Gifts in Action

Music scholarships, noted piano series bring music to our ears

In 2005, between his junior and senior years at Issaquah’s Skyline High School, Michael Refvem (’11), attended Marrowstone, a top-tier orchestral training program hosted on Western’s campus, where he met WWU piano professor Jeffrey Gilliam. In 2014, with a newly-minted M.Mus. from the Manhattan School of Music, Refvem was back at Marrowstone, this time­ on staff as a collaborative artist. That’s the kind of transformative impact – and the kind of inspirational effect – that the William Sanford and Ford Hill Piano Scholarships and the Sanford-Hill Piano Series can have on the lives of young musicians.

“I knew that I wanted to be a pianist and I knew that Jeff was the right teacher for me,” explains Refvem. “So at the end of the festival I proposed that I take lessons with him.” Michael spent his senior year of high school driving up for monthly “mammoth” lessons. “Jeff agreed to do this – it was at that level of individual attention. He cared enough about my development as a pianist. I don’t think many other professionals would expend so much time on a student.” Refvem subsequently enrolled at Western to continue working with Gilliam, benefitting from several music scholarships as well as from WWU’s terrific Sanford-Hill Piano Series.

Established in 2002, the series – of which Gilliam is artistic director – brings internationally renowned pianists to campus three times a year for a double-sided treat: they give a public performance as well as conducting a master class for Western students. “It’s more than just a lesson,” observes Refvem. “It’s in front of an audience” – the classes are open to the public as an audience – “so you get performance experience too. I had the opportunity to play in several of these classes, learning different perspectives, different techniques. At Western, I was able to rise to the top of my game much faster than I might have elsewhere; when I went to New York, I was absolutely an equal among my peers if not slightly above.”

Sibyl Sanford (’74), whose passion for piano has been threaded through her life since the age of six, first supported Western’s music program in 1992 when she established a scholarship in her father’s name. “It’s enriched my life so much, that scholarship,” she says. “I love watching the students develop – they come to my house to play, to practice before their big concerts – and they’re just a wonderful group of people. It has really meant a lot to me on a personal level.” With Ford Hill, a WWU emeritus professor of piano – he taught at the university from 1975 to 1996 – Sanford also sponsors the Sanford-Hill Piano Series. Last year, both made generous estate gifts that ensure not just the series in perpetuity, but also the scholarships that bear Sanford’s father and Ford Hill’s names.

“At the university level it’s very competitive attracting good piano students,” explains Hill. “All the state and private universities are vying for the best students. Without scholarships, we would be at a real disadvantage. I think that’s one of the things I’m happy and proud about, that it really helps in getting quality students to Western.” The series, he notes, works as a powerful recruiting tool while having a wider, community-based appeal as well.

Even Western’s faculty benefit, says Gilliam. “As music professors, we get to have dinner with these genius artists, ask them questions about their art. I get a huge mirror held up to my stature as a pianist and as a teacher, discovering what they have to offer in terms of technique and performance psychology that I can pass on to my students.” That’s an educational approach whose success Madeline Slettedahl, Western’s 2014 Outstanding Graduate in Music, can attest to. “It was very easy for me to make the decision to pursue my musical studies at Western,” she says. “ One of the strongest contributing factors was the caliber of the music faculty.”

Being a scholarship recipient, she says, was crucial to providing her with “the time and devotion” that her major required, while the piano series measurably enhanced her experience: “Interacting with these world-class artists on such a personal level is an inspiration. You begin to comprehend the work ethic and determination that it takes to achieve such a high level of performance, and also to appreciate the support they offer for the next generation of musicians. My ultimate goal is to take the musical work I have amassed thus far and share it with as many individuals as possible, through teaching, performing and community outreach. During my four years at Western, I performed in more than 75 performances and recitals and collaborated with over 100 different students and faculty. This emphasis on opportunity, diversity and collaboration is one of the factors that defines Western for me.”

If the desire to instill encouragement, engender development and provide resources and inspiration is what philanthropy is all about, Western’s piano program has landed an ace in the hole. “I want to be a concert artist,” affirms Refvem, who’s just landed faculty positions at the Seattle Piano Academy and at the Bellevue School of Music as well as joining the staff at Western's department of music. “Musicians wear a lot of hats. I’m looking at a career of teaching, a career of performing concertos, solo recitals, chamber music and all sorts of collaborations, including summer festivals and workshops. I want,” he says, “to do it all.”