Originally published in Winter 2019
Dr. Don Zent is the product of good music teachers. Really good music teachers.
Professor of Piano at Asbury University, Zent’s direct pianistic ancestry is breathtaking — just one branch of the “genealogy” includes Jorge Bolet, Moriz Rosenthal, Franz Liszt, Carl Czerny and Ludwig van Beethoven. With such a pedigree, you’d expect Zent to be a consummate artist, and he certainly is. But he’s also an outstanding educator, drawing on his rich experience to encourage students to strive for the excellence Asbury is known for.
As Professor of Piano, Zent teaches applied piano, group piano, piano pedagogy, piano literature plus form and analysis. This range of instruction allows him to interact with students at all experience levels.
“Watching students progress and reach more potential than they thought they had — that’s a joy for me,” Zent said. “The Lord has really helped me through the years to teach well, to understand the students, to try to meet them where they are and to try to push the students beyond what they think they’re capable of doing.”
Drawing on his own experiences with music teachers — both positive and negative — Zent has developed a simple teaching philosophy. When Zent listens to his piano students, he looks for something to praise and affirm before offering critique. The concept is simple enough, but Zent has personally experienced the difference it makes.
During college, Zent nearly quit piano after a grueling experience with a professor who constantly critiqued his work and offered no positive encouragement. “Listen to what he says, not how he says it,” a friend advised. That helped, Zent said. It also left a permanent mark. Following his negative experience, he studied with teachers who embodied the opposite approach — a careful balance of praise and criticism.
“I studied with Nicholas Zumbro, who was so positive,” Zent said. “Then I studied with the great Jorge Bolet. Although he had a really gruff voice, his heart was as gentle as a lamb. Then, I studied with Santos Ojeda at College Conservatory. What a wonderful teacher he was. I like to emulate those teachers. I greatly appreciate them.”
An accomplished performer, Zent has played works by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Szymanowski and many more in solo recital. To many on Asbury’s campus, however, he’s equally well-known as an accompanist — a role to which he gives equally thorough attention.
“I have a notebook of my accompanying projects, and I consider all kinds of possibilities and then write in my decisions,” Zent said. “That takes hours, and then I think about how am I going to use the pedal, and what kind of sound do I want and how am I going to get it technically? I’m working on those things.”
Student vocalists and instrumentalists who benefit from Zent’s accompaniment might not always know the depth of preparation that goes into his work. It’s part of his artistry — musicianship that is immaculately polished and thoughtful, yet self-effacing.
Zent also teaches accompanying, which he says is a highly practical tool for many students.
“I’ve encouraged many of my students to obtain skills in accompanying because I think a good accompanist is always in demand whereas a solo performer is not,” Zent said.
Zent also brings a strong spiritual perspective to his teaching, informed by his family history. When Zent was young, his family attended a country church, where he was fascinated by the musicianship of an evangelistic singer. Later, at another church, he was amazed by the skill of a young pianist, and began studying with the boy’s piano teacher. Today, church music still plays an important role in Zent’s life; he serves as a pianist, soloist and song leader at his church.
“I feel that the Lord has given me musical ability and I have also worked really hard to cultivate it,” Zent said. In my mind, I have a responsibility to share music with others as a result of the gift God has given to me. It’s not an obligation, it’s a privilege.”
For Zent, music has a unique power to help listeners transcend the concerns of the moment.
“I’ve found that through performing, those who listen are lifted beyond themselves to the point where they have a tendency to forget, at least temporarily, their immediate problems and to focus on the beautiful,” Zent said. “That’s a gift from God, that all of us have the opportunity to enjoy music.”
In all his roles — soloist, educator, accompanist, worship musician and leader — Zent exudes a quiet enthusiasm for his instrument and his calling.
“It’s the best instrument ever, but some people wouldn’t agree with me,” Zent said, smiling. “I just feel like I could study piano music my whole life and not really exhaust it.”