Margery McDuffie Whatley


Fanfare Magazine, Article, “Macon to Missoula: Pianist Margery McDuffie Whatley Reflects on Her Life and Career”

Macon to Missoula: Pianist Margery McDuffie Whatley Reflects on Her Life and Career

Pianist Margery McDuffie Whatley maintains an active performance schedule, appearing regularly on both coasts of the United States and points in between. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing her in recital, her recordings show her to be a technically fluent, musically sophisticated pianist. Her debut CD, Piano Reflections— Encore Favorites, was well received by Peter J. Rabinowitz (Fanfare 21:6), and now that she’s added two more to her discography, it seems like the right time to acquaint readers with the woman behind the music.

Q: Professional musicians have, almost without exception, begun their studies at an early age, so in conversations like this it might be tempting to treat that as a given and move on to current events. Still, unless they’re related, no two people share the same early environment, nor have the same experiences with teachers during their formative years. In that sense each person’s history is unique. So, where and when did yours begin?

A: I am a native of Macon, Georgia, and the youngest of four: Kathy, a church secretary in Macon; Robert (Bobby), an internationally acclaimed violinist based in Manhattan; and Sherwood, a banker in Atlanta. My parents, Bill and Susan, reside in Macon. My father is a retired district manager with Charles Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and my mother is a fine pianist, piano teacher, and organist. For 23 years she was music director/organist at our church in Macon, where she still teaches and performs. She and I enjoy performing concerts together—piano duos, duets, and solos.

I began piano lessons at the age of four and a half with Gladys Pinkston, my mother’s piano pedagogy teacher from Wesleyan Conservatory, and continued studies with Ms. Pinkston until I entered college. Even though I didn’t formally take lessons from my mother, I do consider her my main teacher, as she attended my lessons and sat in and oversaw my practice sessions. She was equally involved with Bobby’s lessons and practicing.

There was always music in the house. My mother would be teaching in one room, I’d be practicing in the other room, and Bobby would be practicing upstairs. You can imagine how my father, sister, and other brother coped with such a cacophony of sound! My mother is an avid supporter of the arts and took me with her to a variety of concerts and recitals, exposing me to great music and artists.

I was encouraged to enter competitions, festival auditions, guild auditions, etc., and had many performance opportunities. Some of my close friends were involved with piano, so I always enjoyed the times we could prepare together for these events, playing for each other and studying for the theory exams. Summer music camps were also wonderful and memorable experiences. I started entering piano competitions at age nine and started attending summer music camps at age 13.

I was fortunate to have some accompanying experience in junior high and high school, occasionally playing for the school chorus. I first performed with my brother when I was 13. Bobby had left Macon for Juilliard when he was almost 16 and I was eight. Our first performance together was at our brother Sherwood’s high school graduation—I vividly remember it—we played Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle. Since that time, we’ve enjoyed collaborating at some fun and unique venues, such as the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, the U.S. Supreme Court, the World Congress Center, and the magical 16th-century Gonfalone Oratory in Rome.

My first appearance soloing with an orchestra occurred when I was a high school senior, and since then I have performed concertos with various symphony orchestras throughout the United States. I also started teaching piano when I was in high school and discovered it was something I really enjoyed.

Q: I assume you studied music in college?

A: I attended Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, my freshman year. It’s a small women’s college with a strong music program. I had a great experience at Converse, studying with George Lucktenburg, but at the end of the year I felt ready to transfer to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to study with Frank Weinstock. I loved the fact that the conservatory was part of this big university. The three years at Cincinnati were very special and productive years. During this time I began seriously performing with Bobby. I remember playing for him in a four-week residency sponsored by Affiliate Artists throughout the state of Iowa. It was a phenomenal learning experience for me. We played formal concerts, and we interacted with audiences at more informal concerts. We did school shows, played for the Rotary Clubs, and performed at senior centers and teen shelters. From this experience, I have been inspired to present outreach programs, traveling to communities to make classical music more accessible to people of all ages and listening experiences. I have also learned how to handle surprising situations; wherever I go, I just deal with whatever piano is available. I’ve walked on stage, sat at the piano, started playing, and had the piano move while playing. I’ve had to play a piano with missing keys. There was one time I started playing during a performance, my foot depressed the pedal, and the pedal became disengaged—just fell off!

Q: I’m sure that’s more amusing in retrospect than it was at the time. Funnily enough, I recently had a conversation with another pianist who had the same experience with a moving piano. In his retelling it reminded me of a Victor Borge skit. Anyway, laughs aside, had you made any plans for what you’d do after college?

A: I graduated from Cincinnati with a bachelor of music degree in piano performance. At this point I knew that I eventually wanted to teach at the university level and would therefore need to have a doctorate. I decided to go to the University of Southern California, where I received my master’s and doctorate in piano performance. I chose USC because of renowned teacher John Perry, with whom I had worked for four summers at the Aspen Music Festival. An incredible teacher and musician, he was a great inspiration to me. My six years at USC were absolutely wonderful, enlightening, and important years. I was a graduate assistant—an assistant lecturer of piano—teaching individual and class piano instruction to piano secondaries and non- music majors. I also worked closely with the head of the piano pedagogy area, Marienne Uszler, in the advising and training of student teachers. I was also part of a special one-time-only course dealing with self-management. We called ourselves the Pacific Music Alliance and learned how to market ourselves, book concerts, and create contracts and press releases. It was basically a music outreach program. I would go out into various communities and perform school shows during the day and in the evening play a concert for the community. This was a fabulous experience!

During the summers I was gaining more teaching experience, teaching at a summer arts festival at Wesleyan College in Macon. In the spring of 1994, I received my doctorate and moved back south to Atlanta. In the fall of 1994, I moved to Huntsville to teach at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), where I taught for 13 years before moving to Montana. A tenured associate professor of music, I also served as chair of the music department and received the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Huntsville is nicknamed “The Rocket City” for its close history with U.S. space missions, but it’s also culturally very rich. I became very involved with the Huntsville Symphony, the Symphony Guild, the Arts Council, the Huntsville Chamber Music Guild, and the Huntsville Youth Orchestra. I was also active in my professional organizations. I met my husband, Terry, an oral surgeon, in Huntsville. We’re now in Montana because of Terry, who had told me from the start of his dream to live in Montana. As a college student backpacking out west, he arrived in Montana where he immediately felt a connection. After graduating, he received his license to practice in Alabama, his home state, and also from Montana. The 20-plus years he was in practice in Huntsville, he kept his license in Montana.

In the summer of 2002, I became chair of the music department at UAH. Simultaneously I became pregnant with twin girls! Kendall and Lindsay were born in March of 2003. I was soon back into the swing of things, back to work and preparing for concerts. I have warm memories of having the babies in their bouncy seats and then in their playpen by the piano as I practiced. As they became toddlers, they became mighty feisty, and I wasn’t able to practice until they went to sleep. To this day, when they are in bed, they always ask that I “Play piano!” It puts them to sleep—I don’t know what that says about my piano playing …

In the summer of 2006, Terry had a significant birthday and said, “If I’m ever going to move to Montana, now’s the time.” We moved to Missoula the summer of 2007. It was a bit scary, but exciting, to come to a new place where I knew no one. It has been wonderful being in Missoula. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming. When we first moved, I was, and still am, amazed at all that is going on here. Missoula has a thriving arts scene, indeed. Here in Montana, I have performed at the University of Montana—solo recitals and collaborative recitals. During the summers I teach at the University of Montana Summer Piano Camp. I have been featured on Montana Public Radio and have performed solo recitals in Butte, Georgetown Lake for the St. Timothy’s Summer Music Festival, and in the fall I will perform in Billings as part of the Montana State Music Teachers Association State Conference. I’ve been adjudicating in the area and have enjoyed working with several of the university students, serving as a guest clinician for the UM Keyboard Society Spring Festival and occasionally doing some guest teaching and sessions. In the spring I will teach at the University of Montana, substituting for one of the piano professors, who will be on sabbatical. I am president of the String Orchestra of the Rockies board of directors and immediate past president of the Missoula Music Teachers Association.

Q: In addition to your very active performing and teaching career, you’ve recorded three CDs, including one devoted to transcriptions. How did these come about?

A: For my first CD, Piano Reflections—Encore Favorites, I decided to choose repertoire that I enjoyed playing and programming on concerts and that I believed would appeal to listeners. Several of the works on this CD I learned in preparation for my lecture recital at USC on late 19th- and early 20th-century piano transcriptions. I found the topic to be most interesting; however, I also found that performing a recital of all transcriptions was pretty ambitious and challenging—so many notes and technically demanding—but I absolutely love this repertoire! The transcriptions from that CD that I still frequently perform are the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff Liebesleid, the Bach-Grainger Blithe Bells, and the Copland “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo, and now I’d really like to bring back the others: the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff Liebesfreud, the Mozart-Busoni Serenade from Don Giovanni, the Bizet- Moszkowski Chanson Bohème, and the Grieg Ich liebe dich. Just as an aside, I had been drawn to the Liebesleid, Liebesfreud, and the “Hoe- Down” since I had performed these so often with my brother—quite a bit more complex for solo piano, indeed!

When it came around to working on the second CD, I did take note of the Fanfare review (“the program as a whole is a most attractive one, and makes one eager to hear McDuffie in more extended repertoire”) and decided to program the Bach Toccata in D Major, the Haydn Sonata No. 62, and the Brahms Klavierstücke, op. 118, though I had to include Ravel’s Jeux d’eau as it is one of my favorites. Again, the works on this CD are those I have performed and will continue to perform.

My third CD, Mozart to Gershwin, consists of repertoire that I was performing at the time the recording of this CD began. My first performance in Missoula was at the University of Montana. After moving to Missoula, I remember contacting the piano professors, Steven Hesla and Christopher Hahn, at the university to introduce myself and immediately felt so at ease with them, like I’d known them forever. We’ve become close friends and frequently collaborate. On that first concert I performed the two-piano version of Rhapsody in Blue with Steven Hesla. Since that time we’ve had such fun performing it on other concerts. It just made sense to include this with him on the CD. I have also performed the Rhapsody in Blue with orchestra, wind ensemble, and jazz band, and just performed it on a solo recital in Macon with my mother—I obviously love this work!

~ Robert Schulslaper (from Fanfare Magazine, Sept/Oct 2011)