I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words today about Despy Karlas. I did not know Despy at all until her later years, long after her retirement, when I would see her at social events. One thing I remember about her in particular is her keen, piercing eyes. She watched everyone around her and enjoyed conversation. I remember one conversation in particular when she talked to me about how she had returned to the piano after some time and was practicing pieces by Chopin. I did know of her reputation in the school of music, where her presence as a teacher and performer was part of the legendry of the School.
What do great teachers leave behind when they retire and pass from the scene? Where do you look for them? You might find their names in departmental histories, or their books moldering in the library, or in the names of old buildings. Former students may come asking after them. Speaking as a professor myself, I hope our impact on students is the most important mark we leave behind us. We hope our students learned from us, we hope we helped them grow and mature, we hope we helped them in some small way prepare for the rest of their lives.
Despy’s students are her greatest legacy. You will hear from some of them today. Today they are teaching and performing throughout the state and the nation. And the students of those students are her legacy too, for the example she set, the methods she taught, the discipline she instilled, the love of the piano she embodied—all of these are passed on to them. And of course another way Despy lives on is through the professorship endowed in her name and through her other generous gifts to Music.
I have the privilege of having had her legacy passed to me. I began to study piano as an adult student in 1989, under the guidance of Sue Baughman, who lives here in town, and who herself studied with Despy. Sue was a wonderful teacher and good friend. For the past 6 years I’ve studied under Despy’s final piano student, Joey Hokayem, who teaches many talented young students here in Athens. Let me hasten to say that I am neither young nor talented, but I enjoy the struggle to learn new pieces. Joey often speaks of Despy and her ways of teaching piano, her comments, her strategies, her ways of letting students know when they did or did not measure up to expectations. Here is what he said about Despy: “She totally transformed my approach to the playing the piano. She not only set goals for her students but showed us how to achieve them. She was a true pedagogue and was always very thorough in every detail of the music. She was also very concerned about the other areas of our life and how we were balancing them with the demands of our music education. I was her last student at UGA and felt very fortunate to have studied with her for over 6 years.”
It pleases me to know that in my labors as an adult piano student I am studying with teachers who studied with Despy Karlas.
Comments presented at November 30, 2011 celebration of Despy Karlas