Rice piano professor Jon Kimura Parker seeks to ‘radiate the joy of music’

Some people spend an entire lifetime searching for their true calling. Jon Kimura Parker, an internationally acclaimed concert pianist and professor of piano at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, didn’t have to wait that long.

JON KIMURA PARKER

Parker, who will take the stage Feb. 15 at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as part of the Shepherd School orchestra’s East Coast tour, was only a toddler when he first sat down at his parents’ piano. And it was there he discovered his life’s passion – sharing the joy of music by way of the piano.

Early talent

“When I was 3, I worked out by ear the tune from a radio show that my parents listened to,” Parker said with a laugh. “My parents said, ‘That sounds like musical talent!'”

It wasn’t long before Parker began piano lessons. By the time he reached grade school, he said, there was “no shred of doubt” in his mind that he would grow up to be a pianist.

“I just took to it immediately,” he said of the piano. “I loved communicating the joy and fun of music, and I loved showing off. The piano was where I felt most comfortable.”

Inspiration

Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Parker found himself inspired by a number of great pianists, including famed concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whom he met as a teenager, Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (“arguably the greatest jazz pianist of all time,” he said) and British musical superstar Elton John — “an unbelievable rock and roll pianist.”

Parker said that all three of these musicians had “a really joyous attitude” about performing, and just “radiated” the enjoyment of music. “They wanted their audiences to love the music as much as they did,” he said.

“Piano students can be very serious,” Parker said. “What we do is very hard, and it requires an incredible amount of focus. To see someone having fun and being on stage is very important.”

Life as a performer

Parker made his debut as a performer with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1983. In 1987, he made his debut performance at Carnegie Hall, which he described as one of his unforgettable moments as a performer. But it was a 1995 concert on New Year’s Eve in Sarajevo that he remembers as the most memorable of his career.

“It was two weeks after the Dayton Peace Treaty had been signed, signifying a cease-fire in Sarajevo. I was asked to perform at a concert in the city by AmeriCares, an organization that provides disaster relief and humanitarian medical aid to people in crisis in the U.S. and around the world,” Parker said. “After the concert, an elderly Bosnian woman came backstage and told me through a translator that during the slow movement of the music, time kind of stopped and she realized that for the first time in years, several minutes had gone by and she hadn’t thought about the war.”

For Parker, this is what performing is all about.

“What could be a more powerful statement of what music can be than that?”

Parker calls himself “incredibly lucky” to have discovered his life’s passion early on.

“My parents were incredibly supportive, and I had great teachers every step of the way,” he said.

Teaching career

Parker’s teachers, as well as the outstanding reputation of the Shepherd School, inspired the seasoned performer to move to Houston in 2000 to accept a teaching position at Rice.

“I was living in New York City and was very active as a solo performer,” said Parker, who has performed as a soloist with some of the top orchestras in the United States and abroad. He admits that he was not looking for a teaching position, and until he accepted the job at the Shepherd School, his only teaching experience had been during master classes. However, reflecting on his own great teachers inspired his interest.

“I realized that this was my opportunity to share with a younger generation everything I have learned, and to leave a legacy,” Parker said. “Here at the Shepherd School, you make a very strong commitment to any student you accept that you will be a focal point of mentoring for their musical, artistic and sometimes career development. And it’s very exciting to be part of the life of a gifted young student and be instrumental in their progress, awakening and understanding. Ultimately, I wanted to become the same type of role model that my teachers were to me.”

According to Andrew Staupe, a doctoral piano student at the Shepherd School, Parker does a masterful job of bringing his unique blend of experience to his teaching.

“[Parker’s] natural warmth and infectious enthusiasm creates a perfect atmosphere for growth as a student, and there are few teachers out there who are as devoted as he is when it comes to balancing a performing career with teaching requirements,” Staupe said.

As for life in New York City, Parker said he doesn’t miss it. “I’m very happy to have come here.” But Parker still maintains an impressive performance schedule, balancing engagements throughout the world with his teaching duties at Rice.

Staupe can speak firsthand to Parker’s ability to successfully balance his performance career and teaching responsibilities. He remembers Parker going on a three-week tour of Canada and flying back to Houston three separate times to stay connected with his teaching studio.

“I can’t really think of another teacher/concert pianist who would do that for their studio, and it fully attests to his devotion and commitment to excellence in literally everything he does,” Staupe said. “He talks the talk, but he also walks the walk; he’s an inspiring example that all of his students wish to emulate.”

East Coast tour

Parker will once again show off his piano chops when he performs with the Shepherd School orchestra at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. He calls the chance to play with students a “magical” opportunity.

“I think one of the most magical things that can happen in a music school setting is having students and faculty perform together,” Parker said.  “It’s one thing for a teacher to give advice, but to actually play music together is an entirely different feeling, a very joyous thing, and something that can happen at a great music school.”

Parker will perform as a soloist in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which first premiered in Baltimore in 1934 with Rachmaninoff himself performing as the soloist. The orchestra’s performance will mark the 80th anniversary of the world premiere. Parker said it is “really exciting” to bring the piece back to Baltimore.

“One of the reasons to enjoy this particular piece is that the orchestration is phenomenally difficult, spectacularly interesting and designed to showcase the entire orchestra,” Parker said. “It requires precision and great musicianship.”

Parker noted that such a high level of precision can be hard to achieve in a concerto setting, but the Shepherd School has had ample time to rehearse and has done an exceptional job with the piece.

“Larry Rachleff is the only person I can think of who really knows how to use all of that time to maximum advantage,” Parker said. “Every single detail sounds so right, it’s almost distracting. I just want to sit back and listen, it’s so good.”

Parker calls Rachleff an “unbelievable” conductor. “He has this absolutely amazing, electric energy that students pick up on,” he said. “He’s the best kind of leader because he leads by example; every student wants to commit to his level of dedication.”

For more coverage of the Shepherd School’s East Coast tour, visit http://news.rice.edu/shepherd-school-on-tour.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.