About Nancy O’Neill Breth

Photo by Stanley Staniski

I was 4 years old when I took my first piano lesson in Spokane, Washington from Mr. Jacques, a blind man who taught my whole family in exchange for 2 hours of daily practice 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 them, especially to Margaret Saunders Ott. She was a superb pianist who studied with the great teachers of her era including Olga Samaroff Stokowski at Juilliard in New York but her plan was always to “go back to Spokane and teach,” and that is what she did. 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.

Two of my teachers, Margaret Saunders Ott and Gyorgy Sebok

At Indiana University I studied with Bela B. Nagy and Gyorgy Sebok, accompanied cellists in Janos Starker’s studio and entered the prestigious chamber music class taught jointly by Sebok, Starker and Joseph Gingold. While still an undergraduate, I was given a graduate assistantship to teach piano. My master’s degree in solo piano performance at the University of Wisconsin included extensive work in chamber music under Rudolf Kolisch, John Barrows and other great instrumentalists. By this time my real love was chamber music and I devoted the next 15 years to organizing and performing in chamber music concerts.

Photo by Bob Schalkwijk

I worked as performer and presenter in the United States, Latin America and Asia. The Mexico City News wrote that my group, La Camerata de Mexico, “offers the best chamber music in Mexico”. The Washington Post praised my “superb musicianship”, and called my Music Connection concert series “brilliant” and “imaginative”. In New York City, I produced and directed a children’s opera by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Colgrass, and built an acclaimed chamber music program for the children of Roosevelt Island.

At Washington DC’s Levine School of Music, I taught piano, chamber music and pedagogy for 25 years, while maintaining a private piano studio in Northern Virginia. In 2017 I moved my studio to Washington DC. My students come for piano lessons from DC, Virginia and Maryland and range in age from 8 to 80.

The level of advancement is not as important to me as finding someone who loves music enough to devote the time and energy needed to reach the highest possible level of achievement. For some students the highest level means winning big competitions; for others it means excelling in a host of different ways. I help each student find the right path.

Working with other teachers is important to me. I learned so much from experienced teachers when I was starting out; now it is my turn to give to the next generation. I have presented at multiple MTNA national conferences, the National Piano Pedagogy Conference, and state and regional conferences in Oregon, Montana, Utah, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Colorado. Florida State University awarded me their Music Career citation, inviting me to give a master class and a lecture on practicing for the piano and pedagogy faculty. Locally, I started “Talk about Teaching,” a free bi-monthly forum for teachers.

Writing is another part of my career. Years of research on practice methods resulted in three publications, each one geared to a particular audience:  Practicing the Piano; The Piano Student’s Guide to Effective Practicing and the Parent’s Guide to Effective Practicing. In addition, I’ve written articles for Clavier Companion, American Music Teacher and Clavier Explorer.

Another kind of writing that I enjoy is adjudicating student performances. Whether at a local, regional, national or international competition, I am inspired by students’ talent and dedication. Being able to contribute something to their progress is a privilege. MTNA has invited me to judge their national piano duet finals several times, and I have served on the judges’ panel of BMTG Intercontinental Piano Competition, featuring the music of living composers from six continents. Returning every few years to adjudicate the prestigious, week-long Musicfest Northwest in Spokane, Washington is a special treat, since that’s where it all began for me.