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Flagler alumna, now staff and soon-to-be-graduate student says, 'Yes!' to playing piano

Feb 26, 2021

As a Spanish and graphic design double major, Michelle Henning never thought playing piano would be her "In" for graduate school. However, what's become an all-too-familiar refrain of the "Caring faculty" at Flagler, has continued to ring true, especially for this 2018 graduate.

In 2019 it was a newly-created position meant just for her. She had already graduated but said “Yes!” to returning to Flagler after a brief stint at a local design firm. She began by simply playing for a few music classes, rehearsals and the occasional one-off need. Then finally Music Director and Associate Professor of Theater Arts Kip Taisey was able to offer an official position as Staff Accompanist.  

Michelle’s sister had attended Flagler which was her introduction to the campus experience offered at Flagler. Like most, she fell in love with the city and the school and said she could easily “See myself being really happy here.” A typical Flagler student, she had many interests coming in but ultimately decided on double majoring in graphic design and Spanish, “As a challenge.”  

In settling into life in college though, she found herself wandering back to her old hobby of playing the piano, which she began learning from her father before she could read. She eventually decided to take her experience with high school jazz band and liturgical piano playing to Professor Taisey for an audition as a rehearsal pianist. 

He had me sight read the most difficult piece in the musical while he sang along,” she recalled. 

She was hired and began work immediately on The Spitfire Grill Spring 2016 musical. It wasn’t just the piano playing that garnered recognition, but her can-do attitude when she agreed to pick up the accordion again, which she had only played casually, for the same show. In only a weekend she picked up enough to get through the show and blew everyone away so much, she was asked to perform again for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She went on to play the piano for all these shows, the Flagler College choir, cabarets, applied voice courses, auditioned choirs and student-directed shows. 

Managing a 19-20-hour course load made all the practice and performance time difficult to squeeze in, but she made it work and said that by saying “Yes!” as often as she possibly could, it opened doors for her that otherwise might not have ever opened. 

“I have had a very bad habit of taking on way too much at a time but it’s because I get myself involved in things I really love doing. In all honesty, the hours I spent at rehearsal and playing for classes and shows were a welcome distraction from my demanding course load,” she recalled.   

One of those doors that opened for her is a chance to go to graduate school to study collaborative piano at the University of North Dakota. Professor Taisey worked at that school prior to Flagler and was able to provide her advice on school, but most importantly, a glowing recommendation. 

Michelle has been a part of the musical theatre and music programs as long as I have. She quickly understood her role and adapted as needed. She has grown tremendously as a musician, and I believe will one day make an insightful teacher,” said Professor Taisey. 

Said Michelle: “My role as accompanist at Flagler is the sole reason I am able to study piano at the graduate level. Having degrees in graphic design and Spanish, I think graduate level music programs would have laughed at me for applying if not for the professional experience and caring network acquired through my time at Flagler.” 

She now awaits her financial offers and outline of course offerings and position details. In the meantime, she’s helping Professor Taisey by looking for her replacement as Staff Accompanist.  

Professor Taisey said, She has been my right arm, anticipating my needs before I even make a request. Her sweat equity has played a major role in the development of the music program. She will be missed, but I am excited for her next adventure, and to see where she lands.” 

If there are any senior students or recent graduates who may be interested, you can say “Yes!” like Michelle did and perhaps open new doors for yourself. Below she lists important hard and soft skills that you should have in order to be a good fit for the Staff Accompanist position. 

NECESSARY SKILLS:  

  • Sight-reading  

NICE-BUT-NOT-NECESSARY SKILLS:  

  • Playing open score  
  • Playing-by-ear  
  • Background playing many styles including jazz, musical theatre, chamber/opera, pop   
  • Basic ability on percussion instruments  

 SOFT SKILLS: 

  • Personable
  • Collaborative  
  • Easy-going, even (and especially) under pressure  
  • Highly adaptable  
  • Understanding  
  • Flexible  
  • Generous (with time, knowledge, kindness)  
  • Passionate  
  • Not easily frazzled  
  • Dedicated to Flagler’s music initiatives/actively excited about music at Flagler  
  • Quick learner, willing to think outside the box and make-do 

 

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