Faculty Profile: Stephany Tiernan ’74

Every 25 Years
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After more than four decades of guiding Berklee students toward their artistic goals, piano professor Stephany Tiernan ’74 is now concentrating on her own personal musical journey in earnest. She spent 26 years in leadership roles in Berklee’s piano department, 10 as assistant chair to Paul Schmeling, and another 16 as chair. Tiernan became chair emerita in September of 2016.

Phil Farnsworth

These days she teaches just two days a week and spends the rest of her time organizing her studio, cataloging her original works and recordings, composing, and planning future performances. “The reason I cut back was because I wasn’t doing enough performing and writing,” Tiernan says. “I am dying to have the space to see what will come out. I’m writing a new woodwind quintet and I don’t know why! I don’t know who is going to play it, but I am having a great time.”

During a recent conversation in her Berklee teaching studio, Tiernan revealed that music was actually a fallback for her. “As a child, I loved dancing,” she says. “I did ballet, tap, and acrobatics, but I got very sick when I was seven. The doctor said I shouldn’t dance for quite a while. I hated to give up dancing, but I had no strength.” Both of her parents played piano, and soon Stephany—almost reluctantly—began to play. “Soon I found piano playing to be like dancing on the keys, so it became the next place to go with dance.” Her piano teacher provided proper classical training in technique but also worked with her on jazz and popular music.

By the time Tiernan contemplated college, she was a single mother of a 10-month-old son following the end of her first marriage. As a Berklee student in the early 1970s, Tiernan was interested in a performing career, but she changed directions. “I started pursuing a performance degree,” she recalls. “But when I found out that you needed to be a writing major to take Herb Pomeroy’s classes, I switched to composition. I took all of Herb’s courses, line writing, jazz composition, and his Duke Ellington class. It was wonderful. Given my classical background, I was also writing things that weren’t jazz. My writing took me to different places.”

Concurrently, Tiernan studied piano with Margaret Chaloff, one of the most influential teachers in Boston during the 1970s. (Chaloff’s students also included Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, and Kenny Werner among others.) Tiernan spent six years absorbing Chaloff’s thoughts on technique, creativity, spirituality in the arts, and ideas on where music comes from.

“She took me under her wing and was extremely important to me,” Tiernan says.  “Toward the end, she told me I could teach her method. I don’t know of anyone else she gave that license to. She laid the foundation for everything I taught. It had worked for me and transformed my technique. Her concept was revolutionary and I saw results in my teaching.” To repay the debt, Tiernan codified Chaloff’s teachings in the 2011 Berklee Press book and DVD Contemporary Piano Technique. “She gave me six years of lessons and never charged me,” Tiernan says. “Because she gave me all that, I wanted to document it for others.”

In 1975, Tiernan joined the Berklee faculty, following a conversation with Bill Maloof, founding chair of the composition department, at a long-gone Berklee hang, Mike’s drugstore at the corner of Hemenway and Boylston streets.

“I was a single mother scuffling to make money as an accompanist and composer and I realized I needed more work. I asked him if he needed a teacher for the fall semester. He said, ‘Sure, come to my office and fill out the paperwork.’” Tiernan signed on for a 30-hour weekly schedule teaching piano lessons, ensembles, harmony, ear training, and counterpoint classes. It’s a point of pride that some of her former students developed great careers. Among them are jazz pianist Aaron Goldberg ’97, British composer and pianist Julian Joseph ’89, and sideman to the stars Alain Mallet ’89, now a Berklee associate professor.

Along the way, Tiernan met and married trombonist Tom Plsek, now chair emeritus of the Brass Department. She was also named a Steinway artist. That’s an honor initiated by the famed piano company, not an endorsement that can be solicited. Steinway has hosted CD release events and concerts by Tiernan. “I don’t know why they asked me, they must have liked my playing and music,” she says with characteristic understatement.

For the past two decades, a centerpiece of the annual piano department concerts has been the piano duets played by Tiernan and professor Joanne Brackeen. Wearing whacky matching outfits—blond wigs and sequined miniskirts or long dresses and frilly feathered hats—they play music that falls somewhere between free improvisation and performance art.

Regarding inspiration for Tiernan’s composing, she has been exploring Irish culture for years. “It started as a roots exploration when I went to see family in Ireland,” she says. “Once I was there, I started listening to Irish music and that led me to the Irish language and an ancient style of singing called sean-nós. I wanted to understand that music and that led me deeper into the language. I started singing sean-nós. Places I have visited have influenced my music and musical quotations find their way into my compositions too, but I can’t say my music really sounds Irish.”

Asked about her future, Tiernan answers with a wry grin, “I’ve decided that every 25 years I’m going to do something different. So for the next 25 years I’ll be a composer—and I’m accepting commissions.”