Most children, teenagers, and even adults are unsure about their chosen career. But for concert pianist and Vassar faculty member Thomas Sauer, his path was clear starting at a very early age.
In recent years Sauer has performed at highly esteemed venues that include Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and on Broadway, but his latest performance was at Vassar’s very own Skinner Hall on Sunday, Feb. 9. Because Sauer boasts an impressive resume and, based on his preformance, plays with such passion, one would believe that playing the piano and holding an appreciation for music was in Sauer’s blood, but that was not necessarily the case. “Nobody in my family had ever been in music, although my brother is a professional cellist now,” said Sauer. “So we were both young and really loved music and decided fairly early on that we wanted to be professionals without really knowing what being professional musicians meant.”
For Sauer, his interest in piano sparked at the age of six after watching and listening to a classmate of his play piano in music class. Sauer did not start playing immediately, however, but began at the age of nine when his parents bought a piano. And by the age of eleven, Sauer was sure that he wanted to become a professional pianist. He was able to finish high school by the age of sixteen and attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he received his Bachelor’s degree in music. He then went on to receive a Master’s and, finally, a Doctorate in performance.
For Sauer, preforming took place side-by-side with his schooling. Sauer said. “When I started my doctorate, I was working the whole time, and I kind of thought of the degree as something I was doing on the side, which is not the way most people go to graduate school although with musicians it is sometimes like that. I was a full time student but I was very much focused on my playing and working.”
Sauer performed at Vassar for a packed auditorium, a crowd that even included President Hill. The program began with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D Major. Sauer said in an interview, “It starts wonderfully slow and very sad, but the other movements are jolly. In fact, the last movement is quite humorous.”
Sauer then went on to play a Sonata by Grammy award winning composer Stephen Hartke, who teaches music at USC. The piece itself is split up into three movements. Sauer said, “The outer movements, the first and the third movements, are very cordial and serious, kind of solemn and even somber music but also rather enigmatic and a little bit mysterious. Then the middle movement, which is the longest movement, is very jazz-like. He thought of tap dancing while writing it… It’s fast and hard but fun.”
Sauer finished his concert with Chopin’s Twenty-Four Préludes, Op. 28, which Sauer particularly enjoyed playing. “[Chopin] has one prelude in each major and minor key. He goes by a circle of fifths, so you start off with no sharps or flats… You add sharps [after each prelude] and then, at a certain point, you switch from shapes to flats, and then you start subtracting flats. The last two of the set are one flat, f major and then d minor,” Sauer said.
Sauer particularly appreciates the thought or, as in certain cases, the lack of thought Chopin put into each prelude. “Some of [the preludes] feel like trifles as if he thought about it for five minutes and then wrote it. Yet, some of them, even some of the short pieces feel like really big and intense pieces.” said Sauer.
Sauer has been a faculty member of Vassar’s music department since 1998 and is also a piano faculty member at Mannes College, The New School of Music. Teaching at both a conservatory and a liberal arts college offers very different and yet rewarding things to Sauer. “Each student here comes with a different background, a different level of exposure to music, and a different level of exposure to musical culture. That is true for a music conservatory as well, but the range of variance is narrower at a conservatory,
Sauer said. “You don’t go to a conservatory unless you have done a lot of practicing for many years once you get there. Here, every student has his or her own standard— they’re each trying to get something different out of it whereas in a conservatory basically everyone is trying to meet the standards of the profession. Teaching at every level is challenging.”
Sauer’s students are particularly impressed by Sauer’s dedication to them. Reeve Johnson ’14 stated, “Tom is one of the smartest people I have ever met. He is very dedicated to his craft. Throughout a lesson, he remains keenly attune to every successful note and every innocent mistake made while I play a piece. He then relays that information to me and makes sure to clearly explain himself with every suggestion on how I can improve upon the piece. Not only does he instruct in the studio, but he takes the time to get to know me, ask about my life, talk about news relevant to my background, and learn about my diehard obsession with Beyoncé. He also happens to play the piano effortlessly.”
Sauer enjoys teaching piano at Vassar just as much as his students enjoy their lessons with him. Sauer said, “In a conservatory there is a lot of pressure on everyone because everyone is trying to rise to that very high level. Here I feel more at ease and more comfortable because the student really wants to work on and develop themselves [as musicians], and I can do that. If a student wants to pursue piano on the side and wants to play just for fun, I can do that too. It’s interesting— there’s a really broad range here, and, in of that, there’s a really broad range of students here, so it fits.”