Curtain Call Confidantes: Insights from Musical Theater Student Mentors

Curtain Call Confidantes: Insights from Musical Theater Student Mentors

The Heart of the Brown University Music Department

I had the great privilege of getting to learn from and work with Arlene Cole in various settings during my time at Brown University. From taking her musicianship lab classes to being a piano student in the applied music program that she oversaw, Arlene’s presence was a constant source of warmth, encouragement, and uncompromising excellence.

One quote from Arlene that will forever stick with me is when she told our advanced musicianship class, “These are your skills, not mine.” As we struggled to get through atonal sight-singing melodies, Arlene always cared about her students walking away from her classes with practical skills. But the thing I really appreciate in retrospect was the practice ethic she inspired in us. Arlene encouraged us to take responsibility for our skills, and even if we stumbled, I remember the nerves many of us felt going into her office for individual exams and piano juries. Yet she always welcomed us and encouraged us when we were ready to try again.

Arlene understood that sometimes, instead of giving musical criticism or educational suggestions, the best thing she could do for her students was simply ask, “How are you?” and genuinely want to hear the answer. Even while expressing disappointment that I didn’t play piano recitals as often as she would have liked, she always showed up to the theater productions I music directed. Arlene constantly put aside her ego and the self-importance which plagues so much of the field of education, understanding that her students’ growth as well-rounded people was just as important as their musical development.

Arlene was a vital part of my college and music education in general, and I will miss her greatly. She was the heart of the music department, and I am so grateful I got to learn from her and spend time with her.

A Mentor and Second Mother

I first met Arlene when I was a high school senior applying to Brown University. Little did I know that she would become my mentor and a special person in my life for many years to come. I was fortunate to get accepted to Brown and have Arlene as my piano teacher. Being away from home for the first time, she was like a second mother to me.

Arlene was a phenomenal pianist, and she knew exactly what I needed to do to improve and mature as a musician. Her devotion to her students and generosity with her time was exceptional. She was always encouraging, challenging, and most of all, caring. In my sophomore year, I entered the annual concerto competition but did not get through the first round. Arlene suggested that I try again the following year, and this time, I won. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life to play the Ravel Concerto with the Brown University Orchestra.

That experience was a turning point for me, as I started to consider pursuing music as a career. Arlene taught me about projection in concert halls, different tone qualities, and how to engage in performance and connect with the instrument. I remember having a long conversation with Arlene about my decision to apply to music conservatories. She knew that I was not the most dedicated and diligent student and told me that it was not an easy road to take. But I knew deep down that this was what I wanted to do with my life, and she was ever so supportive of my choice.

I kept in touch with Arlene after I left Brown to go to the New England Conservatory and later the Royal College of Music in London. I saw her every time I visited the New England area. Had I not met Arlene, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I feel ever so grateful for her believing in me. She was truly an incredible teacher and individual, and I will miss her tremendously, but I will cherish our memories together forever.

The Soul of the Music Department

Arlene Cole was the soul of the Brown University music department and the single warmest presence on campus. I had the pleasure of taking the lab part of MUSC 550-560 with her and later the advanced musicianship MUSC 1010-1011 classes. Arlene was always patient and generous with students of all ability levels, making her class a safe space for personal growth.

I’ll remember going to her office for exams, trying to play-sing in four clefs, realize figured bass, clap-stomp polyrhythmic exercises, and engage in other esoteric musical pursuits. It was always clear that these endeavors were for the love of music itself and exploring the bounds of one’s capabilities. The joy Arlene felt in fostering that curiosity in her students was palpable.

Arlene was one of my favorite professors at Brown, and it always made me smile to see her around Orwig. After graduating, when together with other former Brown music students, we always seem to end up reminiscing fondly about her and her classes. Now that she has passed, may her memory continue to bring warm thoughts and smiles to all those who had the honor to know her.

Arlene’s Lessons Last a Lifetime

People say you forget almost everything you learn in college within a few months, but I use everything I learned in Arlene’s class on a daily basis. In fact, the 101 Bach Chorales book and Modus Novus are sitting on the bookshelf behind me right now, well-thumbed-through and not the least bit dusty.

Even after those four semesters, though, Arlene was a constant presence in my life at Brown. More than a teacher of skills, she was a model of how to be a good member of a community. Arlene made me feel welcome, feel known from the very beginning. She was a link between the long-standing institution of Brown and the department, and each of us who made it our home for a few short years.

Arlene had an incredible knack for balancing the highest standards in music-making with a positivity in accepting us wherever we were at that moment. One example that illustrates this balance was when I was sitting in Arlene’s office one day, listening to the recordings that prospective students had sent in with their applications. Each recording sounded incredible to my non-pianist ears, but Arlene would listen for a few moments and say, “Eh.” She only needed a few notes to understand who was just playing the piano and who had real potential as a musician. It was a humbling experience of her powers of discernment and musical sense.

Another example happened to a very good friend of mine. Do you remember the part of our musicianship exams where we had to play piano and sing, regardless of our prior training or inclination as pianists or singers? My friend was an excellent musician on her instrument, but had studied neither piano nor voice before arriving in Arlene’s class. She had labored her way through the exercise on her exam until the very end. She saw the last note was higher than anything else in the passage, and she didn’t really know where it fit in her vocal range. So she just picked the highest note she could sing, sang it, and concluded the piece. Arlene looked at her, cocked her eyebrow, and smiled, and said, “A little sharp.”

Arlene Cole was a beautiful human being whose patient tutelage, kindness, and commitment to excellence made the Brown University music department a welcoming home for me and for so many of my friends and colleagues. In the years since I graduated, I’ve always looked forward to seeing her and checking in during my visits back to Providence. It’s hard to believe that she won’t be waiting there in Orwig next time I return. I will miss her dearly, but may her memory be a blessing.

Arlene’s Passion for Music and Life

When I came to Brown over 50 years ago, I found that it was a bigger pool to swim around in than I had expected. With no requirements and in those days, lacking any academic counseling, I often felt that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an obvious path forward. My roommate suggested I audition for piano lessons, and whatever it was that I played, Arlene looked at me with a big smile. She was game to teach me.

Arlene was such a good person, such a fun, lively person, and she took an interest in me. She was just ten years older than me, and she never talked down to her piano students. Her criticisms often started with, “Have you ever thought of this…” She liked to talk to people, she liked Brown, she liked Providence, she liked to cook. She loved her family, and she loved going home to Cleveland on vacations, shopping with her mother for Japanese ingredients.

Arlene would sometimes fuss over the cream cheese brownies that she brought to recitals. She even took her sister Marilyn, who was going to RISD, and me on expeditions or had us over for supper. I remember Arlene frying perfectly delicious fish that her dad caught on Cape Cod for breakfast. It would possibly be frowned upon in today’s world, but I sometimes came over and had a nighttime lesson after supper, after Geraldine and Eliot went to sleep. There were toys scattered around the piano, and it was wonderful, fundamental. There was no affectation – it was the essence of an honest musician’s life, Arlene’s world.

In terms of piano and music in my life, Arlene simply turned me around. She had a concept of tone, of rich sound, and of how to produce that sound at the keyboard that was completely eye-opening to me. She talked about how a pianist’s physical rigidity or inflexibility would stop the sound, and I didn’t believe it at first. And this was typical of Arlene – she was perfectly willing to get in the weeds with me and play single notes for an hour to prove her point.

Arlene’s playing was beautiful to me in a way I think is very rare and special. Her melodies were bel canto, beautifully sung. Beyond that, the voice was particularly contemporary and direct in the way Mieczys┼éaw Horszowski sounds unhackneyed and modern. As a piano teacher myself, I know what an achievement it is just to get the student to learn the notes, to get from A to Z, to be comfortable playing a piece. Arlene was interested in hearing something deeper.

The last time we were in contact was after Arlene’s father died. For years, I’ve been thinking I would arrange to stop in Providence for a visit. We always think there’s more time. I extend my deepest sympathy to Arlene’s whole family and to her students and colleagues. Spending time with and learning from Arlene Cole are among my most treasured memories of Brown University.

Arlene’s Warmth and Dedication

Unlike many of the wonderful people who have posted here, I knew Arlene only briefly. My high school kids were visiting colleges in the summer of 2017, and we stopped at Brown. Nothing was happening on campus, so we wandered into the music department and looked at the flyers and brochures outside the office. Lo and behold, Arlene sweeps in, very, very late for her hair appointment, but curious about us.

We knew little about Brown or the music program, but within seconds, we were infected by Arlene’s enthusiasm. She must have been very late to her hair appointment, but she gave us a full tour of the department and the recital hall. Fast forward, and my son William Adriance got to be her TA for music theory, and my daughter Madeleine, while not a music major, is a theater major.

In my short interaction, plus a couple of others at Parents Weekends, I got an instant sense of Arlene’s warmth, positivity, openness, and willingness to throw her plans out the window for others. It was so special for me, and I will miss her too.

The Beating Heart of the Department

I started my position as Department Chair at Brown in 2019, so I only had the pleasure and honor of working with Arlene for one year before her retirement. As I began my role, one of my first tasks was to get a sense of the landscape of the department. It is never enough, of course, to know one’s colleagues’ titles and official job descriptions to understand their actual role in the department. This was profoundly true with Arlene.

I quickly learned from my colleagues how central Arlene was to the music theory program – not just in her classroom teaching, but in her generous support of students outside the classroom. I also learned that Arlene was a deft organizer, providing crucial support for staff for a number of our important events and playing a vital role in creating departmental community. And I realized that Arlene was a key contact for alumni, an important way in which former students kept in touch with the Music Department after their time at Brown.

In faculty meetings and discussions of our concentrators, I came to understand that Arlene knew them all. No other faculty member could claim to have worked with every student who came through our department. And of course, in conversations with Arlene, it became apparent that students came to her both for her rigorous musical instruction and as a confidant and informal therapist.

I might have been Department Chair, but Arlene held a deeper and more fundamental power. There is a reason why we all hear the phrase “Arlene was the beating heart of the department” again and again. Her grace, generosity, good humor, and love of community are and will continue to be so profoundly missed. As I have said to my colleagues, Arlene helped shape our departmental culture, our whole community, in countless ways. The best thing we can do going forward is for each of us to try to embody even a fraction of her goodness in an effort to keep her special spark glowing in our department.

Arlene’s Legacy Lives On

Arlene was a mentor and advocate not only to the students but also the staff. For the 20 years I worked with her, Arlene was a trusted confidante and a sounding board for new ideas and challenges to be overcome. Generous and thoughtful, she celebrated all the holidays by lavishing the staff with bags of goodies, including sharing the most delightfully decorated cookies from her sister.

Arlene enhanced my life so much more than I could ever give back, no matter how hard I tried. But Arlene wasn’t just a kind, nurturing friend to all of us – she also had some hidden business talents that might come as a surprise. She was a fierce negotiator, effectively exposing people when she perceived they were giving her less value than expected or promised.

So many times, I observed the changing face of a person, realizing that the sweet, small woman in front of them was a secret powerhouse. Arlene also provided invaluable guidance about hiring, teaching me to sense “haki haki” – the spirit of ambition, power, and drive in a person, but in a more positive sense than the usual way we think about it. Somebody would leave an interview, and she’d look at me and say, “Not haki haki” or “Haki haki.” It was the gold standard of staff hiring.

Now, as Arlene’s physical presence leaves my spaces, I think to myself, “Yes, haki haki.” Arlene was the only professor that I and most other people I know who knew her consistently called by her first name. She insisted on it, and I think that’s indicative of the type of relationship she’d build with her students – warm and familial. That didn’t keep her from also holding you to a high standard in her class – everyone still had to do the three-part rhythm exercises.

I came to Brown expecting to study economics, and I can safely say that how Arlene made me feel learning musicianship skills is why I ended up concentrating in the music department. I struggled with that decision to study music solely for my own enjoyment and not because I expected to make my career in music. Arlene helped me honor that choice, which allowed me to feel comfortable sharing it with my parents.

Her sound advice drove me to ask her to become my faculty advisor sophomore year. For the record, she always did give me good advice, even when I didn’t take it (looking at you, sophomore fall course-activity load). I still cringe when I see people put drinks on a piano, just as she would, and I have since adopted her perfect pitch policy of not doing machines. Arlene impacted my life and the lives of so many others of her students for the better, and I’ll miss her very much. May her memory be a blessing to all whose lives she touched.

Arlene’s Transformative Influence

I was incredibly fortunate to have classes with Arlene each of my eight semesters at Brown, and while the classes got more and more challenging, Arlene’s encouraging disposition, commitment to teaching, and absolute love of the music never changed. She created a real community out of the music department and was always available to lend a hand outside of class. It was not hard to see how much Arlene really cared about each student and about the music program at Brown as a whole.

During the spring of my freshman year, I made a snap decision to see if I could place into a music class, having not taken the required course in the fall. Arlene was one of the professors who had to evaluate me to see if it would work, and I felt that she had championed me from the first day. I believe that trying to place in this course and eventually taking up Music as a second concentration was one of the best decisions I had ever made.

Due to Arlene’s guidance and the guidance of the rest of the professors I was lucky to have been taught by – Mark Steinbach, Dana Gooley, Wang Lu, Nancy Rosenberg, among them all – I have nothing but love and gratitude for the Brown University Music Department. The people there have shaped and uplifted

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