Many Contacts

From New York to Peru: Seattle’s very own music legend

Robin McCabe with UW’s mascot Dubs.
“I actually went to Jail once,” smiled Robin McCabe, a world-renowned pianist and professor at the University of Washington.
In her office are two large black pianos. She sits at one of them and starts playing a gripping rendition of a song featured in Taxi Driver, a film starring Robert De Niro as a Vietnam vet on the verge of insanity. Straight across from her, two wide windows unveil sunshine and lots of greenery, a view she mentioned she was lucky to have.
“I was in a city south of Peru playing in a concert and there was an uprising of students at a local university,” continued McCabe. “They grabbed onto me, saying I was being paid in Peruvian soles and thought I was taking money out of their country. I remember a light bulb hanging down in the room and a guy walking in asking if I wanted some Peruvian Winston’s and a bottle of Inca Kola.”
She said yes to both before the consulate got her out that night.
She laughed, “It was an adventure, for sure.”
The birth of a Musical prodigy
McCabe has been playing the piano for over 50 years. First drawn to music at the age of five when her parents discovered she had the perfect pitch.
“I loved playing the piano, but mainly I liked being the center of attention,” she said. “My father had an old Steinway, and sometimes my sister and I would get up in the morning and race to get to the better piano.”
She smiled, “We had a few wars over that.”
McCabe graduated from the UW in 1971 and with encouragement from UW Professor Emeritus Béla Siki, a concert pianist who led the school’s keyboard division when McCabe was a student, auditioned for Juilliard, one of the top premier music conservatories in the U.S.
“Attending Juilliard was intimidating, especially being from the west coast,” she said. “I remember by the end of the first semester, it was around Christmas time, and I said to my parents, ‘Do I have to go back?’”
She lets out a laugh.
“But it all worked out,” she added. “By February and March, I loved it there. I found friends that encouraged me, and I started to excel. I remember one of the Piano techs at Juilliard even found a really nice Steinway piano for me in an estate sale.”
“I still have that piano in my home in Seattle,” she smiled.
Attaining Universal acclaim
McCabe was a favorite among many. Joseph Bloch, a professor of piano literature at Juilliard who passed away in 2009, counted McCabe as one of his most talented students, along with Van Cliburn, who played for every U.S. president, starting from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama.
“I could go through the alphabet from A to Z and come up with a positive adjective for every letter to describe Robin,” said Bloch in UW News. “And, I’d end with zeal.”
It wasn’t just Bloch who considered her a talented pianist, but also the rest of the world. Her albums received universal acclaim and won her numerous prizes and awards, including the international Concert Artists Guild Competition and Rockefeller Foundation grant.
She has collaborated with many distinguished artists, and toured Europe, Canada, the U.S., Asia, and the Far East seven times.
Opposing views in music
While attending Juilliard, The U.S. Department of State even sponsored her two South American tours.
“I was mostly in Peru and Chile, but I remember playing an encore of my own arrangement of the theme from the Sound of Music,” she said. “I loved it down there, which is kind of daring for a young girl traveling.”
During her time abroad, she noticed that the audience in some places, mainly Europe, would listen to the way she played songs as opposed to audiences in South America.
“My teacher would say, ‘Now Robin, when you go to Prague they’re not going to listen to you play Beethoven, they’re going to listen to the way you play Beethoven because they know his music that well,’” she said. “They have a rich tradition there. It’s not like going to Peru where they don’t have hundreds of years of concerts.”
Communist watchdog
However, having been in Europe during the communist era, McCabe had to be careful of what she did or said in public. Even rental cars were bugged.
“I remember meeting a handsome man backstage after my concert in Czechoslovakia,” she said. “It was 1985. He asked me to mail a necklace to his sweetheart in London. I was a little nervous when I left because they do look through your stuff. Europeans loved to talk to Americans, but they were under constant watch.”
She mailed the necklace, but still wonders if the woman from London ever received it.
“It gave me an appreciation for what it was like to live under a shadow like that,” she continued. “In a sense, they kept control of you. They certainly knew where I was all the time.”
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Robin McCabe with the UW School of Music symphony playing at one of their concerts. (Photo courtesy of Gary Louie)
Celebrating WWI through music
Flash-forward to present day, and McCabe is still passionate about playing. She has been part of the UW School of Music since 1987 after leaving her teaching days at Juilliard behind in 1978.
She is set to tour China later this year and has produced a three-part series on “Music From The War To End All Wars” in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I. With the completion of the first performance, the second is scheduled for March 3.
“I started this three years ago and was thinking about what kind of theme I could have that would bring students together,” she said. “The real pleasure that I get is working with the students and seeing them come together on a project. What you do is try and listen with your ears and eyes to optimize their talent because everybody has a different kind of talent.”
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Students from the UW School of Music. Back row left to right: Mona Sangesland, flute; Professor Donna Shin, flute; Natalie Ham, flute; Professor Robin McCabe, piano. Front row left to right: Li-Cheng Hung, piano; Jane Heinrichs, piano. 
Jane Heinrich, a UW doctoral student in piano performance, is one of many students working with McCabe on the three-part performance commemorating the anniversary of the Great World War.
“She is very funny and well-versed in history performance,” Heinrich said. “She has high expectations of what students can do, but she also brings her own personal side by sharing stories of her past and the times she played with various artists.”
McCabe has even created the Seattle Piano Institute for gifted and aspiring classical pianists. It’s entering its fifth year in 2015.
“You don’t want to stop playing,” McCabe said. “You keep wanting to get better if you can. 95 percent of the world has a job, but only five percent of us have a passion.”

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