Each year thousands of young musicians and vocalists from across the country compete in Music-Fest’s prestigious Rising Talents Festival. Of those thousands of applicants, 120 Grand Prize winners are selected along with Gold and Silver Level and Grand Prix Winners.
This year, three of the Grand Prize winners were students of Lawrenceville-based piano teacher Rose McCathran: Olivia Rowe (17), Michael Weintraub (16) and Aishani Sengupta (10).
“I think it’s fabulous that they all won,” McCathran said during an interview held in her home piano studio. “I’m not surprised they won, but I’m delighted.”
A music enthusiast from an early age, McCathran has been playing the piano for 28 years and teaching it for 11. Also an avid chorale singer and violinist, she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance and pedagogy from Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
Originally from a small town in Maryland, McCathran knew that Westminster Choir College was where she wanted to pursue her dream, so much so that she didn’t apply to any other colleges.
“In high school, I went to a Westminster Choir College piano camp, and I remember thinking, ‘if I can learn this much in five days, imagine what I can learn in four years,’” she said. “It was the best possible choice I could have made.”
Of Lawrence, McCathran stated, “This is an area that really values art, culture, intellect and skill.” She teaches around 30 students a week and their ages of her students range from 5 to 72, though most are in their teens.
Rowe, Weintraub and Sangupta all rehearsed the pieces they selected for months to prepare for the audition, which consisted of a half-hour performance played entirely from memory. McCathran first had a student audition for the contest and win a Grand Prize in 2011.
“I’m so proud of them all,” said McCathran. “I’m happy to hold them to a high standard of technical and musical excellence.”
Her previous students have also won similar competitions in the past, both nationally and on an international scale.
This was Sangupta’s third year being selected as a winner at the Rising Talents Festival, though her previous two wins were under a different instructor.
Some students have gone on to perform at Carnegie Hall, and the three Rising Talent Fest winners recently performed at the Manhattan School of Music’s Greenfield Hall.
When selecting pieces to perform at festivals, “I consider the students’ interests, strengths, weaknesses and personality,” McCathran said. “I’ll choose three to five pieces that will suit their needs, then the student selects which ones to perform.” This way, she went on, “It empowers them to make a choice that’s right for them.” Usually two romantic pieces and one impressionist piece will be selected.
McCathran’s passion and enthusiasm for music and teaching is evident in both her students’ successes, and their praise for McCathran’s teaching methods.
Rowe, who has been taking lessons with McCathran for three years, said, “Rose is such a sweet, encouraging, and supportive teacher. She has the perfect balance of push and encouragement.”
Weintraub has been playing piano for about 10 years and been taking lessons with McCathran for two years.
“I would say Rose is the best teacher I’ve ever had (school teachers included),” he said. “She is always extremely positive and high energy. She teaches everything about piano, from playing techniques to performance technique to history, theory and more.”
Rowe plans on either majoring in one of her two instruments, piano or harp, and hopes to put an emphasis on performance or teaching. Weintraub hopes to major in engineering, but potentially double major or minor in music.
One of the best things about teaching piano, as McCathran explained, is seeing students graduate and continue with the art.
“They’re winning, and going to college and continuing with music,” she said. “I love that I can instill this passion in my students and that doesn’t leave when they graduate.”
Of course, teaching piano isn’t all about learning keys and notes, “We work a lot on memorization skills and performance anxiety,” McCathran said of working with her students.
‘My goal is to have a lovely community in the studio to inspire students, empower students, educate students and hold students at a high standard while making it fun.’
All of the effort clearly paid off.
“It was a surprise to win,” said Rowe about the competition. “I had not been involved in competitions for a while and this was my first one since I was in grade school.”
This was the first time Weintraub participated in a competition. “I almost didn’t believe it when Rose told me the results,” he said. “I knew I had done well at the competition, but I didn’t know where my best ranked in relation to my competitors.”
To Weintraub, the experience was rewarding but, “To me, a successful performance is one that evokes emotion in people. Although I’ll always treasure my trophy, the true prize was performing for my family at the Manhattan School of Music,” he said.
McCathran’s cozy, in-home studio is complete with two pianos, shelves packed with sheet music and piano books, walls lined with awards and certificates, and homages to her musical roots.
She comes from a family of musicians. One of her grandfathers was an amateur jazz pianist who happened to be friends with Duke Ellington.
Another grandfather was a choral conductor who “savored a life in music. He had a magnetism, and an air of greatness to him,” McCathran said.
“There was a love of music with every one of my family members,” she said. “I just remember being 12 years old and having a moment where I wanted to spend the rest of my life involved in music. I was determined to make it work.”
When asked why she wanted to start her own studio, McCathran emphasized the autonomy that comes with it.
“I like being in charge,” she laughed. “I like the freedom and flexibility to run the studio in my own teaching style. There’s empowerment in autonomy.”
The welcoming space is exactly what McCathran wanted for her students.
“My goal is to have a lovely community in the studio to inspire students, empower students, educate students and hold students at a high standard while making it fun,” she said. “I try to be honest and motivational in positive ways.”
One aspect of piano teaching that McCathran focuses on is teaching the students how to practice, something she learned later on in life.
“Nobody taught me how to practice before college or high school piano camp,” she said. “I do everything I can to teach them how to practice. If a student leaves a lesson feeling capable, I know they can do it.”
Weintraub agreed with this sentiment. Good practice techniques “really help when time is limited. She always knows the best way to practice something, and I’m constantly amazed at the effectiveness of her tricks,” said Weintraub.
When it comes to instructing and inspiring students, McCathran has a specific philosophy.
“It does not matter what you play, it’s how you play it,” she said. “I don’t care what you play, we’re going to make it beautiful and if you’re willing to learn, I’m willing to teach.”
That being said, when it comes time to compete, McCathran ensures the students are as well-prepared as they can be.
“After I send them off to audition, what happens, happens,” she said.
The students perform at two regularly scheduled recitals a year, aside from their competitions. They also perform at several community outreach facilities.
As for McCathran, she keeps busy teaching and performs when she can.
Recently, she played at a philanthropic event in Princeton which celebrated women in education and women composers around the world.
When she performs, “I only choose pieces that I love,” she said. Currently, her favorite piece to play is Fanny Mendelssohn’s Nocturne in G Minor.
Though Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin are all tied on her list, when it comes to her favorite composer “I have to say my husband,” she said.
McCathran and her husband, who works at Princeton University, have a two-year-old son and, as she proudly puts it, “he can already find middle C on the piano!”
A music-filled future is sure to unfold for McCathran, her students and her family.