Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
Sometime in high school I discovered that one could actually major in collaborative piano. I had been accompanying school choirs and musicals for a few years at that point and was interested in pursuing further opportunities along those lines. When I approached my potential college piano professor she suggested that I major in performance and pursue accompanying alongside solo work. Her thinking was that I would get a better technical foundation and more exposure to great repertoire by going the performance route. I followed her advice and enjoyed my solo piano degree thoroughly while having many opportunities to accompany choirs, opera, singers, musical theatre, and so forth during my college studies and up to now.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My mom and dad both play piano and my mom was my first teacher. My dad studied in college, although he did not choose to major in music. I have played duets with him since I was a little girl. He has a critical ear and shares music with me constantly. My high school piano teacher, Barbara Stoutenburgh, and my high school choir teacher, Julia Rowe, taught me many foundations and introduced me to students who loved music as much as I did. My college professor, Dr. Judy Lively, and one of my college choir directors, Dr. Sheila Corley, were also extremely influential, introducing me to great masterworks of the literature and pushing my limits pianistically. Since then I have been fortunate to work with living composer/conductor/ pianist/singer Dr. Stephen Michael Newby and my current choir director, Dr. Glenn Gregg. Both have been instrumental in shaping the way I think about practicing and communicating, both in rehearsal and on stage.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There have been several times in my life when I was afraid I had reached a standstill in my music. College was extremely rewarding for me musically and I was sad to leave such a rich musical environment when I graduated and moved out of state to be near family. Fortunately, less than a year after graduating, I was invited to accompany the church choir that Dr. Newby was directing. That led to collaborations with wonderful artists and organizations across the United States and several world premieres. After about eight years the choir went through a series of changes and I began full-time mothering my three children ages three and under. During this time I was at a loss for how to continue music in any focused fashion. My husband, being an entrepreneur, encouraged me to create my own opportunities, and it is because of him that I began hosting house concerts in our home and found my new musical home-away-from-home at Kirkland Choral Society as their accompanist.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I recently recorded my first solo classical CD, ‘Commonplace Beauty’, a huge accomplishment for me and a long-time dream of mine. I recorded on a low budget in my living room with the help of a few friends, and thanks to the independent music industry have been able to distribute my music to major social media platforms and have begun enjoying radio play across the United States. The project is mine from start to finish, from conception to choice of repertoire, piano and recording location, graphic design concept, and so on. I have had complete control over the production, and it has been an incredibly satisfying experience. I know that not all musicians have the freedom to take on such a project. As far as my playing goes, I learned a lot and feel like the album is a good representation of who I am as a pianist in this season of my life.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I love to play the Chopin Scherzi and Nocturnes. I love music that shows off fast finger work and speaks in soaring melodies. The Ginastera Creole Dances fit this description well.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
There are pieces I learned in university that I continue to revisit. After twenty years I find I can bring a new perspective to them and my ear is more developed now, so I can spend more time polishing and being intentional about producing a beautiful tone and precise rhythms. Although I don’t perform a fraction as often as what you would consider a “concert pianist” does, I host house concerts once a quarter in which I perform with local musician friends. I have programmed Latin Dances concerts in which I had a jazz pianist friend play standard jazz tunes and I played selections from Albeniz and Ginastera, juxtaposing jazz and classical forms. Another concert I programmed was titled “Bernstein and Friends” where I accompanied a soprano singing Bernstein’s song cycle, “I Hate Music,” Bernstein’s Four Anniversaries for piano, an arrangement of Copland’s Hoe Down from “Rodeo” for piano, and a cello-piano version of the theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I did another program called “Songwriter” where composer Dr. Stephen Newby performed some original works and I played Schubert songs – some Impromptus and some of Liszt’s arrangements of Winterreise songs for piano. I love finding connections between similar disparate pieces and I try to appeal to my not-necessarily-classical-music-savvy audiences. It is a fun challenge.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love performing in my “piano room.” Our entry opens up to the second story, so we have a wonderful open hallway to the piano room that flows into the dining room which has these 20-foot ceilings and a balcony which looks on from the second level. We can fit 30 people in the two rooms and hallway for a house concert. The acoustics are wonderful, the sunlight streams through the many windows, and having friends listen 6-feet away is quite intimate. I love that my audience can ask questions during the concert without feeling intimidated and that we can share a bite to eat afterward.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I love Helene Grimaud for her beautiful colors and innovative programs. I think Lara Downes is doing wonderful things with her programming, making classical music accessible to a wide range of people. I think Vladimir Horowitz has fantastic technique and a wonderfully honest approach to the piano. Yuja Wang dazzles me with her showmanship. I love Simone Dinnerstein’s way with Bach. And I love Susan Tomes for her way of writing what is in my heart when I approach the piano.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My senior recital in college in our small concert hall: I played the Brahms Intermezzo Opus 118 to high praise from my professor. In the second movement especially I felt like I was speaking my heart to the audience. I played Chopin on that concert as well, and a good friend of mine, also a piano major, said he just laid down under a piano backstage and listened. I think the highest praise comes from those who know and love you best (and who understand the art form!).
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Having the freedom to do music your way. What I mean by that is getting to the point where you can express yourself completely at your instrument, from repertoire selection to perfecting the execution, with the result that your music speaks to people at a deep level.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Do the hard stuff first! Work hard to study music theory and history and form and analysis because when you master these things you truly have freedom in your art. I think many young people try to take shortcuts, wanting to get quickly to the music without the discipline of focused study. Take the theory classes, take notes in master classes, and listen to what other musicians are doing. Taking shortcuts only limits your opportunities to grow into the best musician you can be.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to be more consistent as a performer, have a better handle on my nerves. I would like to have recorded a few more CDs and performed a concerto with a local orchestra. There are endless possibilities for creating a life in music, and I feel like I am just beginning.
Cori Belle’s debut solo classical piano album, ‘Commonplace Beauty’, featuring music by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Bernstein, Ives, and Ginastera, is available now. Further information