Music is the Language of the Soul
Dr. Irene Peery-Fox shares her experience and love of music
Written by Sarah Ostler Hill
Years ago, in a rural town in Canada, a three-year-old girl listened to her brother attempt to practice the piano. Feeling a pull that seemed almost physical, she climbed onto the piano bench next to him and played it for him. Thus began Irene Peery-Fox’s distinguished career in music, leading her through competitions, Juilliard, Peabody, and finally to BYU, where she is the first and only female full professor on the School of Music piano faculty. Teaching, it seems, is in her soul.
“Music is a universal language,” Dr. Peery-Fox says. “Everybody naturally has a beat in their soul. No matter where people are from, they like to sing and dance in their own way. Rhythm is part of a person’s makeup.”
She doesn’t really remember a time she wasn’t playing the piano. She has vivid memories of picking out songs she had heard on the radio and playing them, with her feet dangling high above the floor, on the piano her father had promised her mother, even at the expense of other furnishings in the home.
“My family was very poor,” Peery-Fox recounts. “My father was an immigrant from Odessa during the Russian revolution. It was the desire of my mother’s heart to have a piano in our home, and he promised her she’d have one before her first child turned three.”
Dr. Peery-Fox’s father taught five children to work hard every day but the Sabbath, and encouraged them to choose one thing in which they could excel.
“You can’t practice once or twice or even four times a week,” Peery-Fox says. “Every day. Never waste a moment. My dad would say, ‘You were our farm.’ We all worked hard.”
This work ethic is what has driven Peery-Fox as both a performer and a teacher. She speaks with the calm confidence of someone who has mastered their material, but with a compassion that makes someone of her ability and achievement feel approachable.
“It always surprises me when people think piano performance is the easy way out,” she confides. “It’s a lot of work, and very stressful. Consider practicing at least four hours a day in a room all alone without anyone around you. It can be very lonely. Not everyone has the personality that will do it and enjoy it.”
Sacrificing to Learn
As a young child, Peery-Fox had that personality. She began taking lessons from Thelma Smith, the only teacher in their town, who soon discovered Peery-Fox had perfect pitch. By the time she was eight, Peery-Fox was the ward organist. By the time she was 10, she was practicing four hours a day and Thelma Smith told Peery-Fox’s parents she couldn’t teach Peery-Fox anything else and suggested a new teacher. Peery-Fox’s parents began driving her 70 miles each way on Saturdays for her lessons.
Around this time, Peery-Fox’s family was struck by tragedy when their home burned down. “We lost everything,” Dr. Peery-Fox says. “We didn’t have insurance. We were very poor.”
Perhaps this early experience with trauma helped influence her playing. Today, Peery-Fox recognizes that deeply emotional experiences affect her ability to interpret music. “From love to hate to anger and peace, if you’ve actually felt those things, it’s easier to project them and help students project them to an audience. Young children can do what a teacher says, but to succeed later, they need to feel those things. Interpretation of music is like fruit ripening on a tree: it happens over time.”
Since she had been winning festivals and competitions, and was the most advanced pianist in the town, Peery-Fox considered teaching. “I made an advertisement and got 20 students right away,” Peery-Fox remembers with delight. “I gave the money to my parents to help get another start.”
A year later, her piano teacher sent her to Calgary to study with Alberta’s most prestigious pedagogue, Dr. Gladys Egbert.
“This was quite a sacrifice,” Peery-Fox says. “The 150-mile trip required us to leave at 4am. Roads weren’t very good. Cars weren’t very reliable. Sometimes we’d be gone all day, getting back at midnight. But I never missed, no matter what. I really credit my parents for their dedication.”
Peery-Fox won her first international competition at the age of 15, playing Rachmoninoff’s Second Concerto. She vividly remembers the dress she was wearing because the television producer for the event was particular about the shade of blue since color television was a new invention.
Coming to BYU
After high school, Peery-Fox went straight to Juilliard where she received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in piano performance. She earned her doctorate from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, where she studied with world-renowned pianist and pedagogue Leon Fleisher. She joined the faculty soon after. During this time, her husband was working for Senator Orrin Hatch. As his contract came to a close there, he began seeking new employment.
“I told him I’d go anywhere, but I just didn’t want to teach at BYU,” Peery-Fox laughs. “I’m not sure why I ever thought that!”
As she tells about how her husband applied countless places but was only accepted at BYU, her voice begins to break with emotion. “The Lord guides everything you’re supposed to do. Being on the faculty at BYU is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.”
Peery-Fox has done some pretty wonderful things. She taught the Five Browns, famous for their television appearances and recordings, as early as four or five years old. All of them went to Juilliard. She recently coached Hilary Mahler and Tiffany Delgado through winning the prestigious United States International Duo Piano Competition in Colorado Springs as well as the National Federation of Music Clubs Ellis Duo Piano Competition in Mississippi. And earlier this year, Conlan Miller, under Peery-Fox’s tutelage, won a national competition where the prize was a Steinway piano valued at more than $25,000.
Perhaps one of her most satisfying teaching accomplishments is that of teaching her own daughter, Christie Peery Skousen, until she, too, went to study with Fleisher at Peabody. Skousen has since become a successful pianist, teacher, and musician.
Passing the Torch
Peery-Fox is often asked her secret to success. “Practice. Practice, practice, practice,” she laughs as she repeats this about 10 more times. “It’s good for the mind, good for the muscles. Practice hard, practice consistently. Practice.”
Practice the music, she says, and then practice performing. “Performing is a vital part of performing,” Dr. Peery-Fox advises. “The more you perform, the more comfortable you become with performing.”
When it comes to performing and teaching, she is just as adamant about spiritual preparation. “Like the scripture ‘Faith without works is dead,’ if we pray to Heavenly Father that we’ll do a good job and we haven’t practiced, we don’t have a right to ask for those blessings,” she says. “But if we’ve done the practice, the time, the work, Heavenly Father will step in and help us and we’ll feel His spirit right there with us.”
She tells of a time she was playing a concerto with the Utah Symphony, led by Joseph Silverstein, an internationally acclaimed violinist and conductor. As her husband drove her to the concert, she became increasingly nervous.
“I was almost shaking, thinking of the people in the hall and balconies, ” Peery-Fox remembers. “I thought, ‘I’ve done everything I could. Heavenly Father, I need your help now.’”
What happened next is just one of the reasons Peery-Fox credits concerts as the source of her most spiritual experiences.
“Sitting there in the car, I felt a draining,” she says, as if still awestruck at the sensation. “From the top of my head slowly receding down to my feet, it was as if the fear was draining out of me. As that feeling ended, the fear was gone and I knew Heavenly Father’s spirit was with me.”
The Deseret News would review that concert and note the perfection of Peery-Fox’s performance. She humbly acknowledges the partnership between her hard work and the spirit of the Lord with her throughout that performance. Her continuing advice to students and performers is to prepare and ask in righteousness.
Even with a prestigious career in music, being a celebrated faculty member and example for women in education, and having countless students who excel, Peery-Fox notes that her family is at the heart of her joy. She has four children and 15 grandchildren, all who play the piano. She doesn’t expect them to have the same drive she has had, but she is thrilled to have a shared love with them.
“There are never enough hours in the day to do all the music I’d like,” she admits. “Even spending 10-12 hours a day, it’s not enough.”
Her passion for music is almost palpable. Students of the BYU School of Music are fortunate to have such a gifted and talented professor to guide them in their own careers. Music is the language of Dr. Irene Peery-Fox’s soul.