About Nancy O’Neill Breth

Photo by Stanley Staniski

I was four years old when I took my first piano lesson in Spokane, Washington from Mr. Jacques, a blind man who taught four members of my family in exchange for two hours of daily practice time on our 1899 Chickering. This patient man was the first of a series of excellent teachers in my life. I am grateful to every one of these teachers for the world of music and pianism that they opened to me. But the one who most influenced my own teaching was Margaret Saunders Ott. Mrs. Ott was a superb pianist, student of and personal assistant to Olga Samaroff Stokowski at The Julliard School in New York; but her plan was always to “go back to Spokane and teach.” I gave my first piano lesson under Mrs. Ott’s guidance when I was 16. She remained my close friend and mentor until her death in 2010.

Margaret Saunders Ott

Spokane, then as now, boasts a remarkable week-long music festival with distinguished adjudicators from around the country. (One of the great pleasures of my career is that every few years I am invited to revisit Musicfest Northest, now as an adjudicator.) When I was a high school student, one of the festival’s master teachers, Bela Nagy, so inspired me that I determined to attend Indiana University in order to become his student. At Indiana, I also studied with the revered pianist Gyorgy Sebok, accompanied in Janos Starker’s studio, and was admitted into the chamber music class taught jointly by Sebok, Starker and Joseph Gingold. Discovering chamber music under these great artists was an electrifying experience. Though I went on to earn a master’s degree in solo piano under Carroll Chilton at the University of Wisconsin, my real love by that time was chamber music.

In the years following I performed in chamber music concerts with outstanding professional musicians everywhere I lived: the Philippines, Mexico, New York and Washington DC.

My 1980’s move into the Washington DC area coincided with a growing interest in teaching after all the years dedicated to performance. I joined the faculty of the Levine School of Music where I taught piano, piano pedagogy and chamber music and became director of the chamber music program. At the same time I opened a piano studio in Northern Virginia, an area rich in dedicated, music loving families and in brilliant piano teachers who generously shared their expertise with newcomers like me.

Over the years, as I gained experience, I put my ideas and the traditions passed to me by my teachers and colleagues into publications for use by students and other teachers. My Piano Student’s Guide to Effective Practicing and Parent’s Guide to Effective Practicing are published by Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over 40,000 copies of the former are in use here and abroad.

My book Practicing the Piano: How Students, Parents, and Teachers Can Make Practicing More Effective was published by Hal Leonard Corp. in 2012.

I have contributed articles and reviews to American Music Teacher, Keyboard Companion, and Clavier Magazine. Hal Leonard also published my piano trio setting of Six Songs from John Gay’s Beggars Opera.

I have given lecture-demonstrations on various aspects of pianism and musicianship at regional, state and national conferences of the Music Teachers National Association, and at the Smithsonian Institution. I enjoy writing critiques at student events, at home and around the country, where I’m constantly inspired by the extraordinary talent and dedication of today’s young pianists. I’ve  judged the national MTNA finals several times, and have also given presentations at three national conferences. In my own studio, I host a bi-monthly forum for teachers and parents called Talk about Teaching. I serve on the faculty of the Kinhaven Adult Piano Workshop in Vermont.

Most of my students have multiple interests: while serious about music and preparing for a lifetime enriched by music, they usually go into other professions than music. But while they are students, they work hard. Three of our duet teams have won first place in the MTNA Senior Piano Duet competition. Others have been laureates in national and international piano and chamber music competitions including the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, Pepsico National Young Artists Competition, International Institute for Young Musicians, National Symphony Orchestra Young Soloists, Eastman International Piano Competition. Several have appeared on National Public Radio’s “From the Top”.

The students who have made music their career keep alive Margaret Ott’s dedication to the highest standards of excellence along with the deepest affection and personal attention to all the students who love music as she did.