Arts and Culture

Even in the way he introduces himself, Vernon Cherrix thinks of his students: “My name is Vernon Cherrix, and it’s my joy and pleasure to teach students how to play the piano.”

Music has shaped Cherrix’s life. But it’s teaching young people how to play the piano, for at least five decades, that’s really been his driving force. That passion and dedication landed him in the national spotlight recently.

Over the summer, Cherrix received an unexpected email from a representative with Steinway & Sons, one of the most famous piano makers in the world. 

The message said Cherrix was to be one of 44 North Americans to be inducted into the Steinway & Sons Teacher Hall of Fame.

“So I thought, well, ‘this has gotta be somebody who’s phishing here, this can’t be real,’” he said of the email. “But it was.”

At 77, Cherrix is surprised and delighted to have his work acknowledged. 

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he continued, “and it’s nice to be recognized, especially on a kind of a national level.”

“We are very proud to work with the talented music educators inducted this fall into the Steinway & Sons Teacher Hall of Fame,” Gavin English, president of Steinway & Sons Americas, said in a news release last month. “These teachers foster passion, creativity, and discipline in the next generation of piano artists. Their work deserves the highest praise.”

In the spring, Cherrix hopes to make it to Manhattan to see his name on a plaque that will be displayed at the Steinway factory in New York.

A musical upbringing

Born in Baltimore, Cherrix came from a musical family. 

His parents played several instruments. Cherrix started with the clarinet in grade school, and took up the piano at age nine.

“But I really didn’t catch on with any kind of excitement ’til I was 13,” Cherrix said. “I heard that Van Cliburn won the [International] Tchaikovsky Competition, the first American to ever win that in Russia.”

In 1958, in the middle of the Cold War, a young piano player from Texas wowed the world. Twenty-three-year-old Van Cliburn was said to have brought two countries together, united over a love of music

When Cherrix heard about Cliburn’s victory on the radio, “it just lit a spark in me.”

“And I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to be able to play the piano like that.”

Playing the piano like Cliburn would require rigorous training, so Cherrix decided to take his piano studies to the next level. 

He said he was lucky to have a great music program at his high school — the kind of in-school learning that he fears is becoming of the past. Cherrix eventually enrolled in the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, first in the Preparatory Department then in the full conservatory. 

After graduation, Cherrix did a brief stint in the Army.

He then trained at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, earning a master’s and doctorate there. 

“I was raised in the church and was always interested in church music,” said Cherrix, who recently marked 25 years as pianist for the Middletown United Methodist Church.

Pushing his students to their best

Cherrix has taught overseas, including at the Soochow University in Taiwan. He was also on faculty at the University of Louisville School of Music. 

These days, he works one-on-one with students, passing on a lesson he learned as a young pupil at the conservatory.

“Practicing involves really listening,” Cherrix said. 

It’s more than the correct notes, he continued. It’s doing what the score demands.

“If there’s a crescendo to get louder, is that just a mechanical thing or do they feel it inside, that tension? And it’s very important that it comes from inside… that’s where the real music making takes place,” he said.

When asked what she thought about Cherrix getting the Steinway honor, Adrienne Fontenot said, it’s about time.

“I think local teachers already knew that he was an outstanding teacher,” said Fontenot, who is a staff pianist for the U of L School of Music and an adjunct piano teacher at Indiana University Southeast.

“When you hear a fabulous young pianist, and then you find out that it’s one of Dr. Cherrix’s students you go, ‘OK, yeah, that makes sense,’” she said.

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Adrienne Fontenot, a piano teacher in the area and former student of Cherrix, said Cherrix, “was demanding. But he was ultimately most interested in making you the best musician that you could be, and he expected you to expect the same from yourself. “

Fontenot, who is also a former student of Cherrix and did her graduate studies with him, said he’s known for his ability to create great artists at all ages.

“He has such a wide range of knowledge about technique and repertoire. He knows the kind of music that’s going to take a student to that next level.” 

In-Ae Ha trained as a child with Cherrix for about five years. She said he’s more than a teacher; he’s a mentor. 

“He’s helped me to, not only just go for the big and brilliant things, but really just find my own musical journey… and trying not to be perfect, and just really share the beauty of music,” said Ha, who is currently pursuing a master’s in piano performance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

Courtesy In-Ae Ha

Dr. Crookshank from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, In-Ae Ha, Nancy Cherrix and Vernon Cherrix in February 2020.

Choongwon Jin took piano lessons from Cherrix for about seven years, working with him until he graduated from high school. Jin said Cherrix is, “very honest,” and someone who helped him “grow not only as a musician, but even more so as a person.”

“Keeping honest to yourself more than anything is what I learned from him,” said Jin, who is now studying medicine at the University of Louisville. “And that not only applies to music. I think that applies to everything you do in life.”

Looking back, Cherrix feels blessed.

“I’ve loved what I’ve done with music my whole life and that hasn’t changed,” Cherrix said. “It’s wonderful to be able to earn a living doing something you love.”

Cherrix has a reputation for being demanding, and he does expect a lot from his students. But he believes in them so deeply, and many said that’s what makes him so good — he somehow knows how to get a player to excel to a level they didn’t think possible.

This story has been updated to include additional information about Cherrix’s background and teaching.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.