In the Spotlight

Nnenna Ogwo

We are so grateful to our donors and the vital support they provide. Your generosity inspires us and ensures generations of musicians find a creative home and lifelong friends at Walden. Whether you are a member of our alumni community, a parent, a visiting artist, a faculty, staff, or Board member, or simply a friend who believes in our mission, thank you.

As we celebrate our donors, we asked Nnenna Ogwo to share with us some of what Walden means to her. Nnenna attended the Young Musicians Program for six summers, was a faculty member and visiting artist, served on Walden’s Board of Directors, and most recently returned to Walden as a Creative Musicians Retreat, and performed at Walden’s 2018 Alumni Reunion.

How and when did your relationship with Walden begin?

I was a student at Peabody Preparatory, and Lynn Taylor Hebden was the director of the Preparatory Department there. She was the one who had made it possible for me to attend Peabody, through scholarships and whatnot. She got talking to my mother, and suggested Walden. I spent six summers at the Young Musicians Program, 1982-1987. Once I got to Walden, it was significant because I had been on a very serious piano track, and so should have been at a more piano-focused camp such as Interlochen, but it wasn’t until my last year of high school that I did that. Walden didn’t take me away from piano, because I still went to Oberlin and majored in piano, got my masters in piano. But I’ve always had an inquisitive mind and been stimulated by different types of learning. That holistic approach to music, even if I wouldn’t have called it that then, was clearly something I was thirsty for. I was a kid who really liked to be challenged, so I loved finding out how music was built, and creating it myself. I had often been in conflict with my piano teacher because I didn’t like to practice the same things, until the summer at Walden I took Pam Quist’s class on Renaissance counterpoint, and after that, I came back from Walden, and my teacher was blown away. She said “This is what happens at Walden? You can go then.” Because normally a teacher won’t have the time to get a student to understand counterpoint.

What has been your involvement with Walden since then?

I was on faculty. I joined the Board while I was still in grad school. I’ve sent students, and I went to the Creative Musicians Retreat in 2014. In July I attended the reunion and performed on the alumni concert. I remember being part of Board conversations, and I was in the board room when we were saying “Why can’t there be a Walden for adults?” so it was amazing to be at CMR as a participant.

What is your favorite Walden memory?

I have to really think about this, because there are so many great Walden memories. My last summer there, I think the guest artist was the New England Brass Quintet. I wasn’t normally down to the wire with scores, but I had worked a lot on the first movement, still had a lot to do, and they were going to be reading my score the next day. That was also the year the older girls were living in the attic floor of the Main House. There were five of us, Kate Hollander, Sarah Brown, Leila Ellis, Rachel Burdick, and me, and we had all known each other a long time. We were realizing that we had all come to Walden at 11 or 12, and we’d heard these amazing pieces and thought we could never write like that, and suddenly here we were writing on that level. It was a really dark and stormy night, and we pulled all our desks into the main foyer, put our desks together, and kept each other company as we did our work. I’d never had that before, people working together like that. If someone finished early, they might take a nap and then they’d come back and help us copy parts. It was really stormy, thunder and lightning, and the lights went out. We were wondering what we would do, and then Lynn Taylor Hebden (aka Mrs. H) came up with a plate of snacks and candles and we got back to it. Most of us were up most of the night. And that moment bonded us. I’m sure we all remember it. My piece that year won an MTNA award and was a runner-up for a national award, but whenever it was acknowledged, I’d think “This was really a team effort.” It takes a village. It was the first time I ever experienced that sort of communal support. It was extraordinary.

Why do you give to Walden?

I was the recipient of scholarships that made it possible for me to experience something musically transformative in the summer. Everything that I contribute to Walden, whether by sending students, giving concerts, past service on the Board or donating is simply about helping to realize that possibility for others.

When you graduate college and get your first real job, your first paycheck, there are all these little indicators that you’re an adult. I sat down with my mom to talk about financial planning, and she said ‘I know you’re not making a lot, but you need to calculate how you want to give.’ And I said, “I’m giving to Walden.” You give to what has impacted you, because you have an intimacy with certain issues. People don’t make consistent gifts to things they’re not deeply emotionally connected to. My time at Walden included some of the most transformative musical experiences I’ve ever had. Because of that, Walden will always be on my list for giving.

Tell us about the roles music and creativity play in your life now.

I’m still a pianist and a teacher, I make my living that way. I started taking jazz piano lessons recently. I realized and had to laugh that I know a lot, but a lot of it is frozen on paper. That often happens with classically trained musicians. Jazz forces you to have working harmonic knowledge in real time. Walden teaches that, even if they don’t put it quite that way, and it’s one of the few places that does. It’s not tied only to jazz. I feel like a real student again, my brain freezes, and it’s funny. Once we’re teaching, we forget, we start to take knowledge for granted where it doesn’t exist yet. It’s good to be reminded how bewildering things were at age 11. In piano, I like to boldly try new things. I’m a pretty good improviser, but then because I’m highly technically trained, I can be very facile, watch my fingers fly and think, ah, that’s what all that training was for.

What would you want to tell a first-time Walden student before they arrive at camp?

I don’t think I would have anything to say. When I send my students, I tell them things to pack on a very pragmatic level. But students normally decide to go because they’ve heard my story. Students get anxious about “Will there be people who look like me? Will I fit in?” and they’ve heard music coming out of Walden and they’re intimidated. But I tell the story of feeling those things, of finding my place, of making lifelong friends.

It’s built into the ethos of the institution—good, decent-hearted people who are also very interesting and creative people. That checks a lot of boxes for who you want to surround yourself with for your life in general. So I just tell students, you will meet some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. You will grow in ways you couldn’t have imagined, no matter what people have told you, and your experience will be uniquely your own. You will grow and thrive in ways you can’t elsewhere, you can’t in a year-round school, no matter how good a school you attend. Go forth with an open heart, and see what happens.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]