Pianist  Gail  Quillman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


I met Gail Quillman at her studio in downtown Chicago in mid-March of 1989.  Her soft-spoken demeaner belied the knowledge and wisdom she presented in both her music and speaking.

Portions of the conversation were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago to promote concerts and celebrations of Leo Sowerby.

Here is the entire interview . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Let’s talk about Leo Sowerby.  How did you get so immensely interested in him?

Gail Quillman:   He was one of my teachers.  When I was a freshman at the American Conservatory, I studied theory with him, starting out in his harmony class.  It was love at first sight, I must say.

BD:   Was it love at first sight, or love at first hear?
Quillman:   Sight.  The hearing came much later.  He was a wonderful man with a great twinkle in his eye all the time, even when he was being very strict.  At one of our first classes, as he was grading my homework he told me I had the best stems in the class, which was very entertaining, and the whole class loved it.  That formed the base of our relationship.  It was a very good student-teacher relationship.  He had a wonderful sense of humor, and I just loved him.

BD:   Did this love work both ways?

Quillman:   I think so.  He liked me, too.  A couple of months later, I was around the corner in an old used-book-and-music store, and ran into one of my fellow students.  He asked me how I liked the Conservatory, and I said I just loved it.  He asked who was my favorite?” and I said, “Leo Sowerby, of course!  He’s a great man.”  That fellow student said he had written a lot of music, and showed me about five stacks each of which was a foot high.  The next time I went into class, I backed in very modestly and humbly, thinking that I was in the presence of this great man all this time.

BD:   When you came to discover the music that he had written, was there anything that surprised you?

Quillman:   He had great emotional depth, but it was big and important, which was just the opposite of the personal image that one got from knowing him.  That was a great surprise.

BD:   Are you still discovering new things in these pieces?

Quillman:   Oh yes, every time.  To me, he’s the equivalent of Brahms
it’s endless discovery.  Every time you play it, there’s something new.

BD:   In all of the music that you’ve played, have you ever run across anything that you wish you could have changed just a little bit?  Maybe move a note here, or change a dynamic?

Quillman:   Oh, no!  [Laughs]  When one rehearsed with him, you’d get through a whole work of many pages, and after you’d finished he’d say, “Now, on page thirty-two, I wrote an F-sharp.
 He knew his music.

BD:   When you play these pieces over and over again, do you change your interpretive style at all over the years?  Do you play them the same way now that you did when you first learning them?

Quillman:   I try to be more true to the score each time.  Whatever music I’ve played, I’ve tried to be true to the score.

BD:   Is there really only one way to play that score, or any score?

Quillman:   No, I don’t think so.  One interprets when reading the score.

BD:   Is there a little bit of you when you play Mr. Sowerby?

Quillman:   I like to think there’s a lot of Mr. Sowerby in the score, and I hope it comes through that way.  I hope what I’m playing is Sowerby. That’s what I want it to be.

BD:   Do you ever run across any pieces that you just don
t care for, and you leave that work aside?

Quillman:   Of Sowerby’s music?  No, I haven’t come across anything I didn’t care for.

BD:   He was a superb teacher of theory and composition.  Did you study composition with him, also?

Quillman:   Oh yes, composition and music history.  He was also a wonderful music history teacher.  He had many out-of-print books, and he’d quote from the books.  It was wonderful.

BD:   He lived until 1968.  Toward the end of his life, was he particularly pleased with the then growing avalanche of recordings of all kinds of music?

Quillman:   He didn’t speak of it to me, no.

BD:   Was he optimistic about where music was going?

Quillman:   I’m sure he was.

BD:   Do you do any composing yourself?

Quillman:   [Emphatically]  No!  It’s a full-time job, and if one performs, one can’t also compose... at least I have never been able to.

BD:   You’re both a performer and a teacher.  How do you balance those two portions of your life?

Quillman:   It’s very difficult finding enough time for myself and my students.  But teaching enriches one’s performance.  It emphasizes what you’re trying to do yourself.

BD:   So, you really learn at the same time that you’re teaching?

Quillman:   Oh, absolutely.  It’s the best teacher there is.  As a matter of fact, when I first began studying theory, Dr. Sowerby was already living in Washington, and I was very thrilled that I had been put in the theory department at the Conservatory.  I wrote to him and told him about it, and he wrote back and said, “There’s nothing like teaching for a good a review.”  [Both laugh]  So, that’s what teaching is.
BD:   Was he pleased to be here in Chicago?  Did Chicago offer enough outlets for him to perform and to write and to have his compositions played?
Quillman:   If he had been displeased, he wouldn’t have indicated it to anyone.  He was the kind of person who did the work when it was time to do the work, and he did it as thoroughly as possible.  I don’t think he was negative at all.

BD:   Is the sound of his music always positive?

Quillman:   I think so.
 [Photo at left of Leo Sowerby is from the Library of Congress]

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’ve been teaching piano since 1960.  Have you also been teaching theory and history?

Quillman:   Not history.  I’ve taught theory, composition, counterpoint, harmony, sight-singing, and piano.

BD:   How has teaching of music to young students changed in nearly thirty years?

Quillman:   My teaching has changed in as much as I have changed, because I’ve gotten older.  My teaching has gotten more precise, and more individual.

BD:   Are there differences between the students of 1960 and now?

Quillman:   Oh, sure!  [Laughs]  The students in 1960 were very determined to express their individuality, and now they’ve become more serious about the music itself.  It
s not so much about themselves as getting into the music, and communicating that way.  In the 1960s I was teaching at the Conservatory, so I had a lot of college people, and their comments indicated they couldn’t get into it, or they couldn’t do this, or they couldn’t do that.  There was a lot of attitude, and now people study because they want to.  They’re much more optimistic, and they don’t have the expectations from music that they did in the 60s.  Back then, music was some sort of answer, and now it’s some sort of quest.  It’s an education; it’s a richness; it’s a luxury.

BD:   What, for you, is the purpose of music in society?

Quillman:   It keeps the universe going, actually.  [Laughs]  It’s the one form of communication that’s the most spiritual of all of the arts.  I believe that.  I often say to my students, “Be careful of what you’re putting out.  Don’t put out mistakes.  Do you really want to put that into the air?  Let’s be careful about what we communicate here.

BD:   How is someone who is writing a piece, or playing a piece, able to tell whether what they’re putting out is right or a mistake?

Quillman:   Their teacher tells them.

BD:   Yes, but then they’ve got to get away from the teacher and be on their own.  So how can they learn to discern what’s right?

Quillman:   If they discern what’s true to them, then that’s right.
BD:   Will that change over each lifetime?
Quillman:   Undoubtedly, many times.

BD:   As you teach young pianists, do you find that the whole shape of society is influencing the way they come to the piano, as well as the way they come to the classroom?

Quillman:   [Ponders a moment]

BD:   Let me change it a little bit.  Again, with this avalanche of recordings, do you feel that students are more informed about all kinds of music today than they were twenty or thirty years ago?

Quillman:   I think so, and there’s a hunger for musical education in parents.  They’ve realized that this is an essential part of their child’s upbringing.  One mother told me that music teaches her child how to study everything else, and how to learn everything else.  When a child studies music, they go to a lesson and there
’s something given to them, or shown to them.  Then it’s up to them.  They go home for a week, and what they do with it is up to them.  It’s not like going to school every day, and learning this is right and this wrong.  In music, they have to make that discovery for themselves, and that’s one of the only areas in their life where that happens.  It’s important.

BD:   We’re talking basically about concert music.  Is concert music really for everyone?

Quillman:   No, but it doesn’t have to be.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Frank Ferko, and David Schrader.]

BD:   Should we try to get the kids who go to rock concerts, into the opera houses and concert halls?

Quillman:   They’ll get there sooner or later.  After all, if Mr. Solti’s planning to play at Madison Square Garden, anything can happen.  [Both laugh]  Look at the movie scores
Mozart, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff are all getting into it.

BD:   Almost unwillingly, or unwittingly.

Quillman:   Unwittingly is the better word.

BD:   When you play a concert, do you try to include some new music, or music of Sowerby each time?

Quillman:   Oh, absolutely.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear one of your concerts
if anything at all?

Quillman:   I expect them to enjoy the music.

BD:   All of it???  Even the  unfamiliar?

Quillman:   Yes, even the unfamiliar!  Music all comes from the same source, and there’s something in it for everyone.

BD:   Do you go to great lengths to express the Sowerby works in any different way than you do Beethoven, or Haydn, or Schubert?

Quillman:   Only in that I know his personality, and I knew him personally.  I somehow feel that I knew Haydn, too.  I feel quite close to Haydn, and he’s one person that I would really have liked to have known personally.  They all had different personalities, and it’s important for a performer to know as much as possible about the personal life of the composer that they’re playing.  It’s more important to me than listening to other performances of the music.

BD:   Performers should dig in, and read biographies, and get into that person
s life?

Quillman:   Yes.  The spirit of the person is what should come through the music.

BD:   Rather than listening to other performances?

Quillman:   Yes.

BD:   Do you keep up with other performances yourself at all, or not really?

Quillman:   As a rule, I don’t like to listen to other performances of the pieces that I’m working on myself.  I like it to come directly through me.  If I’m working on a Beethoven piece, for instance, I enjoy listening to a Beethoven symphony, or a quartet to get to know Beethoven the person, rather than another pianist’s interpretation of Beethoven.

BD:   Besides solo piano pieces, do you also include some chamber works?

Quillman:   Yes, we have a trio, La Musica Gioiosa.

BD:   Joyful Music!

Quillman:   Right, that’s it!

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   From the vast repertoire of solo and chamber music, how do you decide which pieces you will spend some time on, and which you’ll have to let go?

Quillman:   Right now, my main interest is Leo Sowerby’s music, and getting it published.  The way I’m going to get it published, I hope, is to play it enough so other people will want to play it, and then the publishers will realize that there’s a demand for it.  As to the trio, there are three of us, so we suggest different things, and put our programs together that way.

BD:   Did Sowerby write a lot of chamber music?

Quillman:   We have found three trios, and I have access to two of them.  So we’ll be performing those.

BD:   Where’s the third?  Is it locked up in a vault some place?

Quillman:   I don’t know.  It’s a very young work, and it’s undated, so it may be lost.

BD:   You’ve never ever seen it?

Quillman:   No, I haven’t seen it.

BD:   Do you know anything about it other than it’s just an entry in the catalogue?

Quillman:   It’s catalogued, yes.

BD:   Now you’ve got this one recording out.  Are you going to be putting out more recordings yourself?

Quillman:   Hopefully, yes, I plan to.

BD:   Are they solo, or chamber works?

Quillman:   Both.  I’m working on a Passacaglia, Interlude, and Fugue at the present time, which is a solo work, and then we hope to record the two trios of 1911 and 1953.

BD:   Are the three pieces that are on your solo CD very different from one another, or are they similar in structure and style?

Quillman:   They’re all different.  The Sonata is a big work, probably the most important piano work that is overlooked.  The Suite is a shorter work, and a more recent work, and the Passacaglia is, as the name implies, after an organ sostenuto bass work.  It’s very different.

BD:   Sowerby was an organist as well as a composer.  Are his piano works pianistic, or are they organistic, but written for the piano?

Quillman:   They are pianistic because, although it’s not well known, Sowerby was a masterful pianist.  When he was younger, he was quite a brilliant pianist.  He had one of his concerts in Chicago.  He played the piano part for the Concerto [March 5, 1920], and it was later that he got into playing the organ.

BD:   Did you hear him play the piano, and play his own works?

Quillman:   No.  I heard him play the piano when he corrected our studies and compositions, but I didn’t hear him play his own works.

BD:   Are there any recordings of him playing?

Quillman:   I don’t know.  I doubt it.  He was a very modest man.

BD:   That seems like a contradiction, to be a composer and yet be a modest man.  How can you reconcile those two?

Quillman:   He may have been one of the chosen ones.

BD:   He was a great composer in your eyes?

Quillman:   Oh, yes.

BD:   What is it about his music, or any music, that makes it stand above the crowd and become great music?

Quillman:   Number one, the spirituality of the music.  Number two, the fact that the music survives.  No matter who plays it, it’s worth a great, great deal.

BD:   No one can kill it?

Quillman:   Nobody can kill it!  It comes through, it really does.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re a performing pianist, and you go and play on different instruments.  How long does it take you to adjust to each new instrument that you play?

Quillman:   Sometimes never!  [Laughs]

BD:   Keyboardists are a victim of whatever instrument is put in front of them.  They can’t carry it around with them.

Quillman:   Well, luckily, I was taught in the tradition to play with a light arm, and be quite relaxed.  I have found that rather than trying to play the piano, if I just play the music, then the piano is going to sound its ultimate best.  So I
ve ceased fighting pianos.

BD:   You just bring out as much as you can?

Quillman:   I just play the way I play, and it may be a subconscious adaptation on my part.  My hands may just adapt subconsciously.

BD:   Is the music really flowing through your hands, or are you becoming part of that music, and becoming the sound that comes out of the piano?

Quillman:   One hopes to be becoming the music
mind, heart and hands.  I think of that when I play.
BD:   When you’re recommending that young students start studying a piece, or a series of pieces, do you have favorites that you pick on all the time, or do you tailor each lesson plan to the individual student?

Quillman:   Each individual.  I’m always looking for new things.  I very seldom repeat myself.

BD:   So, once you get beyond the basic technique...

Quillman:   ...yes, then it’s very individual.

BD:   How did you wind up in Uruguay?

Quillman:   There was a competition there.  When I would compete, I’d see the same people in Spain and Italy, and you talk about where the next contest was going to be, and try to make it.  I suppose I found out about it that way, and went to it.

BD:   Did you win that competition?

Quillman:   No, I didn’t win that one.  I can’t remember what I did, but I won a prize.

BD:   Is that the best way to go for young pianists
to do whole bunches of competitions?

Quillman:   I found it was invaluable.  When one is from Chicago, and you spend maybe fifteen years competing, and playing at the music clubs, and using up what Chicago has to offer.  You get very localized, and the competitions are really eye-opening.  It was wonderful.  The first time I went to compete I didn’t do very well, but it gave me a real sense of where I stood internationally.  In Chicago you get involved with all the local things, and all of a sudden you say, “Here I am!  I’m an American!” and you find this whole bigger scope opens up.  It’s valuable just for that.

BD:   Is there any chance that all the studios and all of the schools in America, and the world, are turning out too many young concert pianists?

Quillman:   Oh, I don’t think so.  I think there’s room.  There aren’t enough halls.  That’s what there’s not enough of.  People would love to play, but there aren’t enough facilities, and there’s not enough support.  That’s what we need.  We need small halls.  There is wonderful talent, especially here in Chicago.

BD:   You have a son.  Have you encouraged him to go into music, or have you urged him to stay out of that life?

Quillman:   He went into music, and then he went into business.  [Laughs]  His heart is with music, but he found it wouldn’t support him.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You and the Trio play in a music shop?

Quillman:   At the Steinway dealer, yes.  It’s a beautiful sound.

BD:   Is that nice to play in that kind of environment?

Quillman:   People have loved the series.  They think it’s wonderful to be so close to the musicians.  It’s informal, and very friendly.  They love it.  We’ll also be playing at the Newberry Library, and while that will be a more formalized setting, it will be the same kind of thing.  We will be on a level with the audience, so it’s going to be nice.

BD:   Do you talk to the audience, and explain the music a little bit, or just come out and play?

Quillman:   We come out and play, but there is coffee and sherry afterwards.  That’s when we talk.

BD:   Do you like the response that you get from the crowd?

Quillman:   We’ve gotten wonderful response.  I never dreamt that we would get such a lovely response.  People love it.

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences who come to hear piano recitals, chamber music, even orchestra concerts?

Quillman:   To enjoy it.  Let the music come to them.

BD:   They shouldn’t be asked to do any work, or be involved in the performance?

Quillman:   No, no.  If they became involved, they’d get in the way.  The less selfless that they are, the more they’ll enjoy the music, and the more they’d listen.  The less they think the better.  The music will speak to them.

BD:   You view music as an emotion, rather than a cerebral activity on the part of the listener?

Quillman:   One could react to it emotionally, but one doesn’t necessarily have to.  A better term would be
spiritual rather than emotional.

BD:   You seem to have the spirit of the music inside you, and it comes out.

Quillman:   I’d love it if that were true.

BD:   What is next on the calendar for you?

Quillman:   One of my goals is to perform Sowerby’s Concerto.  I’m going to be working on that as soon as I get the score.

BD:   You’ll learn it, and then induce someone to conduct it?

Quillman:   Absolutely, yes.

BD:   What kinds of pianos do you have in your studio?

Quillman:   I now have a Stein and a Knabe.  The Stein was one of 2000 made by a man who worked for Story & Clark, and decided to go off on his own.  It’s a very good piano, but he couldn’t sustain his business, so he only made a few thousand.

BD:   It’s got a good action, and a good feel?

Quillman:   Yes, it’s a good piano.

Charles Frederick Stein established his firm in Chicago in 1924 after many years of working with Mr. Hampton L. Story (of Story & Clark).  The factory was located at 3047 West Carroll St., Chicago.  Mr. Stein’s personal vision was to build the world’s finest pianos, and his instruments were known to be of superior quality and craftsmanship.

At first the firm built only grand pianos and grand player pianos, but later introduced upright and studio pianos to their line in 1931.  One of Charles Frederick Stein’s more memorable inventions was a “tone chamber” located between the strings and soundboard, patented in 1934.

Charles Frederick Stein went out of business in 1942 with the onset of World War II.  The firm only built pianos for 18 years, and instruments by Charles Frederick Stein are quite rare today.  

BD:   Do you like the response of the Knabe?

Quillman:   Yes, it’s also a good piano.

BD:   Do you always teach on one and let the student play on the other, or do you go back and forth?

Quillman:   Usually I teach on one, and have the student on the other.

BD:   I like being in this studio.

Quillman:   It’s very Gothic.  [After looking around the room a bit, we came back to Sowerby]  It was in 1962 that he sent me the manuscript of the Sonata.

BD:   Then he was in Washington, DC?

Quillman:   Yes.  He sent it with the instructions that I was just to copy the fugue, which is the third movement, because he was still revising the first two movements.  I had written to him, asking him for a contest piece.  I was in a scholarship competition, and so he sent that to me to copy.  In a letter he said, “It’s a pretty good fugue, but it really tears the place apart!”  He later sent me two other copies, one that was complete and revised.  Then in 1968 he sent me another copy, which I thought was strange.  It just came out of the blue, and he had a letter with it in which he told me that he felt I deserved it.  I wrote a thank you note, but didn’t have a stamp.  When I got the newspaper the next day, I read of his death, and I thought that it was his way of communicating to me.

BD:   You have been championing his music ever since?

Quillman:   Ever since.  I felt that it was meant for me to do.

BD:   Should every major composer have a champion, either a conductor or a performer that will just simply focus in on that one composer, and present the music?

Quillman:   That happens, ultimately there seems to be a person who sees something in the music that other people haven’t seen.  There is no other Sowerby!  Sowerby is an outstanding American composer, and people are just now beginning to realize the intrinsic worth of the music.  It’s unique.  
The Fugue was the jolliest thing that he had ever written, and that’s when I decided it was time to record it.

BD:   I’m glad you’ve been able to interest the record company in doing it.

Quillman:   I am too, and it wasn’t hard going.  I had written to Angel Records and sent them a tape, and they recommended me to New World.  They were doing American twentieth-century music, and in a few days they just accepted it, and agreed to do it.  So, it was very lucky.

BD:   I’m glad he has such an able spokeswoman as you!

Quillman:   Oh, thank you.

BD:   Tell me about how you met William Ferris.

Quillman:   We were both students of Sowerby.  We passed each other in the hall, and became quite friendly.  There are offices next to my studio here, and I was playing through the Sonata a couple of years ago when John Vorrasi came to my door and said, “That’s Sowerby!  I know that’s Sowerby!”  I said it was.  They were doing a ‘Remembering Leo concert’, and in conjunction with that, they were having a program at the Newberry Library.  So, they asked me to play the Sonata there.  That’s the night I felt Sowerby was really with us.  The Ferris Chorale was also
going to perform The Throne of God, and record it.

BD:   Thank you so much for all of your work, and for speaking with me today.

Quillman:   It was my pleasure.  Thank you.



See my interviews with William Schuman, and Carlos Kalmar


Also, see my interview with Virgil Thomson



© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Quillmans studio in Chicago on March 16, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.