Leonard Vrana Richter
Leonard Richter served as professor of music in piano and theory at Walla Walla University for 38 years, a record tenure in music teaching at the school. His piano students and graduates won numerous top prizes in regional, national, and international competitions, and several are now teaching at colleges and universities and pursuing successful careers as recitalists and soloists with orchestras.
Leonard was born in Sudetenland, now the Czech Republic, on June 26, 1943, the younger of two children and the only son of Josef and Marie Vrana Richter. His father, a German, was a Seventh-day Adventist minister, who had earlier been a businessman. He was also a gifted amateur musician who played the violin. His mother, a Czech, who in her earlier years had been a very talented clothes designer, was a singer.
Recently, Leonard talked about the challenges his family faced in his early years, their support for music study for him and his sister, his piano study, and the obstacles he encountered in obtaining an education:
My father served for four years in World War II, after which the Communists took over the country. We lived in Brno, the second largest city in Czechoslovakia, located about an hour away from Vienna, Austria. Life was very difficult, and there had been endless hardships with frequent moves during and after the war. Even so, my parents started us on piano lessons, my sister first because she was six years older than me.
I started lessons at age seven, and at about age thirteen, I was introduced by a cousin to her piano teacher at Brno Conservatory, Anna Skalická, who had been a student of Vilém Kurz, a leading Czech performer and teacher. Following an audition, she accepted me as a student.
She proved to be a very thorough and demanding teacher. I had to stop playing the piano and start over as she changed everything from my technic to my approach to the music during my study with her for seven years. She had a tremendous influence on me at a critical period in my piano study. She also made arrangements for me to study music theory with the organist and cantor in the main cathedral in Olomouc, who had been a student of Leoš Janáček, famous Czech composer.
While I was studying with her, I began to face challenges in my regular schooling because of the convictions in the church at that time about attending school on Saturday. It became an endless nightmare since I would have to ask every Friday to be excused from class for the following day. It was very traumatic and had a profound emotional and physical effect on me as I faced hostility and ridicule in front of the class from my teachers.
In spite of this I got A’s all through seventh grade until eighth grade, where the teacher frequently singled me out for ridicule and gave me C’s in everything. My mother went to the principal and demanded that I be retested, and he agreed. He never retested me, but my C’s suddenly became A’s.
Going to high school was a privilege for a select few, and I was lucky to be chosen to do so. Shortly after I started, however, attendance at Saturday classes again became an issue, and I left when threatened with dismissal from school, an action that could have serious consequences for one’s future in that country. I applied to a conservatory to become a student, but because I had not completed high school, they wouldn’t accept my application. When I applied for work, they laughed at me because of my having left high school and my views about working on Saturday.Fortunately, during this time Skalická was willing to teach me privately.
Leonard had started teaching piano lessons at age fifteen and was also active as a musician in the Adventist church, where he conducted a choir and played for services and weddings and funerals. He also played in and did well in some smaller competitions that were not held on the Sabbath and was featured as a winner of one of these competitions in a recital at a Beethoven Festival in Lichnovski Castle in Hradec.
The director of the Institute of the Arts in nearby Olomouc had been observing Leonard’s successes, took an interest in him, and arranged for him to audition before the faculty for a piano teaching position when he was eighteen. He was accepted and taught piano to about sixty students as a regular load for the next five years.
During this time he also completed high school in the evenings, took piano lessons at the People’s Conservatory in Ostrava, where he graduated with high honors at age nineteen, and continued to provide music in the church. While at the PC he also became acquainted with Vladimir Svatos, a talented composer, and premiered a work by him. The schedule was grueling and Richter, overwhelmed by the extent of his commitments, reached out to his father:
It was too much, and after I told my dad that “I can’t do this anymore,” he encouraged me to apply to Palacky University in Olomouc. I was amazed when they accepted my application, given my earlier dismissal from high school, and feel that the influence of the director of the Institute of the Arts eased the way for me. Since they did not have a music branch at Palacky at that time, I applied to pursue a double major in German (which I had been studying in private lessons since childhood) and English as well as Russian, which was what we all spoke because of the Soviet occupation. Out of three to four hundred applicants for that program, they took thirteen of us.
In my second year there was an intensive seminar in English on Saturday. My heart sank, and I thought, “Here I go again.” When I explained my situation to the teacher, a younger woman, I was surprised when she listened carefully, stated her respect for my stance, and told me to make up whatever they covered. It was a complete change from what had happened years earlier, and I was very grateful. She asked that I not talk about this concession.
After two years, although I knew about English literature and grammar, I still couldn’t speak it well. At that point, my father ran an ad in the Adventist German Messenger in 1968 advertising services of a young Czechoslovakian who would do work in return for lodging in England so that he could learn English. A Mrs. Humphries answered the ad, and in August of that summer I found myself staying with her and her husband.
A year earlier I had requested to go see my Aunt in Germany and, after being cautioned by the officials to conduct myself within certain guidelines, visited with her and returned. The university sent a letter to the authorities that stated that a visit in England would be an important experience for me in gaining proficiency in English. Several in my program also were recommended and applied, but only three of us were allowed to go. My successful trip a year earlier may possibly have been a factor.
Richter’s stay was brief since he had cousins in the U.S. and Canada who sponsored him to go to Canada. He arrived there in October 1968 at age 25. Although his Aunt encouraged him to relax and watch TV, he said “No, take me to the Greyhound bus station.” After unsuccessfully trying to gain entrance at three universities in Toronto because he had no record of his past, the University of Waterloo accepted him, and he enrolled in a degree program with a double major in German and English.
He completed a year at the university and then stayed in the summer with a relative in Berrien Springs, Michigan, working for him in construction. On Saturdays, he would play the grand piano in their home. He was heard by Charles Davis, violin teacher at Andrews University who lived across the street. He encouraged Richter to play for the music faculty at AU. Although hesitant, he did and was offered financial support for graduate study.
After completing his degree at WU in 1970, he enrolled at Andrews University, where he completed an M.Mus. in piano performance in the summer of 1971. During that time, he met Debra Bakland, a music major with harpsichord as her performance area, and they married in 1971.They would have a daughter, Kirsten, in1979.
While at AU he attended a concert by Adele Marcus in Chicago that inspired him. Following the concert, he approached her about studying with her. Because she taught in New York, she recommended study with Donald Walker, a former student of hers, who was teaching at Northern Illinois University. Richter followed her advice and found study with Walker to be an inspiring and transformative experience.
The Richters taught in Canada at Kingsway College from 1973 to 1975 and then moved to New York, where he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, while Debra taught in the church school at Patchogue. They enjoyed their time there and had a close relationship with the church’s young pastor, Ted Wilson, and his wife, Nancy.
He completed a second master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music in 1977as a piano student of Dora Zaslavasky. At that time, MSM was offering a doctorate in a collaborative program with New York University, where one could choose one’s performance area teacher. He approached Adele Marcus, faculty member at the Juilliard School of Music, and she accepted him as a student. A year later, he was offered a position at Walla Walla College, now University. He completed a Ph.D. at NYU in 1984.
In his years at WWU, Richter made a distinguished contribution as a performer and teacher. He gave numerous recitals and soloed with the Walla Walla Symphony four times. Additionally, he was the featured recitalist in the opening program of the 1989 Washington State Music Teachers Association annual convention in Spokane. He has given countless guest lecture-demonstrations and is a sought-after adjudicator for piano competitions in the Northwest.
On four occasions, Richter's students won the Northwest Wurlitzer Competition in piano at the college level and then advanced to compete against six other regional winners in the national finals, where they won first prize nationally on three occasions. Stephen Beus, a Whitman College graduate, was one of those winners. In 1996, while still in high school, Beus, who has studied with Richter since his earliest years, won first place in the Junior Gina Bachauer International Competition. Today, he is Artist in Residence at the University of Oklahoma and a sought-after soloist.
Richter also was an assistant in piano at nearby Whitman College for eighteen years. A number of his WC students have also enjoyed considerable professional success. More recently he also served on the faculty of the International Institute for Young Musicians, a summer program held at the University of Kansas. Since 1990, he has served as a Senior Examiner for the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, Canada.
Richter received the WWC Burlington Northern Foundation Faculty Achievement Award for Teaching in 1987.
At the time of his retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 schoolyear, he was feted by WWU for his dedicated teaching and the inspiration he had provided through his personal performance, the many accomplishments of his students, and the enduring legacy in excellence he had created. He was also honored for his involvement in the Washington State Music Teachers Association and his work with students at Whitman College in a reception held in his honor during the WSMTA state convention on the campus of WC.
Sources: Interview, September 2013; WWU music department newsletter, Opus, 1986-2000, 2010, 2012; personal knowledge.
Tribute to Leonard Richter
Compiled by Cynthia Westerbeck
Piano Vespers April 22, 2016
For nearly four decades members of the Walla Walla community have welcomed in (or ushered out) the Sabbath with moments of musical meditation. Tonight we do so again, with special gratitude to the mentor, musician, and friend who gave this gift to the audience members and to the students he inspired, cajoled, and believed in.
Wendy Brown-Jensen remembers Leonard Richter saying to her, "Music is something you give to yourself that can never be taken away..." Perhaps - but the gift was made so much more valuable as he taught sometime insecure, sometimes overconfident, sometimes lazy, sometimes unappreciative students to believe in ourselves – and tonight we want to finally say thank you for this gift which continues to enrich our lives --years after our last piano lesson.
Rose Fujinaka says, “You expressed confidence in my abilities even when I doubted myself, which helped me to risk and accomplish more than I would have dared to without your support and instruction. The musical growth I experienced while studying with you has served me well... I'm pleased to have this opportunity to say thank you and wish you all the best in your well-earned retirement.”
It is said that music articulates that which cannot be articulated. If that is so, these students performing tonight are expressing for all of us the gratitude we feel.
The biographical notes in your program give ample evidence of the tremendous success Leonard Richter has had in attracting and mentoring prize winning piano students – many of whom have gone on to have successful careers in music. But another measure of the man has been his ability to help those of us who were NOT prodigies realize and even exceed our potential. I am living proof of this, as someone who first auditioned for him as a timid 7th grader who had been blessed with far more discipline and determination than natural talent. I am forever grateful that he was willing, once a week for nearly 10 years, to patiently nurture my slow but steady growth – never once hinting that his time might have been better spent on more talented students.
Many of the tributes that have been sent in for this occasion voice this same theme. Becky Billock says,
“It’s an unequivocal fact that—aside from my parents and my spouse— Leonard Richter has had the most profound impact on my life. When I came to Walla Walla I was an average pianist with sloppy skills and very little knowledge about musical taste and style. Somehow Dr. Richter was able to use those limited resources to turn me into an imaginative, thinking, expressive musician. Not everyone has that sort of patience, and I am eternally indebted to him for being willing to go through that process with me.
Many pianists I have met over the years have shared stories of being belittled and bullied by their piano teachers. I was so fortunate to work with a teacher who made me feel inspired and invigorated. I remember coming out of my lessons with Richter and feeling like I could do handsprings all down the hall…
The words from Leonard Richter that I always wanted to hear—the ones that I worked the hardest to elicit—were: “You’re ready.” He did not utter those words lightly, and I knew that if I was deemed “ready” then I could feel absolutely confident about my performance. This week I was searching for the most encouraging comment I could give to my high school senior who will present a beautifully prepared recital this weekend. Suddenly it struck me—he’s ready! He is ready. So that’s what I told him. It was a wonderful thing to be able to say that statement truthfully, and the whole time I felt like I was channeling the spirit of Leonard Richter. It’s an absolute thrill to be able to pass along the legacy to a new generation of pianists.
Oliver Sacks describes a time when Leon Fleisher agreed to play the concert grand the neurologist had inherited from his father. Sacks recalls, “I had the feeling that Fleisher had sized up the piano's character and perhaps its idiosyncrasies within seconds, that he had matched his playing to the instrument, to bring out its greatest potential, its particularity.” In so many ways, this describes the way Dr. Richter sized up his students and selected repertoire and pedagogy to “bring out our greatest potential.” He had a special gift for selecting pieces perfectly suited for the strengths of his students – and when he went to his cupboard and pulled out a new musical score (usually one of those ubiquitous blue Henle editions) it felt like he was entrusting the student with something special – which made us want to work all the harder to show that we are deserving of that trust.
This attention to us as individuals is articulated beautifully by Wendy Jensen-Brown: “I cherish the part you played in my college years. As a piano teacher, you were meticulous in your instruction...demanding yet also compassionate and inspiring. I felt you brought out my best, musically… As a mentor, you also showed interest and concern at appropriate times regarding future plans, romances, and maintaining health. I wasn't just a student to "drill and kill".... I felt you cared about my life as a person.”
Wendy is now a Special Education teacher for a class of students with autism where she regularly incorporates music into her student’s lives.
Kori Bond is passing this mentoring forward to her students as well, as she says,
My Dear Teacher Dr. Richter,
How proud I am to say that I am your student! Yes, it is present tense, because I am still learning from what you have taught me. My students are also benefiting, both indirectly and directly, because of course I quote you to them every day.
I am so grateful to have your own deep and compelling piano sound in my ear, and the reminder to play with a singing melody and attention to all the markings in the score. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten.
With Love from your Thankful Student, Kori
William Gissing writes the following in a letter to his brother, the Victorian novelist George Gissing:
“[. . .] the most predominant effect of Music is, I think, to produce an indefinite longing which passes into a sweet calmness, faintly tinged with melancholy… perhaps produced by the abatement of the bliss felt for a time, but leaving permanent within a feeling which makes us kinder to all around us and better fits us for the duties we have to perform.”
Whether we became professional musicians, or doctors or lawyers or parents or preachers or English teachers – it is absolutely true that the time we spent studying piano with Dr. Richter made us “better fit for the duties we have to perform.”
Jennifer Walsh Bowman says, "Dr. Richter gave me the tools and support to pursue a very fulfilling career in music. He taught me how to play and he taught me how to teach. For 25 years he has always been a phone call away [for] questions about repertoire, teaching and other musical advice. If I hadn't studied with Dr. Richter I am not sure that I would have made music my career.”
And finally, Stephen Beus, (Who the Salt Lake Tribune called “Mesmerizing... explosive... intelligent... he belongs on the world stage”) adds, “My association and friendship with Dr. Richter is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Dr. Richter taught me to love music and gave me the tools I needed to pursue a career in music. There is no one better…
Thank you, Dr. Richter, for dedicating 38 years of your life to making us all better – both as pianists and as people.