Teaching more than music through music

When pianist Penny Prince starting teaching music at Public School 37 years ago, she wrote original music for up to nine shows a year, for which her students wrote the scripts.

“I loved my job at that school,” she said. “I left because of testing, scoring. The principals were afraid to devote time to anything else. Music became time to send the kids away, versus being about creativity. We were down to two plays a year.”

Now, the Bronx resident is teaching music at Lehman College, where she started as a lecturer and is now an assistant professor.  She writes original songs for the annual musical at the college.  At January’s end, she was holding auditions for her newest production, “When I Get To Where I'm Going. “ Students, faculty, alumni and community members were all welcome to audition.

Prince, who is a member of the Professional Staff Congress representing CUNY faculty and professional staff, has been a pianist her entire life.  A Steinway grand sits in her home.

“My mom used to play Chopin on piano when I was baby and I would dance to it, and by 4 I was playing by ear,” she said. ““I can play any song by ear. Give me a song and I’ll play it.”

She has also been composing music for decades. “As a child, I used to compose poems my mother read,” she said. “And then I’d compose songs to my own words.”

Playing piano throughout her high school and college years, Prince seriously considered becoming a concert pianist but, knowing how that meant continuing a routine of practicing six hours a day and then traveling to different competitions all over the world, she closed the lid on that choice.

“I realized it’s such an unstable kind of life: winning, losing — concert to concert. I realized it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life.”

She instead chose composing, piano playing and teaching. Since college, she has also been performing concerts in museums, libraries and schools, though now less often and only if it is with her own music. In addition to writing for the college musical, she writes original songs at the request of people.

Prince, who is a mother to two daughters and has four grandchildren, earned her bachelors’ and master’s degrees at Manhattan School of Music, and then took on a Ph.D in music education from New York University. That quest was helped by a fellowship from the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women in 2005.

She has won 13 merit awards from American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Prince also uses her talents to help build tolerance and understanding. At Lehman, she works with Department of Arts and Humanities and the School of Education to annually host theater and improvisation performers to act out the stress, sweat and strain of bullying and insensitivity to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.

Because of the impact the workshops have made on her, Prince said she now devotes at least one class each semester to the issues of sensitivity and bullying. She makes sure her music selections in school include pieces that focus on social consciousness and tolerance.

“I’m teaching future music teachers of the world. I teach them these songs so they can teach them to their students,” she said.

 The lessons are not all outward.  She has taken what she’s learned to heart.

“I’ve learned so much as a teacher — how I speak to students; what I assume. You have to be sensitive to your students.”

A member of Dramatists Guild of America, she has also performed original pieces for the Guild by invitation.

Her most famous customer in her sideline composing songs for hire was actress Torah Feldshuh, who was in Yentl on stage and on TV’s Law and Order.  Continuing a love she gently discovered as a child, Prince still composes songs from poems. “I’m Still Here,” “Freedom Train” and “Life is Fine” are songs she wrote from Langston Hughes poems that will be performed during the college’s upcoming musical.

For soul nutrition, Prince most recently saw a solo Denis O Hare performance off-Broadway which was based on Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. She likes classical music – “Beethoven – he’s my guy” — including Schuman and Ravel, and from Broadway, she loves Stephen Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Bernstein.

And let’s not forget the Beatles — they have her ear, too.

— Liza Frenette

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