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Chester County Press

The magic of music

10/09/2017 01:24PM ● By J. Chambless

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

“The best performances are when I can feel the audience is right there with me,” said Jennifer Nicole Campbell. “I'm just a mediator, and I try to stay out of the music's way.”

Campbell's deeply felt performances and technical artistry have carried her far. During an interview at her cozy studio in Glen Mills, Campbell, 26, sat at her piano bench and reviewed a life path that started with Kindermusik class when she was a young girl in Chadds Ford.

“We had these little glockenspiels. That was my first exposure to music. But they had a little upright piano in that room, and I have very vivid memories of thinking, 'Whatever that is, that's a cool instrument. I want to check that out,'” she recalled, laughing. With the encouragement of her parents – neither of whom are musicians – Campbell started piano lessons at 8 and continued through high school. She dabbled in violin at the age of 10, but stayed committed to piano.

“I saw Manheim Steamroller and was fascinated by Chip Davis, the guy who runs everything in that group,” she said. “He arranged the music, he composed a lot of the music, he could play all these instruments. I thought, 'Wouldn't that be awesome?' So even though I didn't end up going into the Renaissance/rock crossover, I was fascinated by how many things he could do.”

In addition to putting her skills together to play music, Campbell was good at taking music apart. “I used to take apart all of the sounds from a given piece and try to figure them out on a keyboard,” she said. “I'd try to recreate them on these little floppy discs. It was a clavinova, and you could record on discs. It seems ancient now, but I still have those discs somewhere. But I was figuring out orchestration at an early age. I'd spend hours at it. I've always composed, ever since I learned how to write music on a page.”

She studied with David Brown at the Darlington Fine Arts Center, then after high school, she attended the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, eventually earning BA and MA degrees.

“At Peabody, I had a trial lesson with Brian Ganz, who's sort of the Chopin guy,” she said. “He introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about music. He was extremely conscious of everything in life being put into the music. I knew right away, even before I applied to the school, that he was my teacher. He was very demanding but he taught you how to push yourself.”

While she was still a teenager in 2007, Campbell's “Piano Trio No. 1” was chosen for a performance by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra after she attended a young composer's workshop at West Chester University. “It was a scholarship program for a week of working with musicians, and being pretty young at the time, it was nothing short of awesome,” she said, laughing. “It was a little bit scary. These were members of the Philadelphia Orchestra asking me, 'How do you want this section played?' I was learning to be more of a mature artist, dealing with these people who had these major careers. It was exciting, and kind of a defining moment.”

Campbell found other ways for her compositions to be performed, with the Delaware County Youth Orchestra and others. “Now, groups ask me to write for them,” she said. “I have a commission right now that will debut in the spring.”

 She has about 40 works completed, she said, with many more in the stacks of unfinished pieces. Pointing to stacks of paper on the bottom of a nearby bookshelf, she said, “There are plenty more that are in progress, I guess you could say.

“There are very few instances when they came out perfectly,” she said. “There are a couple of things I did that seemed to compose themselves, but it's really rare. When you do have moments of inspiration you have to write them down.”

Her extensive background and down-to-earth attitude about classical music are reflected in her series of “Music Musings” videos posted on YouTube. In each, she takes a well-known piece – “Clair de Lune” for instance – and gives background on the composer, his intentions, his methods and some tips for those trying to learn the piece. “I'm starting to do that more in concert,” she said. “I do that mainly for non-musicians in the audience. If you want to reach more people, you have to find a way to make the music understandable. You have to find connections, everyday experiences, that people can use.”

Giving background on the lives of the composers brings them down to earth. “They were human beings,” Campbell said. “I like to find out more by reading their letters and things like that. They were extraordinary people to do what they did, but the more you learn about them, the more you can relate to them.”

Campbell's piano students range from age 5 to 83, she said. She endeavors to balance the technical aspects of playing with the indefinable heart that elevates someone who plays correctly to someone who is a true artist.

“You can be the most proficient pianist in the world, but if you don't play with any soul or heart, you're not going to touch as many people,” she said. “It's very hard to teach that. As a student, I remember watching my teachers play and thinking, 'Well, whatever that is, I want that, too.' It's a magical thing. Demonstrating it to students is the best way for them to really understand it. I tell them, 'Think of a memory that you have to create a connection.' Even if they're 8 years old, you can say, 'What does this make you think of?' They're building up a picture in their minds.”

Campbell said that she enjoys delving into not only the music, but also the lives of the composers, to truly understand what she is performing. She admitted that she struggled when asked to perform a few of the more atonal works in the classical repertoire. “It was hard to connect in a meaningful way, to make the piece really speak, if I don't really like it,” she said. “I ended up thinking about musical gestures and dance, so that helped.”

Looking back over the history of the great composers, Campbell is aware that few women are allowed into the club. That stems from their exclusion from the music schools of Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, so, “If they had talent, they would be playing at home for the family,” she said. “Clara Schumann is a great example of someone who was a concert pianist and wrote some beautiful music while she raised all these kids, and was dealing with her crazy husband. Even today, having a family and being an artist is not the easiest.”

Last year, Campbell was connected with the nearby Academy of International Ballet and its owners, former professional dancers Anastasia Babayeva and Denis Gronostayskiy. Her original composition, “Butterfly Whispers,” was written to accompany two dancers from the company with the Delaware County Symphony. “The way that they make the music move is a totally different way of composing,” Campbell said. “I was constantly thinking, 'How are they going to make this part of the music come to life?' I wanted to make it easy for the dancers. I had to figure out the meter, how fast it goes. You don't want it to be fast for five minutes. Denis choreographed the piece. I just gave him the music. The first time I saw what he came up with, I just had no words for it. I was amazed.

“It took about a month and a half. We rehearsed it live twice,” she said. “I was amazed at how well they dealt with live musicians, because that's not something they're used to. I was watching them as I played, trying to not get too distracted. But it went over so well.”

The success of the collaboration has led to another production to be staged in the spring, called “Daring to Dream,” that will be performed with the dance company.

Campbell is a winner of several prestigious competitions, a process which she called “odd. I have mixed feelings about competitions. I always loved when it was live, with people in the concert hall, instead of just playing for the judges. Competitions are just very different. People that win them are not necessarily the most artistic. I've had good experiences with them, but they're not necessarily the most musical experiences.”

Performing on some great stages can be thrilling for a performer, but also challenging. Campbell said she tells her students, “being nervous just means you're excited about the music. It's good for them to learn about going through a process and seeing an outcome, after many months, in some cases. I prepare them so that when they go on stage, they know what they want people to feel. It's not just about the notes.”

Campbell's artistry is showcased in the 2015 CD, “Perceptions of Shadows,” which combines two of her originals with some of her favorite works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and others. The cover painting is by Karl Kuerner III. “I studied art with him in high school,” she said. “We stayed friends throughout my college years. He painted that very quickly for the cover. I gave him the title and the music and he came up with something perfect.”

Campbell is low-key about her achievements, and only a shelf of photos in the same room as her piano gives some clues to how successful she has already been. Along with photos of her teachers and artists she admires, there's a quote by Beethoven in cross-stitch: If music doesn't come from above, it cannot touch the soul.

“That's my favorite Beethoven quote,” she said, smiling. “I always tell my students that, too.”

Jennifer Nicole Campbell will perform “Exploring Debussy's Musical Landscapes” Nov. 18 at 11 a.m. as part of the Classical Cafe Series at the Music School of Delaware Wilmington Branch (1401 Washington St., Wilmington, Del.); as well as performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Delaware County Symphony on Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. at Neumann University (1 Neumann Drive, Aston). For more information, visit

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].