When he moved to Austin, Texas, 10 years ago, Bethany Beach native Matthew McLaughlin decided to bring with him two things he loves: his music and a piece of his hometown. And that was the beginning of his business and his passion — his own piano studio, the Bethany School of Music.
“I started teaching, I think, before I could drive. My first student was when I was 15 years old… I think I had a learner’s permit. His name was Scottie, and he must’ve been in his 70s, and he would come in a pickup truck and take lessons every week,” recalled McLaughlin.
“It was a real learning experience for me because I was this kid… You couldn’t be more disparate than this, right? I was this kid teaching this gentleman how to play. He was really sweet and understanding. I don’t know how he put up with me and, of course, I had no idea what I was doing.”
He had students throughout his high school career and into college. McLaughlin even had one student who went on to study music and another who went on to get a vocal degree.
“I was teaching a lot from an early age. I didn’t really think of it that way, but in retrospect it was really good for me, because it got me a head start,” he said. “In Austin, I taught through grad school. Within a year of moving to Texas, I was able to establish a good-sized studio.”
McLaughlin also started a website, PianoBlog, which he views as an extension of his private studio. Offering weekly posts about bettering one’s piano studies, McLaughlin has just started offering merchandise for teachers and students on the site.
“It’s my chance to share day-to-day stuff, as well as my own ideas, tips, tricks, advice and the like surrounding piano study,” he explained.
McLaughlin’s latest endeavor is the Austin Piano Festival — a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the musical culture of Austin, Texas, and surrounding areas by providing multiple educational opportunities and world-class concerts. McLaughlin is one of the founding members of the festival and currently serves as the board’s president.
McLaughlin started playing piano at the age of 7, taking lessons with Ruth Jones in Ocean View. He later went on to study with the late Gene Yenni of Lewes, at the age of 12. While in high school, McLaughlin also participated in the Governor’s School for the Arts. Studying with Yenni, said McLaughlin, was influential for him as a musician.
“I played all around. Gene would always organize these concerts, so I would perform in whatever venue was available,” he said. “There were concerts all throughout Delaware. At the time, it was smaller, so there weren’t a ton of opportunities, to be honest.
“I always loved music, so I danced and sang. Mom was always in musicals, and there was a piano in the house. I think I gravitated toward the piano because it was there.”
At the age of 15, McLaughlin performed Mozart’s “Piano Concerto in C Major No. 21” with the Salisbury (Md.) Symphony Orchestra.
“As a kid, playing with the orchestra was pretty important,” he said. “That was a big deal for me at the time… I actually played a concerto for harp that could be played with piano instead, with their youth orchestra.”
McLaughlin also studied with Dr. Lee Mitchell, formerly of the Peabody Conservatory.
“I first played for him in a master class he gave when I was 13. Then I started studying with him when I was 15,” recalled McLaughlin. “He was a pretty major step up. He was coming from a very professional background, because he studied and taught at Peabody, and had studied with Leon Fleisher, who’s one of the most important teachers in the 20th century. So it was a big step up in what was expected of me at the piano.”
Following his graduation from Indian River High School in 1999, McLaughlin matriculated to James Madison University.
“I knew music was a big part of my life, but I was also into philosophy. When I started at JMU, there was a month where I was a philosophy major,” noted McLaughlin.
However, his stint as a philosophy major was short-lived, as the music department quickly got wind of McLaughlin’s talents.
“I don’t think there was a formal audition. They just said, ‘You’re kind of going to be a piano major,’” he recalled with a laugh. “I got an easier pass into that than I think most people, and the rest is history.”
McLaughlin graduated from JMU in 2004 and then matriculated to the University of Texas at Austin in 2005. He graduated from the university with a master’s degree in music theory while studying with pianist Anton Nel.
“He was the main driving force for my coming here,” said McLaughlin of Nel.
McLaughlin is also an alumnus of the Aspen Festival & School, where he studied under Jean-David Coen.
His love of music and his positive experience at the Aspen Festival motivated him to purchase the website domain AustinPianoFestival.com 10 years ago, when he moved to Austin — long before he had any real plans for the festival.
“I just thought, ‘It’s funny that this isn’t taken, and it’s funny that nothing exists called the ‘Austin Piano Festival.’ For years, I just held onto it, thinking, ‘Someday there’s going to be an Austin Piano Festival.’”
Then, four years ago, he emailed a few of his friends and said, “I want to actually do this.”
“We’d been talking about how it would be fun to have an excuse for us all to get together and play. So we got together, had a meeting and just did it. We had our first meeting right before Thanksgiving,” he said. “Six months from ‘We’re going to do this’ to ‘We have international people flying into town and we’ve arranged concerts.’ It was a really, really fast-moving thing. It was a trial by fire. I was on the radio, I was being interviewed, I was being asked to play things, gather support and market.”
McLaughlin said the lack of a piano festival was perplexing, as Austin is a quickly growing city with a rich musical culture.
“Most cities in Texas have some sort of piano-centered festival or organization,” he said. “For instance, if you go to Dallas-Fort Worth, there’s the Van Cliburn, which is a world-famous competition, but it’s also a famous piano festival and piano institute. Just a little bit south of us is San Marcos, and they have an international piano festival. San Antonio has a piano series.
“It’s just interesting, because UT is known for its piano faculty, and there are an incredible amount of classical performers here in Austin and really world-class musicians. Of course, in Austin you get overshadowed a little bit, because it’s kind of the pop-rock-indie capital of the world, so to speak. But there’s also a very strong classical community.”
He said there have been good performances through the university and Texas Performing Arts, but there wasn’t a society dedicated solely to the piano and to piano concerts.
“It was sort of a no-brainer. I love the piano and I’m a pianist, and there’s not a piano organization in one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S.”
This year, the festival will be held May 8 and 9, and May 15 through 17. The festival includes an opening and closing gala, numerous recitals and master classes.
“The atmosphere should be very warm and congenial,” said McLaughlin, who expects that more than 100 people will attend each concert. “This year, we feature a really cool concert of Debussy Préludes where we’re projecting onto a screen images and paintings that the preludes are based on.”
“We try to keep it very classy and absolutely top-notch, to keep it very relevant and interesting.”
In its third year, the Austin Piano Festival invites middle school and high school piano students from all over the state of Texas to compete.
“They perform, really, at the highest level of playing that you can imagine,” he said of the students.
The festival has two rounds of competition: first, a pre-screening round by audio recording and then, a final round, in which the students travel to Austin and perform live in front of judges.
“Those winners go on to participate in a whole bunch of festival activities,” said McLaughlin. “They perform live on the radio. They perform in our closing gala, which is a really cool gala. They perform in master classes with a lot of the visiting artists and guest teachers.”
This year, master classes will be held over four days, featuring pianists Michael Schneider, Johan Botes Nancy Weems, John Weems, Kris Pineda, Chris Guzman and Gregory Allen. All of those classes are free and open to the public.
McLaughlin said the competition is great in and of itself but is even better because it is heavily integrated with the festival.
“The participants in the competition get something more from it than just coming and playing in the festival. They get to become an integral part of what’s going on in the festival,” he said. “For the performers, anyone who’s grown up studying music and is kind of serious about it — if you’re 14, 15, you’re working your butt off.
“It can be a little bit hard to see what is at the end of that road… There’s a lot ahead of you. One thing that’s really great is that these performers in the festival get to interact with some people who are at the top of their field.
“For instance, if you have a master class with Chris Guzman or Spencer Myer, it’s not just a lesson, it’s an interaction or a class with someone who is on the world concert stage … that you might be aspiring to.”
McLaughlin said that, for a young musician, this kind of interaction can have an enormous impact.
“I think for me, when I was younger, whenever I had an inspiring teacher, that was sometimes the thing that kept me going. That person personified what it was in music that I loved or what it was that I wanted to become. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to interact with those people.
“And, on top of it — this is really why I like the closing gala so much — they get to be on the same stage as those people. So, not only are they performing, but the program will read, ‘Student A,’ ‘Student B,’ and then ‘Christopher Guzman’… It’s really cool to be playing in a recital where the next person on the program is a world-famous concert artist. That’s a big deal for these kids. I think it’s tremendously valuable.”
Approximately 25 students are in the final round of this year’s competition, and most will be participating in the festival’s master classes, while about seven of the winners will participate in the closing gala.
McLaughlin said that, in its short life, the festival has grown in terms of recognition and community involvement.
“When it started out, it was basically me and two other people who knew about it… Since then, gradually over time, there has been a lot of support and involvement from arts organizations, people who are associated with music. The local radio station, KMSA, has been a huge supporter. Not only do we go there for interviews, but they have finalists perform on air. KUT has become a supporter, through radio host John Ailey.”
“The community support I’ve seen has been really incredible. When I first started out, it was ‘How can I get people to recognize me?’ Now, it’s ‘How can I allocate my time? Because people want attention.’ John Alley actually called me, which is really amazing. There’s just a lot of community support. I think people recognize it’s a valuable thing.”
He added that the festival is starting to be recognized by the Texas Performing Arts, a university-based arts center, as the two are now working together to cross-promote.
“I’m at the point now where I’m getting emails from some pretty major artists asking, ‘How can I come to this festival?’ I want it to become something where there’s enough of a structure in place, where if I were to travel to Australia or New Zealand, the festival would continue.”
Another big step this year is that the festival venue has moved to the University of Texas at Austin campus.
“It’s a big deal, because they have world-class facilities. It’s just a little bit of a step up for us. We’ve definitely grown in terms of how many people are aware of the festival.”
In the future, McLaughlin said, he would love to see the festival continue to grow and believes it will, through the help of enthusiastic volunteers and arts lovers.
“I have a student who is a big supporter of the festival, and she’s one of those people who have said, ‘I’ll do anything to help it.’ I’m looking for people like that — who are committed, and I would like to form a more formal organization moving forward,” he said. “I would love to see concerts throughout the year, so that it’s not just something that happens in two weekends.”
He added that he would like the festival to do more educational outreach.
“I’d like to see things that are geared toward a wider swath of pianists. I’d love to see something for all ages. … And I think that the competition could grow into something that’s not just Texan. I think it could be a national or international competition.”
McLaughlin said that expanding the festival would require a lot, including a great amount of funding, but he believes it can happen.
“Austin is poised for that sort of international recognition. I think it’s a city that deserves it, and I think we’re moving with the tide when we’re thinking about good projects like that,” he said.
“Classical music is sometimes viewed as dry or more suited to an older audience,” he added. “I think if people have that perception, they should come to one of our concerts and meet some of our performers.”
“When people say ‘classical music,’ if they’re not from the classical music world, they have this idea of what that means that is usually not spot on. If there’s any effect I would have on people’s thinking in regard to classical music, it would be to just be open to the profound, life-changing effect that it can have… the real, absolute depth of feeling and emotional impact it can have on the listener, the person that’s engaged in it.
“Sometimes people may not realize just the strength classical music can have in that regard. If you have this idea that it’s high-class or snooty or a pretentious thing, then you’re really missing the point. My God — if you read the biographies of these musicians, it was anything but that.
“The point is the emotional connection, the message that’s being communicated. That connection between the performer and the audience can be so incredible and so strong. It’s not all the time, but sometimes, it’s transcendent. You just can’t get that anywhere else. I think if people have that perception, they should come to one of our concerts and meet some of our performers.”
McLaughlin spends a great deal of time planning the festival. He joked that as soon as the festival ends, planning for the following year’s festival gets under way.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘What’s my motivation?’ … If there’s just one person who for 10 minutes can be really deeply moved… if I have that sort of artistic impact even through behind the scenes work, even though I’m not playing on stage, it’s worth it.”
McLaughlin said he believes supporting the arts is crucial, and he invites everyone to take the time to learn a little bit more about the Austin Piano Festival and the importance of arts education.
“If you want to become a supporter of the arts and know that every dollar of your money is being spent well, because it is, go to AustinPianoFestival.com to make a donation,” he said, adding, “Come visit Austin. It’s a cool town. You’ll like it. And come during the Austin Piano Festival!”