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Director of Keyboard Studies Brad Blackham instructs freshman Brooke Conrad. Blackham, who has been at Hillsdale 11 years, performs in a faculty recital Sunday. Collegian | Madeline Barry
Director of Key­board Studies Brad Blackham instructs freshman Brooke Conrad. Blackham, who has been at Hillsdale 11 years, per­forms in a faculty recital Sunday. Col­legian | Madeline Barry

It’s no secret that Hillsdale College knows how to put on a show. Every year, an impressive assortment of musi­cians trek to campus, braving the back­water to wow the college and com­munity with eye-popping show­manship and tech­nical skill.

But while Hillsdale’s flashiest musical moments may belong to the Aaron Carters and Broadway’s Next Hit Musicals of the world, some of the most tran­scendent per­for­mances have been home­brewed affairs courtesy of the college’s own faculty.

And few have con­tributed more of these tran­scendent per­for­mances than has Hillsdale’s res­ident crack pianist, Director of Key­board Studies Brad Blackham.This Sunday, Blackham will join forces with other music faculty and a pair of guest artists in a chamber recital in Markel Audi­torium. Adjunct Instructor of Music Jonathan Chesson will kick off the per­for­mance with Frédéric Chopin’s alter­nately tranquil and exu­berant “Andante Spi­anato and Grande Polonaise Bril­liante, op. 22.” A string quintet, fea­turing Blackham and Director of String Studies Melissa Knecht, will then tackle Franz Schubert’s “Trout Quintet,” which Schubert based on his earlier song “The Trout.”

“I like to think of it as the further adven­tures of the fish,” Blackham said.

Like his music department cohorts, Blackham wears many hats, with plenty of expe­rience bouncing between the studio and the stage. And according to his stu­dents, he excels equally in both.

“We sort of joke that lessons with Blackham are super depressing, because he’s so incredible,” Addison Stumpf ’15 said. “But actually they’re not, because it’s not just this vast jump of dis­con­ti­nuity. Rather than it being a cliff of expe­rience dif­ference, he makes it a staircase — a very, very long staircase, but one that is the­o­ret­i­cally climbable.”

In the studio, Blackham is known for three things: his laid-back per­son­ality, tech­nical insight and skill, and the stag­gering breadth of his reper­toire. His stu­dents laugh rue­fully about laboring over dif­ficult pas­sages for hours in practice, only to have their pro­fessor sit down and, seem­ingly without effort, bring their piece to life.

“He’s a far, far better pianist than I will ever be, cer­tainly,” Stumpf said. “Better than most of the people at this school will ever be. But he’s able to com­mu­nicate in a way that still comes across: even if you’re like, ‘I can’t play that piece as flaw­lessly as you just did,’ you’re still getting some­thing from the example he’s giving.”

“My freshman year, the one thing that really stuck with me in Western Her­itage was learning about ‘sprez­zatura,’ the Italian word for making every­thing look effortless,” Pat D’Amato ’14 said. “That’s the word I’d use to sum up the way that he per­forms — just the way his hands glide over the keys, all the dif­ficult reper­toire. You watch his fingers, how insanely fast they nav­igate the piano, but then you look at his expression and it looks like he’s not working hard at all. He makes com­pli­cated things sound really effortless and gor­geous.”

Over his 11-year teaching tenure at Hillsdale, Blackham has brought that sprez­zatura to per­for­mance after per­for­mance — by himself, in col­lab­o­ration with other faculty (including his wife, Lec­turer in Music Kristen Matson), and even with the college choirs and orchestra.

“His last faculty recital he did the whole first book of Debussy’s pre­ludes,” Stumpf said. “It was absolutely astounding. There’s such a breadth of expression there, but he made them all come across and just gave them all their indi­vidual char­acters. And the year before that he played ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the orchestra. He just threw himself into the piece.”

It’s all in a day’s work for a man who has spent his entire life courting his instrument. After he began picking tunes out on the piano at age 4, Blackham’s adoptive parents enrolled him in private lessons. As he got older, he didn’t follow popular con­tem­porary artists. Instead, he spent his time lis­tening to the premier concert pianists of his day.

“At that time, Arthur Rubin­stein was one of my favorites, and Vladimir Horowitz,” Blackham said. “Those guys probably would have been the two biggest names that I latched onto. Probably I was like 8, 9, 10 years old, some­where around there.”

After getting a piano per­for­mance degree at Kent State Uni­versity, Blackham entered a master’s program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he would meet his future wife. He found various kinds of pro­fes­sional work, playing with the Cleveland Orchestra and once even touring Europe with the Pitts­burgh Sym­phony. Within a few years, however, he found himself tiring of free­lance piano work.

“I was just running all over the city doing staff accom­pa­nying jobs, playing at the col­leges down there,” Blackham said. “And I just got kind of sick of that whole lifestyle of being a gigging pianist like that. It wasn’t like I was making tons of money, you know.”

He thus decided to enter a Doctor of Musical Arts program at Ohio State Uni­versity, where he was awarded an assist­antship to teach class piano. But just as he was about to wrap up his DMA, his life took an unex­pected turn.

“This job opened up here, so just for the heck of it, I decided to throw my name in for the job here,” Blackham said. “I just figured, what the heck, why not, I’m almost done, let’s see if I can get a job.”

When he visited Hillsdale, Blackham’s expe­rience and talent stood out to Music Department Chair James Holleman.

“When he visited campus for an interview he col­lab­o­rated with some of our per­for­mance faculty and we were very impressed with his reading, col­lab­o­rating, and per­for­mance skills, and how he inter­acted with the other faculty,” Holleman said in an email.

So in the fall of 2005, the lifelong Ohioan trans­planted himself to Hillsdale, Michigan, and assumed the role he still holds today: helping stu­dents follow in his foot­steps on a daily basis, and, occa­sionally, donning stage togs to remind them what they’re striving to achieve.

“We’re spoiled here, as faculty, because the stu­dents are all great,” Blackham said. “It’s just a real pleasure coming into this building every day knowing I’ve got all these great stu­dents to work with.”