Courage & grace: Colleagues pay tribute to UMass teacher, performer with video for late pianist Nadine Shank

  • The late Nadine Shank will be remembered with a video of her piano performances with UMass colleagues and students. Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

  • Friends and colleagues say Nadine Shank was a dedicated teacher who taught her piano students how to collaborate with other musicians. Photo courtesy of UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • Nadine Shank performing in the 1990s. Though know principally as a collaborative musician, friends and colleagues say she was also a skilled solo pianist. Photo courtesy of UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • UMass trumpet player and teacher Eric Berlin and Shank played for years a as a duo. This picture was taken during a tour in the U.S. South. Photo courtesy Eric Berlin

  • Shank and Eric Berlin on a tour in Austria. Berlin recalls his late friend as generous, kind, energetic and fun. Photo courtesy Eric Berlin

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2021 8:43:06 AM

Nadine Shank, by all accounts, was a highly talented pianist, a skilled soloist but more often a busy collaborator who played with many other musicians in different configurations. She was also a highly effective teacher, one who taught generations of students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst during a four-decade career.

But Shank, who died last October a few days short of her 66th birthday, is remembered by friends, colleagues and students as something more than that: as an exceedingly generous, giving, energetic and kind person.

There’s yet another term that came to define Shank, who lived in Amherst, after she was diagnosed last spring with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and incurable form of rapidly progressive dementia.

“She was courageous,” says Eric Berlin, a longtime trumpet player who taught alongside Shank at UMass and also performed and recorded music with her. “She faced this incredible hardship and sudden end with courage and dignity and grace.”

“More than anything, she was grateful,” Berlin said of his friend. “She was so grateful to be able to make music starting at a young age, to make that her career, to work with students and mentor them.”

“It’s so easy to get caught up in what we’re doing, to think we don’t have enough time, to say ‘I’m doing all this work, how come I’m not getting paid more?’” he said. “Nadine was never like that, and she very much connected me with that kind of thinking.”

Memorial on Sunday

Berlin and other friends and colleagues from the university’s Music & Dance Department and Shank’s husband, David Nielsen, held a memorial for Shank after she passed last fall. On Sunday, Jan. 31, the department will host another memorial for her, this time a video tribute called “Celestial Graces: A Remembrance of Nadine Shank” that features some of her last musical performances alongside several of her former colleagues, as well as former students.

The 1½-hour video includes a range of classical music and show tunes, with Shank performing duets with a variety of musicians — pianists, cellists, clarinet and saxophone players, singers — as well as her solo performances of music by Franz Liszt and Enrique Granados. The video airs for free at 3 p.m. on the Music Department’s YouTube channel.

According to the department, most of the performances in the video come from recording sessions from last summer that were organized at Shank’s request following her diagnosis, as she saw this as her last opportunity to make music — and to celebrate her relationships with fellow performers — before she became unable to play the piano.

Another longtime friend, Estela Olevsky, a professor emerita of piano at UMass, played with Shank during those sessions and recalls the poignancy of the moment. Shank could no longer communicate that well verbally, Olevsky says, but her piano playing remained steady as the friends worked on duets by Dvorak, with two pianos lined up alongside one another.

“On one hand, it was difficult to do this,” Olevsky said. “We were wearing masks, and Nadine’s fingers could still find the notes — it was mind-boggling that she could still play so well — but her speech had already deteriorated a lot. It was hard to see that.”

But Olevsky said being part of the recording sessions for the video was also “a great joy. This was what Nadine was all about. She was a collaborator. Working with others, helping others — this is what defined her. It was who she was.”

‘She never said no’

The two had been friends ever since Shank, an Ohio native who grew up in a musical family, first came to UMass in 1979 after earning a master’s in piano performance from Indiana University; she was not quite 25. Olevsky was part of the UMass panel that auditioned and then chose her from among 100 applicants for a teaching job.

“I became like her big sister,” she said. “We shared a lot over the years as friends and teachers and performers. We shared some classes, we worked with some of the same students.”

Two things in particular stood out to Olevsky, Berlin and others who worked with Shank. One was her seemingly endless energy and her willingness to attend or play in countless student recitals, faculty concerts and smaller performances by her colleagues.

“She would teach exercise classes in the morning, then teach music during the day, and then she’d attend someone else’s concert at night,” said Berlin. “She never said no to anyone.”

He and Olevsky say Shank also excelled at leading a collaborative piano degree program at UMass in which pianists learned to work with a wide range of musicians, just as she did herself.

“Piano can be a very lonely instrument,” Olevsky said. “But Nadine worked with so many students to show them how they could play with other musicians, and to make them interested in that process, to become really well-rounded pianists and teachers themselves. And there were no time limits for her — her office was always open.”

Shank kept up a busy playing schedule of her own that included being the principal pianist for some 35 years for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. She performed at venues such as Jordan Hall in Boston and Weill Recital Hall and Merkin Hall in New York City, and she also collaborated with former UMass faculty members such as violinist Charles Treger and saxophonist Lynn Klock.

Another key musical partner during the last several years was Berlin, the trumpet player. In addition to local and regional gigs, the two friends played as a duo on tours through the U.S. South, in Brazil and in Austria. Shank also played piano on some albums Berlin recorded of contemporary works for trumpet and piano, and she recorded with other musicians as well.

Berlin says one of his most enduring memories of his friend is her with her bare feet up on the dashboard of his Prius as they drove through the South: She was 15 years older than him, he said, “but she seemed so much younger and was just so easy to be with.”

He attributes some of that to Shank’s belief in Buddhism. “She accepted life for what it was and found satisfaction in what she did.”

Her sudden and dramatic decline and then her death are still very painful for him. But as he posted to a tribute page for Shank on Facebook not long after she died, the pianist left a wonderful legacy for him and others whose lives she touched.

“I ... feel a responsibility to live better in her honor,” Berlin wrote. “During one of my last visits, as she looked at me and gripped my hand, I feel sure that she was telling me telepathically to let go of some long held grudges. I began the process today.”

To view the tribute video for Nadine Shank, visit Donations are encouraged during the screening to the newly established Nadine E. Shank Piano Endowment Fund.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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