Biography / Profile Conversations with Emmett Vokes, a Steinway Master (906 words) In his father’s piano store, the three-year-old Emmett Vokes was watching two French men. After looking around, they started playing on different pianos, and then they turned to talk to his father, not paying attention to Vokes jumping right to the piano behind their back. They were musicians looking for instruments for their new music school, to be opened soon in Vokes’s hometown in Plainfield, New Jersey. Suddenly the visitors hushed and turned. They were watching and hearing little Vokes pick out with his tiny fingers the exact same tune they just played. Instantly, they knew the boy had the rare gift called perfect pitch. “The French men almost adopted me,” Vokes said. Vokes became the first student of the new French School of Music. He gave recitals around Plainfield by the age of seven and toured the East Coast by the age of nine, playing in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and other places, commanding sometimes 40 recitals a year. He was on the news, on radio, on T.V., attracting wide attention and lots of new students for his music school. Regarding the title “child prodigy” that people gave him back then, Vokes said with a spark of humor in his eyes: “I was very spoiled… When you’re four years old, no matter what you play, people love it.” Vokes reminisced a childhood filled with not just piano but also singing, dancing, French and etiquette lessons. He was, in particular, not allowed to practice piano alone. Every day, after taking lessons with the teachers, he would practice for a few more hours with a tutor by his side—so that he “could not afford any chance to play wrong.” 2 If not for the compulsory education law, Vokes said he might not have gone to school like other children. The school schedule deprived him of numerous touring opportunities. The 11-year-old Vokes faced another frustrating reality: English schooling seemed “quite a translation” to him. “I had to re-learn English… after all those years studying music and other things in French,” Vokes said. When he finished high school, the Julliard School of Music offered Vokes a full scholarship. There, at the most prestigious music institution in the nation, Vokes won two consecutive G. Schirmer Prizes and an Olga Samaroff Award for best performance. He received the Frank Damrosch Award for graduating first in his class, both musically and academically. Then, at the master’s level, he again received the highest rank with the Morris Loeb Award. Vokes said his decision to enter Julliard marked a turning point in his life. The child prodigy stayed behind; the artist emerged, with labor and discipline. At Julliard, Vokes studied with two masters whose influence upon him—Vokes said—remained greatest. The first one was Beveridge Webster, who taught Vokes “how to reason and think in music.” Vokes talked at length about what he called the “musical equation.” “The equation is set up in music. When you listen to music, you’re hearing the equation.” Vokes illustrated the concept by humming a part of Chopin’s Etude in A minor. “Da dee deed a… da dee deed a…da dee deed a… Do you hear [the equation]?” Vokes asked. “It’s balanced and beautiful.” “Every musician goes through a Mozart phase,” Vokes continued. He smiled at my confusing face and added, “Mozart music is pure math, and the equation is simple. That’s why children love him… In Schumann and Debussy, the equations are more complicated; you have to look for them.” Vokes said he is good at finding the equations, and when he plays, the listeners can “follow.” 3 Vokes was awarded the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation grant to prepare for his debut recital in New York. Perhaps Lester Trimble of the New York Herald Tribune heard and followed the musical equations as he wrote about Vokes’s performance: “an extraordinarily gifted young pianist… withal here was as splendid a debut as we have heard in some time.” For Raymond Ericson of the New York Times, “[Vokes’ playing] was just about perfect.” The second influence was Sascha Gorodnitzki, who taught Vokes the mechanics of piano playing, with the renowned “wrist technique.” But the lesson that Vokes recalled most vividly had nothing to do with technique: Gorodnitzki never allowed Vokes to take notes during lesson, demanding him instead to listen and remember. “When you take notes, you’re not listening,” Vokes repeated his teacher’s words while leaning toward me, who was madly scribbling down what he just said. I caught the twinkle in his eyes and scribbled even faster. For years, Vokes toured extensively in the United States and Canada, both as a soloist and as a member of the Philharmonic Piano Quartet. Most recently he won the Artist Recording Competition sponsored by the National Guild of Piano Teacher. Now, in his 70s, Vokes has earned the Master Tutor of Piano title and is considered by many a Master of the Chopin style. He teaches at St. Mary’s University and runs a studio serving students and artists at all levels. Vokes seems content with his personal life though he refused to talk about it. He married Carol Vokes, a professional pianist who performed with the San Antonio Symphony as the winner of the “Joske Piano Competition.” The walls of Vokes’s office are lined with child paintings. There’s a photo of his family, in which I counted ten people: Vokes, his wife Carol, and eight beautiful children. He seems prolific in every way.
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