Alongside the latest group of music students, some more stationary additions are making their way into Drake’s Harmon Fine Arts Center.
Thanks to contributions to the Keys to Excellence initiative, part of the distinctlyDrake fundraising effort, a plan is well underway to replace aging pianos in the music department with new instruments.
The need to upgrade the 50- to 60-year-old pianos is crucial, according to piano student Caitlin Podemski. All Drake music majors are required to take four semesters of piano instruction.
“Most of the old pianos have been in the building since the ’60s so they need to be replaced,” Podemski says. “The caliber of the instrument does make a difference to everyone’s practice.”
The growth of the fine arts program at Drake has also increased demand for quality instruments. The music department alone has tripled its enrollment since 1995, stressing the need for more resources.
“Having new instruments shows that Drake deems its music department important and vital to the University,” Podemski says.
Since the fall of 2010, Drake alumni and friends have given more than $95,000 to the cause, allowing for the purchase of 11 new pianos. The Keys to Excellence effort, however, has larger goals: Drake aims to raise a total of $870,000 toward replacing 68 pianos in the Fine Arts Center to provide students with the instruments they need to grow and succeed.
“We have a long way to go, but we are making serious inroads,” says Doug Lampe, major gift officer for the College of Arts and Sciences.
Much of that progress is thanks to members of the Des Moines and Drake communities who feel a connection to the music department.
The story of the Bob and Kay Riley family is one illustration of just how strong that relationship can be. Kay’s mother is a resident at the memory unit of Scottish Rite retirement home where Drake music student Devin Van Holsteijn volunteers to play piano for the Sunday church services.
“Although she’s forgotten a lot of things, my mother loves to watch [Devin] play,” Kay Riley says.
After hearing about Keys to Excellence at a Drake jazz performance, the Rileys talked to Van Holsteijn about the need for new instruments in the Fine Arts Center.
“[Devin] means so much to my mother, and I thought this is the perfect match up to help him out,” Riley says. “I was so appreciative of him coming almost every Sunday and being so gracious. I wanted to honor him and for his playing to get even better and, boy, has he improved.”
Although there is still more to do for Keys to Excellence to fulfill its goals, donations like the one from the Rileys have already made a difference.
“[The instruments] will impact generation after generation at Drake because these wonderful Yamaha pianos will last for decades to come,” Lampe says.
The process of procuring the new pianos has been in the works for quite some time, even before the Keys to Excellence effort officially started. Discussions began in the fall of 2009 when Nicholas Roth, Drake associate professor of piano, asked the Yamaha Corporation of America for assistance. After a series of meetings involving Drake, Yamaha, and the West Music Company, Keys to Excellence was launched.
As part of the program, West Music Company agreed to cover the upfront costs for a performance caliber Yamaha piano. In February, Roth took a trip to New York City to personally select the elite Yamaha CFX that will be featured in Drake concerts.
The Yamaha CFX is considered the crowning glory of the Yamaha line and is valued at up to $200,000. Introduced in the U.S. in 2010, the grand piano is the culmination of nearly 20 years of research and development conducted by Yamaha to create this top-of-the-line handcrafted instrument. Experts and musicians consider it to be one of the top concert pianos in the world, and only a handful of schools and concert halls own the CFX.
“Yamaha really wants Drake to have one of these state-of-the-art pianos on our concert stage,” Roth says. “I tried three of them and chose my favorite, then West Music Company purchased it and stored it.”
The chosen piano will arrive at Drake in time for a Nov. 26 recital at Sheslow Auditorium where Roth will perform. The instrument will then remain at Drake on loan until the funds are raised to purchase it.
“To put it simply, it’s one of the finest instruments I have ever played in my life,” Roth says.
With such high-caliber resources at their disposal, it is no surprise that Drake students are excited.
“It is wonderful to be able to play on a new piano,” Podemski says. “I was one of the first people to play the first new piano we received. People were literally running down the hall to see the new pianos.”
Because of the University’s commitment to improve music at Drake, that excitement should only continue to grow as students receive new opportunities for development.
“Having new instruments increases the caliber of the music department and thus its students,” Podemski says.
-By Abbey Barrow, magazine journalism and English double major, class of 2015