When he was six years old, Daniel Parker saw his sister perform in a choir concert. Afterward, he sat down at the piano and began to sound out the what her ensemble had sung. “When my mom saw that, she decided to get me lessons,” he said. “Then, I got into jazz because jazz harmony was much more interesting and complex than beginner classical harmony. I think as a kid I was really looking for something that would be stimulating mentally, but maybe my fingers weren’t ready to go into more advanced classical repertoire at that point.”
Now, Parker, who is the recipient of the 2016 Sudler Prize for Excellence in the Arts and a graduating senior with a major in Music, is bound for Juilliard, where he will begin work toward his Master of Music (MM) in Piano this September. Speaking on behalf of the MIT Music Faculty, Institute Professor Marcus Thompson says, “We have not in recent memory had a student cover so much important repertoire and scholarship as performer and scholar at such depth. In so doing, many of our colleagues have openly compared Daniel to the late great pianist/scholar, Charles Rosen, who began his career at MIT teaching French literature in SHASS (1953-1955)…. Daniel’s public profile as a pianist in prodigious recitals is by itself enough to astonish…. We have identified and embraced him as an outlier among the many brilliant and capable musicians we encounter.”
Parker spoke to us recently about making music at MIT, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Zen Buddhism, and the profound impact music has on his life. His senior recital takes place in Killian Hall on May 1, 2016 at 6:30pm.
INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL PARKER, MIT, MUSIC ’16
Is the piano your primary or only instrument?
I’m actually a classically trained singer. I’m a baritone and I started doing that seriously my last year of high school. Then I studied voice for two years when I got to MIT, and I only made the switch to go back to the piano halfway through. So piano is my primary instrument now, but I am also a singer.
What led you to MIT?
That’s a mess. [Laughter]. That’s a great question. You may have heard of Campus Preview Weekend. It’s an event for admitted students. I basically came and loved it better than any other place—the energy and creativity, especially the fact that students were organizing all of these things. It was really grassroots, and I liked the people I met.
When I graduated from high school I did a gap year in Egypt through a State Department scholarship. Through that process I got really interested in politics, international affairs and human rights. MIT is really good at political science, so I originally came here thinking that was what I was going to do.
What year were you and Egypt?
It was 2010-2011, the year of the revolution. The program got terminated early, and we left in early February.
Did that experience fortify your resolve to study political science?
Seeing how foreign affairs, which seem so abstract, have real consequences for human suffering abroad—that made me interested in politics. I didn’t continue with that because political science at MIT is mostly scientific—more positivist rather than normative. So I didn’t find what I was looking for there, which is how I eventually got to music.
Were you able to practice your music when you were abroad?
Not at all. It was painful, and I missed it a lot. I think I played piano once that whole year. We were visiting the Grand Opera House in Cairo. And there was a baby grand somewhere in the basement. I sort of abandoned what we were going to do for the day. The program coordinator understood and just let me sit with the piano all day. I remember that vividly.
When you came to MIT in 2011-2012, did you declare a Music Major at that point?
I tried out a number of different majors including computer science, math, I may have even been declared as a linguistics major for a while, before the Music Major became solidified. I took a year off from MIT and was living at a Zen monastery. As part of the readmission process, I declared Music, and that has been completely clear since 2013.
You were named an Emerson Scholar and an Emerson Fellow. What has that experience been like? What does that program involve?
My first year at MIT I won the Emerson scholarship for two instruments, but they only let you pick one. I won for both voice and piano and I picked voice. Then in 2012-13, I was named a Fellow in voice. In 2014 I switched and got a fellowship in piano. I have the same fellowship for this year, 2015-16.
I think when you’re a freshman you look at Emerson Scholars and you say, well free private lessons, that’s great. But it’s actually a fairly serious commitment, especially when you’re going to the fellowship, which is more selective. There are only eight or nine of us this year who are Emerson Fellows.
The main feature of the program is that you get to have private lessons. There’s also a requirement that you participate in ensemble practice. I’ve always done chamber music. If you’re a vocalist, you have to take a class about vocal repertoire, which I did when I was a freshman. There’s no special course for piano. As a fellow, there’s an expectation that you give a solo recital once a year, which is a really big time commitment. Preparing one hour of a recital takes a huge amount of time.
Looking back on all of your performances, classes and research, which projects stand out as the most enjoyable or the most significant for your artistic development?
I can tell you about two. For music majors, there’s a senior capstone seminar. The year I took it was about the string quartets of Beethoven. There’s this body of 16 quartets which are landmarks in the chamber music repertoire. I never knew about his string quartets because they don’t include the piano.
I spent that semester researching this very notorious piece by Beethoven called the Grosse Fuge, or the Great Fugue, which is a unique, scary and complicated piece. We studied formal analysis of musical structure, and I had this wonderful experience of writing a long analysis of the Great Fugue. I was lucky to gain recognition from MIT for this paper; I won the Kelly-Douglas Essay Prize, which is a big prize awarded by SHASS, the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, to one or two undergrads every year. And then I got a couple of other writing prizes from Comparative Media Studies for that work.
Another high point of what I’ve done is Bach. I’m not exactly sure where the idea came from, but I had this crazy idea to learn the whole Well-Tempered Clavier, or at least the first half. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of Preludes and Fugues in every major and minor key of the chromatic scale, and there are two sets. I decided to learn the first book, which was crazy ambitious to do, but I did it. It took me about two semesters, and I performed it in the end of 2014.
That was musically a life changing experience. Most pianists don’t bother to learn the whole thing. Everybody learns a little bit of it because it’s a cornerstone of the repertoire. But it made me fluent in that kind of contrapuntal language of the Baroque. And it also did wonders for my technique, because with Bach you’re playing multiple voices with your hand, so you have to have a lot of control over what is coming out when. It gave me a lot more maturity in terms of being able to memorize because it’s about two hours of nonstop music.
Could you elaborate on this idea that you mentioned about the physical dexterity required to perform Bach because you have to articulate different voices with your hand? Could you explain that—maybe in contrast to another composer or however it’s useful to explain it to someone who doesn’t know about these technical things?
Piano technique is this huge, very mysterious thing. Nobody actually knows the biomechanics of how they are playing when they’re doing it. But as pianists, we have a lot of ways of talking about it, and different composers of different periods will require different ways of holding yourself physically and holding your apparatus.
You find techniques that develop later in the Romantic era that aren’t present in Bach. But also you find techniques in Bach that aren’t treated with as much obsession later, because Bach’s instruments were different. The keyboard repertory hadn’t developed like it would later, so his technical palette was smaller—which isn’t to say it’s less rich. It’s just a different set of approaches that he had available. I think the obvious contrast to draw is with Chopin.
When you’re doing Bach typically you’re dealing with a lot of very fine finger activity, and so you need a very relaxed arm so that you play your piano with your whole upper body. Chopin, for example—the quintessential Romantic music—will require the same finger activity, but also much greater involvement with wrist flexibility, and in the louder parts, a much greater use of the upper arm, the shoulders and the back. So, Bach has a lot of very fine stuff like ornaments, which are like little trills that happen very quickly, or you’ll have a chord and you’ll have to bring out the middle note to have the outer ones be more quiet. So there’s a much greater degree of subtlety in that particular way than what you find in later music.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced at MIT—either musically or otherwise?
I think the biggest challenge was something that maybe most undergraduates deal with; whatever school we’re from, many of us were the best at everything without trying very hard. Then you come here, and you’re really not the best at anything anymore. That psychological adjustment was long and painful for me. It is for a lot of us, I think. I tried to sign myself up for a lot of honors coursework that, in retrospect, I really didn’t have to do. But that made my first one to two years here really difficult academically. Also psychologically, that caused a crisis of confidence, and I felt that I was not good enough at anything to make a career or a future out of it.
The other really big thing was feeling profoundly out of place as somebody interested in the arts. I’m not sure I’m old enough to call myself an artist yet, but as a musician, my heart and my soul is in the music that I make. I like to speak a language about spirituality and about art that sometimes feels illegible or incommunicable to people around me who are engineers and scientists. So I think feeling alienated and really out of place has been difficult. But I have been able to find people who share what I do and who understand it—not just students, but especially faculty. The music faculty has definitely been my greatest support here.
What advice do you have for fellow music students here?
It’s funny because I just was e-mailed by an admitted student who asked me about this. She wanted to know if there is time for music. She asked how much coursework can I do and fit in my music and what is music like at MIT? My advice to her was basically, if this matters to you in a deep way, you will find the time to do it. In terms of other advice, I think it is important to make music if you’re called to make music. If you don’t have that calling or that deep sense of inner meaning to it, you won’t have the energy to do it, and you won’t do it.
We must talk about your recent acceptance to Juilliard. Congratulations! Obviously, this is a significant step in helping you to perfect your craft. Can you put into words what this means for you at this stage?
It shocked me more than anybody else. It shocked me because I only started playing the piano seriously in the beginning of 2014. To come from hardly being able to make it through a single piece in performance to being accepted at the greatest music school in the country is like, wow, that all happened in two years. It feels like a tremendous piece of validation of my art and my music making. I’m just immensely lucky; it’s really competitive to get in. There are hundreds of applications for the graduate spots, and they accepted just over 20.
Juilliard is mythical. The quality of the students there is so high. It’s competitive, not in a mean-spirited way; I feel really inspired for the way that it’s going to push me to try harder and to really understand music more deeply. And it’s also not my fault that I got in; it’s due to the support of so many people at MIT like Sam Magee, Susan Cohen and the music faculty. It’s not just validation for me.
You’ll be performing in Killian on May 1st. What will that program be?
It’s a really beautiful program, and I’m really proud of the way that it came together. My piano teacher and I have been working hard for months to figure out what it was going to be. It’s going to open with a couple of Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, who was a Baroque composer who wrote these really exquisite miniatures. They’re very virtuosic and really exciting.
Then there’s a set of the Four Impromptus, Opus 90 from Franz Schubert, which is the most famous piece in the program. They’re early Romantic, so they’re very passionate, evocative and deep pieces. After the intermission, there’s a harpsichord suite by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was a Baroque French composer.
Not too many pianists play this piece, but the music is incredible. It’s a fascinating set of dances and character pieces. The last piece is by Olivier Messiaen, a 20th century French composer. It’s one movement from a longer work called, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, or Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus.
It’s a spectacular work. This particular movement depicts the baby Jesus reaching out of his cradle to hug his mother. That’s a whole kind of Fantasia on that one image. It’s really incredible.
You said you took a year off and spent it at a Zen monastery. Could you share something about these other aspects of your life and whether you incorporate these interests into your music?
I can say certainly for myself, although I don’t think every musician would describe it in this way, that my music is a spiritual practice. I don’t necessarily mean spiritual as relating to God because I don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist. But the definition of spirituality that I use that was given to me by a friend is how we relate to things that are of ultimate concern.
And for me the very reason that I’m interested in music is because it is a unique type of human communication that connects people emotionally and spiritually. And that’s why I do it. My only interest in it is that kind of deep communication that is above and beyond what words can do. In terms of particular things like like Zen Buddhism, I think having a meditation practice definitely helps with the discipline and focus of working on mastering an instrument. Spending a lot of time in silence helps you to appreciate sound when it when it is present.