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Meet the Composer: A Conversation with Catherine Rollin

December 18, 2017



A well-known and prolific composer, your compositions appeal to piano teachers and students alike. There is such a variety of level, mood, and style. I would like to know more about your creative process.


Q: Do you set aside a regular time of day to compose?

A: For many reasons, I do not  generally set aside a regular time to compose. But for every project my process is different. I think the primary reason that I don’t generally “schedule” composing time is that it basically feels like the antithesis of the process. In projects that flow really well, I might sit at the piano for many hours kind of “doodling” with sounds, moods and playing other music. On these “good flow” projects - ideas will just start happening after these initial hours of musical “doodling.” But as I said - the process is always different for me. When I wrote my “Museum Masterpieces,” many of the pieces were basically “sketched” out in a few minutes while I stood in front of an art work at a museum! That was a wonderful experience when a painting just “jolted” a piece of music right out onto the staff paper!!! The primary thought  that I want to express  is that I feel that the basic core of the piece - the melodic ideas - really need to spring to life on their own. 


Once I feel that I have ideas that I like, then the real disciplined, hard work begins. Then I schedule many hours before I teach and all weekend that are devoted to working out all the details of the piece. The last  step is the hardest: I write everything by hand and this takes hours of patient, disciplined work with pen and ruler! Hand writing the manuscript requires intense focus and tenacity and many scheduled hours.



Q: Do you have a particular level of student in mind when you compose, or do you see where the creative process takes you? 


A: I usually have a particular level in mind once I start working on the details. It is really very important to me to try to make the music I write accessible and comfortable for the respective level of student that I am writing for. I feel a great obligation to write music that will give the student a rewarding and not a frustrating experience.



Q: How did you get started with composing?


A: I have made up my own arrangements of music since I was very young. Although it was not actually composing, I was already starting to make up arrangements of popular songs and patriotic songs, etc. when I was about 5 or 6. I also played by ear all of the pieces that my older sister was playing in her lessons. My parents loved to gather at the piano where my mom played and my father played violin.  Although they weren’t professionals, they both played very well, especially by ear. My mom could play everything that my father wanted to play (opera arias, Schubert melodies, melodies from musicals, pop songs, etc.) and basically could figure out the chords and melody very well. By the time I was 7, I was already playing all of the pieces that my father loved as well - so I really developed that “by ear” playing.  There is no doubt that this freedom at the piano helped me very much in becoming a composer. My improvising started take the turn towards actual composition in high school when I began to write original music.



Q: Have certain piano students inspired you to write particular pieces?


A: I generally haven’t written pieces for specific students, but I can say that  my students and my work as a teacher is a very major inspiration in my writing pedagogical pieces. Through my own music as well as music of other pedagogical composers I have seen how important well-written teaching pieces are for the development of students. I also believe that understanding the needs of developing students truly helps me to teach my advanced students more effectively. For example, I have learned how important being in a good  hand position is to playing well and with good control at the early stages. I have applied this understanding to the teaching of virtuoso music and see how we can make even very difficult music more accessible by applying the same principles of good  hand position to all music - from easy pedagogical music to demanding masterworks.



Q: Are there special obstacles in composing educational music? Do you ever encounter “writer’s block?” If so, what helps you to overcome this obstacle?


A: I do think it is sometimes difficult to keep music at certain levels. I most often encounter this when I am doing arrangements of already existing music that was not originally intended for a particular level. 


About writer’s block- I think that almost everyone has times where they feel they have “writer’s block.” I think the best thing to do when this happens is to just stop trying to write. This is one of the main reasons I don’t like the idea of having scheduled writing time. For me, if I try to schedule the creative process and producing good ideas - it is almost a certain  formula for “writer’s block.”  



Q: What advice would you give composers interested in writing educational music?


A: I would tell any composer to immerse themselves in the music that they want to compose. Listen to everything, play everything and teach everything. My life is totally immersed in teaching. I teach all levels and in one day, I go from teaching five finger position pieces to teaching Chopin etudes and Rachmaninoff Concertos. I think as a composer of pedagogical music, it is important to be really familiar with everything that goes into the initial stages of learning as well as being familiar with the most difficult masterworks.



Q: Is there a mentor or other educational composer who has been particularly instrumental to your own success as a composer?


A: Absolutely!  There were two amazing mentors in my work. The first was William Gillock. He was my absolute musical hero. I loved the fact that even his smallest pieces were always “real music.” Nothing sounded like it was just written for a pedagogical purposes. Bill Gillock became a close friend and his encouragement and support were instrumental in my having the faith to do this as a career. Lynn Freeman Olson was my other mentor. I met Lynn Olson at the MTNA conference in 1985 when I was playing my first 5 published pieces for a friend. Lynn came up to me and introduced himself and told me that my music was “fresh.” He then became a great supporter of my music. About a year later, a couple of my teacher friends took a “piano teacher cruise” to Hawaii.  Lynn was the featured artist on that cruise. When my friends returned to Michigan - they called me and excitedly told me that Lynn Freeman Olson had called me “the composer of the future and to keep their ears open for my music!”  What an amazing experience that was for me.  I never asked Lynn for help and only met him on 2 occasions, but he was getting the word out about my music! Within 2 years of our meeting he invited me to be the commissioned composer for “Clavier” Magazine. Lynn died shortly after this, but in our short time of knowing each other, he went out of his way to promote and support my music. I was told that my composition “Three Romances” was the one of the  last pieces that he enjoyed at the piano.    Now 30 years later, I cannot believe how blessed I was to know Bill Gillock and Lynn Freeman Olson.



Q: Is there any particular collection, or collections, or piece you have composed that is especially close to your heart? If so, why?


A: I really feel very “close” to all of [my] pieces! I was always very attached to my Lyric Moments - because those books were dedicated to my daughter when she was only 1 and also to  the memory of William Gillock. But at this point - I have heard so many students at master classes playing all of my music that I have a special place in my heart for all of these pieces because I have shared all this music with many students around the world and have been privileged to personally hear students throughout the U.S., Canada, Japan and Taiwan play my music! I have received letters and many tributes from students young and old who have enjoyed my music and felt that it opened up the musical experience for them. Because of this - every piece has a special meaning to me!



Q: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?


A: It has been over 30 years since I was first published. I feel that everything that I do - composing, teaching, presenting workshops, etc. is part of a whole - and that is: being a musician. It is so thrilling to me how everything contributes to that whole. For example - writing for students has led to my thinking about technique - which led to my series “Pathways to Artistry.” Working on this series has helped me to understand technique  and how to solve problems. This has led me to  being a better teacher and a better musician. I think that being a teacher is deeply rewarding and we are all so fortunate to be part of this profession. My work as a composer, arranger and clinician are all “icing on the cake.”  I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to meet teachers around the world and  to share music and teaching ideas with them. It might sound cliché, but it really is not at all cliché, it is just the truth: music is the universal language. A piece of music can touch the heart, move someone to tears, make someone laugh, provide comfort, or just simply say something very meaningful - without any words. As teachers of music - we are all privileged to open up this world of expression to our students and it is thrilling to me to be able to also do this through my composing.

Catherine Rollin is an active pianist, composer, clinician, author and teacher. Her pedagogical compositions are recognized worldwide for their combination of musicality and “ teachability." She has over 400 pieces published with Alfred Publishing Company and her music is also available in Japan through Zenon Publishing and in Taiwan through Continental Publishing. Her music is currently featured on many lists including the National Federation of Music Clubs(NFMC) bulletin where they are included  in the solo, duet, one hand, concerto and patriotic categories. Other prominent syllabi where Catherine’s works appears are Canada’s   Royal Academy of Music syllabus as well as England’s Trinity Exams. Catherine has also received numerous commissions including those from the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) and Clavier Magazine. She is also a co author of the 2011 edition of  the highly regarded college text: Creative Piano Teaching


 A noted clinician and masterclass presenter, Catherine has given over 250 workshops in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. Among the many topics that Catherine has covered in her workshops are technique and artistry. Catherine’s groundbreaking ideas on the development of physical awareness that leads to greater musical expression  are at the core of her 9 book series: Pathways to Artistry. This series has impacted teachers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and Taiwan with translations  available in Japanese and Mandarin. Catherine has also given numerous workshops that explore the elements of specific styles including those of the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Impressionist eras as well as fundamentals of jazz. Additionally, Catherine has done over 100 master classes in the U.S., Canada, and Asia.


Students of Catherine’s have won state, regional, national and international awards. In 2016, students of Catherine’s were national finalists and 3rd place winners in the MTNA duet competition, regional first place winner of the NFMC’s Stillman Kelly competition and  first prize winner of the International Salzburg Grand Prize Virtuoso. In the spring of 2017, Catherine had two students featured as concerto soloists with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, as well as several students perform at Carnegie Hall. In the summer of 2017, students of Catherine’s were selected respectively as performers at the Southeastern Piano Festival in S.Carolina, a finalist in the Kaufman International Piano Competition in NYC, a third place winner at the Thousand Island Competition, and a concerto soloist at the Todi Festival in Italy. Catherine is certified by the Michigan Music Teachers Association and the Music Teachers National  Association.


A native of Detroit, Michigan, Catherine received her pre-college training with Mischa Kottler, himself a disciple of Cortot and von Sauer, the latter a pupil of Liszt. Rollin holds the BMA degree with distinction from University of Michigan and the MM from Oakland University. In 2002, Oakland University distinguished Ms. Rollin with its 2002 Alumni Arts Achievement Award.


The greatest reward for Catherine is when her music compositions or her work as a teacher helps develop musicians who have a life long love of music whether as professionals or hobbyists.




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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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