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Title: Assistant Professor, Director of Keyboard Studies
Best Office Artifact: Mother’s artwork
Professor Wael Farouk understands the value of hard work, dedication and overcoming obstacles. He is a professor of music, the director of the keyboard program, and oversees the Carthage Arts Academy. Born in Cairo, Egypt, with a genetic condition that affected his hands, Prof. Farouk struggled as a child with everyday things most people take for granted, such as grasping a door handle or holding a spoon.
With the help of his parents and a toy piano, Prof. Farouk worked to overcome those obstacles, and by the age of 12, he was studying music at the Cairo conservatory learning primarily from Russian teachers. To date, he has played on five continents and in venues that include White Hall in St. Petersburg, Schumann’s house in Leipzig, and Carnegie Hall in New York. He has created a repertoire of 70 concertos and 60 solo pieces.
As a professor, he seeks to empower his students with good practice habits and artistic voices. We sat down with Prof. Farouk to discuss the challenges he faced, the power of hard work, and the opportunities music provides.
How did you get into playing the piano?
I was born with very short ligaments and fingers, so I couldn’t use my hands for anything a 3-year-old would usually do. My dad took me to a physician when I was 3 to see if there was anything that could be done to help me. I was given a rubber ball to exercise my hands and strengthen my fingers. I kept dropping the ball. For my third birthday, my dad gave me a toy piano, so I could hammer away on that. It worked and I didn’t drop it — because I never had to carry it. I continued playing for the next few years until I went to the Cairo conservatory.
You have a lot of performing experience. How has that influenced your teaching at Carthage?
I was very lucky to have great teachers who were experienced performers. My official debut was when I played with the Cairo Symphony at age 12. Since then, I’ve been very fortunate to have so many opportunities to perform. Performance is the ultimate goal of our teaching, but we also teach the students so they become better musicians and eventually become their own teachers. We teach them about preparation — not just for musical juries, but for professional engagements, which is different than preparing for a recital, or a concerto, or a competition. They are two sides of the same coin.
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“I make my students realize who they are and what music is about. It doesn’t matter what discipline they’re in. The most important thing is to try to inspire a student and to show what music can do for them. If they are inspired, there is little need to push them.”
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How do you push students to grow as musicians?
I make my students realize who they are and what music is about. I also make them realize what is expected of a professional musician. It doesn’t matter what discipline they’re in. The most important thing is to try to inspire a student and to show what music can do for them. If they are inspired, there is little need to push them; they just need to know how to practice and realize they have to practice. It is a very lonely profession and requires a lot of hours in the practice room. They need to know how to balance that because piano students don’t play with an ensemble three times a week, so they are often isolated. One of the best ways to counter this isolation is assigning chamber music, so pianists will work with classmates as fellow musicians.
The other thing I want them to learn is that while the piano repertoire is immensely large, it’s still a small part of the musical canon. One of my Chinese students never heard chamber music in China before she came here, and when we played our first trio concert, she was blown away. She said it made her realize it’s what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She has been playing chamber music ever since, and it has opened her musical palette and enabled her to play much better in her solo pieces after working with other musicians.
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“I tell my students, ‘Once you play for people, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if it is a senior home, a departmental, studio, or seminar. Once you play for someone other than yourself, people want to view you in a professional way.’”
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How do you help bridge the gap between student and professional musician?
We have to train them as professionals. Once a student graduates, they are not automatically a professional — even after getting a master’s or doctorate. They are not given any tool that qualifies them as a professional, it is a state of mind. It is how they practice and approach their work. I tell my students, “Once you play for people, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if it is a senior home, a departmental, studio, or seminar. Once you play for someone other than yourself, people want to view you in a professional way.” It’s a little more complicated than that because then they have to live a life of dedication. They have to allow constant practice time, go to concerts, hear good performances, participate in master classes, constantly hear good recordings, and develop the way to practice correctly. Practicing too much doesn’t mean anything. Practicing effectively is what’s most important; length is still important but relative. My ultimate goal as a teacher is to show my students how they can teach themselves. They’re only with a teacher for a few years and on their own after that. Even with lessons, we only have 45 minutes to an hour and a half, and for the rest of the week, they are on their own.
What’s your favorite aspect of teaching?
I enjoy seeing how dedicated my students are to their craft and music. Of course, I enjoy seeing them do well, but I also like to see them realize the value of hard work. Without that, they are not going to win. Talent is irrelevant. I’ve known many talented musicians who didn’t think they needed to work as hard and they went absolutely nowhere. Character is much more important.
What are some hobbies you have outside of teaching?
I love chess and ping pong. I almost do ping pong as well as I play the piano. I love languages and movies, but my greatest hobby is spending time with my children and my wife. I have an almost-2-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter.
What advice do you have for students studying music at Carthage?
Love what you do and work hard for it. It is not an easy business. Be supportive of yourself and your colleagues. It is not an easy life. It is a very competitive field, but know that what you sow, you will reap. Any seeds that you plant will grow and you will see their fruit in time. Like anything worth doing, it takes time. Do it well and have faith in yourself and the value of work.
— Interview by William Dowell ’22