I started teaching regularly around 1985, I had really absorbed that idea. As far as I can remember I have never specifically asked anyone who inquired about lessons to play for me before agreeing to take them on as a student. I am pretty sure I have never declined to take someone on for any reason. If I did it would be because I suspected that they did not really want to be there, but normally it is up to the student to make that judgment.

Sometime soon into our work together, probably at that first real lesson, Gene explained to me that he never expected a student to play a piece the same way that he did. That fit in nicely with my own temperamental approach. I was very stubborn about doing things the way that I wanted to, and my mind was pretty closed to ideas about interpretation that I had not somehow already absorbed by then. (In the aforementioned Facebook post I wrote: “I am at this point the most open-minded person I know of as to artistic matters—maybe to a fault, in some people’s eyes—but when I was seventeen and had only been playing organ for a couple of years I was pretty sure that I knew how things should be done.”)

Everything that I “knew” about “how things should be done” I had gotten from somewhere, largely from Paul Jordan and the approach that he taught, and also from various non-organ musical influences. There is an interesting paradox involved in wanting to do things my way as a kind of declaration of independence when “my” way has been absorbed entirely from others. These kinds of conflicts are probably universal and inevitable, especially early in life. Maybe they are not really conflicts: just the stuff of which our various approaches are made. At first I greeted Gene’s disavowal of any intention of directing me to play a certain way with relief, because I did not want my existing notions to be challenged or changed. What he taught me over many years, starting with that declaration at our first lesson, was open-mindedness itself. And in doing so he opened me up to radical changes in my own playing, all of which came about organically. I was never at a stage where I was doing something just because someone else was requiring me to do it when I found it unconvincing. If you who are reading this today have read this column over the years, you know how much this approach of Gene’s has influenced my own teaching and thinking about teaching.

I have wondered whether one of his reasons for not expecting his students to play the way he did was that he needed for his own way of doing things to be flexible and subject to change. If you lock in an interpretive stance by convincing your students that it is right and necessary, then what happens when you evolve away from that stance? Nothing happens exactly, as a practical matter, but it seems like kind of an awkward state of affairs. I know that Gene was always a bit worried, in “one off” teaching situations like workshops, that the ideas presented might come across to the students as too cut and dried, too clearly “true” when they were really just part of a long thought process. When he taught workshops, as he did a lot over many years, he was careful to present his teaching in a way that avoided this as much as possible.

I know that Gene’s overriding concern in teaching was to give each student what that student specifically needed. As I evolved towards being more open to interpretive approaches other than those I had absorbed from almost the cradle, we had many talks in which I thanked him for his flexibility and non-dogmatic approach. And while he certainly did not remotely disavow that approach, he also took pains to remind me that there are all sorts of different approaches that might be needed for different students. In my case he never directly criticized ideas that I brought to lessons, even ones that I later figured out he thought were flawed, limited, or with which he disagreed. Constantly over many years he pointed me toward all sorts of other manners of hearing things and thinking about music—not so much to get me to adopt any of them as to get me to be open to various interpretations. There are students who perhaps need to be guided a bit more directly. There are also students who think that they need to be guided more directly but who really do not. There are students who learn most from the teacher, and there are students who learn most from other students. There are students who learn by listening, others who learn through analysis, and still others through just trying things. Gene probably thought more consciously and conscientiously about respecting these different needs than anyone else I have known.

Gene Roan was a very fine and accomplished player. During the years that we were both in Princeton he did not give many full-length organ recitals there. I believe that I heard him in such a recital only twice. The first of those was on the Casavant organ at Westminster in the same fall when he and I first met: a recital that included the Bach Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578. I had only ever heard that piece as light, clear, and relaxed—though with building intensity. (This was, to be honest, because I had only listened to the Walcha recording, and maybe tried to play it myself.) Gene played it fast and loud—magnificent, but also shocking to me. I remember that I asked him about it afterwards. I took it for granted that he knew that his way of playing it was kind of “out there” (though as far as I have any reason to believe now, it wasn’t!). He said that this was what he did with the piece when he wanted to shock people. I think that he was partly indulging my limited perspective on the piece by putting it that way, though it was likely also true.

Gene was a great admirer of Mendelssohn’s organ repertoire. We had several fascinating lessons on a couple of the sonatas and maybe a prelude and fugue or two, though I never did much with those pieces in performance myself. In a way that seemed to arise directly out of his love for and affinity with those works, as he was easily the finest Mendelssohn performer that I have ever heard. I heard more suppleness, expressivity, singing quality, and general sense that something consequential was going on with his playing of Mendelssohn than I have heard before or since. He was also especially interested in Reincken, and his analysis of the massive fantasia on An Wasserflüssen Babylon over the course of a couple of lessons was my introduction to the rhetoric of pre-Bach form.

Like many organists, Gene was interested in and focused on sonority. He knew a lot about organ design, both its history and how it works or can work in practice. He had an extraordinary ability to remember specific organ stops. He once told me that if he heard a particular Doppelflöte stop (just an example, but a favorite of his), he would recognize that specific stop forever, should he hear it again. I think that this in part led him to focus more on actual sound than on stop names. He used to delight in telling students that on one old electronic organ, the best-sounding diapason was the stop labeled French Horn. Not that this approach was unique to him or is unique to those who were his students, but it was eye-opening and influential to me and I believe to many others.

He also taught me a lot about the relationship between sonority and interpretation. In a column from 2008 I wrote in these terms about one salient example of that:

In the spring of 1979 I was studying . . . with Prof. Eugene Roan. . . . I played one of the Well-Tempered Clavier fugues for him on my new harpsichord, and he commented that he couldn’t hear a certain motif when it came in in the top voice. I think that I said something about harpsichord voicing, or acoustics, but he suggested that I simply make the theme a bit more detached, and he demonstrated that it could indeed be heard better that way. He floated the idea that the sound of the instrument was telling me something about how to play the piece. At the time I was very committed to the notion that this theme should be articulated a certain way, and that it should be played exactly that way every time that it came in. I didn’t want the instrument to try to force me to depart from my plan. However, that moment was the beginning of my considering the idea that interpretation could be, in effect, a collaboration between analytically derived ideas and acoustic- or instrument-derived sonic realities, and that neither side of that picture should be ignored.

When Professor Roan became head of the organ department at Westminster in 1995 he invited me to join the faculty as an adjunct, initially to teach harpsichord, but soon after also to teach organ and segments of various classes. He retired in 2000, and I left at the same time. These years were extraordinary. He was an extremely supportive “boss”—quotation marks meant to convey, of course, that he did not really feel or behave like a boss, but rather a very supportive colleague with lots of resources to make good things happen. I brought a lot of harpsichords to the campus, and there were a lot of organs there in those days. We had non-stop informal interaction among students and faculty over all sorts of instruments and repertoire. (This interaction was so fruitful and real that I sometimes cannot remember for sure whether a student whom I knew then actually took lessons from me or not.) I was given a lot of freedom to do whatever I thought was right with my students, guided by the notion that this is never the same from one student to another. I had students who didn’t play Bach over a whole year, or nothing but Bach, or who worked on only one piece for a whole semester or even a whole year, or who, for a while at least, just dabbled in many pieces in a row without really learning any; students who played in class every week, and students who did so very rarely: whatever was going to work psychologically and pedagogically to help that student get the most out of the experience. I would tend to run unconventional things by Gene expressly, and he would make sure that I could articulate what I was going for. There was never any top-down decision making.

As I mentioned above, we were good friends for about thirty-two years. He was a presence around Princeton and Westminster for over fifty years, and there are countless people there and spread out through the world who remember him vividly and miss him as I do.

Leonard Eugene Roan, Jr., was born June 8, 1931, in Albany, Georgia, and died September 21, 2006, in Princeton, New Jersey.

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