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Students get challenges, teacher reaps satisfaction

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 6:04 a.m. HST, Aug 3, 2011

Is there a subtle way to say that you studied classical piano at age 3 and spent your teen years giving solo performances at Westminster Cathedral or St. George's Chapel Windsor Castle (for Queen Elizabeth!) — y'know, without inviting a hellacious two-fisted melvin?

Is it possible to casually mention that you once worked alongside prog-rock legend Patrick Moraz or performed at Cher's house or taught piano to the kids of the guy who scored "Titanic" without sounding like a pretentious nit?

Could you, theoretically, remain in the good graces of friends and acquaintances after admitting that, yes, you once put your fabulously successful musical career on hold so you could spend a couple of years touring island paradises and giving $1,000-a-day diving lessons to folks like Pierce Brosnan?

You could if your accomplishments were the product not just of precocious genius, but of diligent practice and the pursuit of excellence.

You could, that is, if you are David Hicken.

Indeed, Hicken — St. Andrew's Priory choir director, music director of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church and founder of the newly opened David Hicken School of Music — tends to speak of his past accomplishments with the matter-of-fact tone with which one might read last month's Toastmasters minutes. His vision, it seems, is clearly set on the future.

"I tend to be quite passionate about the things that interest me," says the British-born Hicken, "and I'm just as passionate about sharing them."

Hicken's early life reads like the syllabus for Music Prodigy 101: early mastery of piano and clarinet, a defining passion for the organ, elite musical education, a recording contract at age 18 and performances at some of the most prestigious halls in Europe.

But unlike those whose gifts estrange them from the less talented, Hicken (who maintains a successful recording career) has spent much of his adult life applying the academic rigor he embraced as a youth to challenge, and ultimately connect with, a younger generation of students.

Rather than trying to pass off samplings of classics as full choral performances, Hicken insists his young charges apply themselves to mastering complete works and to understanding their history and lore.

The results have been impressive. For example, the St. Andrew's Priory chamber choir's performance of Bach's "Magnificat" last year was widely considered the best choral performance in the school's storied history.

"I believe in setting the bar high," Hicken says. "The students give 110 percent, and they come away with an experience they'll still remember 20 years from now. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction."

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