Honing skills at 98: A life in music

Randolph Hokanson retired from the UW a generation ago. He's been growing ever since.
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Randolph Hokanson

Randolph Hokanson retired from the UW a generation ago. He's been growing ever since.

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.

This gifted pianist and teacher has witnessed almost a century of not just ceaseless but accelerating change: epochal shifts in technology, in education, in how music and the arts are valued.

Yet underneath the maelstrom, the things that really matter have managed somehow to endure.

“I find now that it needs only a few of the right words to change an attitude or instill a belief — but it has taken a lifetime of engagement with the world to arrive at that simplicity.”

So writes Hokanson in his memoir, "With Head to the Music Bent," which covers the highlights of a richly lived and satisfying life while at the same time distilling his philosophy of teaching and offering a treasury of insights into the composers who have mattered most to him (above all, Bach and Beethoven).

It almost seems unfair that such a talented musician could write so elegantly as well. With just a few strokes, Hokanson peoples his narrative with the vivid personalities with whom his life has intersected.

Several of these, naturally, are musical legends, like the world-renowned British pianist Myra Hess, one of his most important mentors. There’s a chance meeting with the widow of the physicist Ernest Rutherford. Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw mill about at a party he’s invited to.  

A generation has already passed since Hokanson retired in 1984 from a 35-year career on the University of Washington’s music faculty. But he’s kept going since then.

Hokanson had started out being groomed as a concert pianist, and he continued his performance career while teaching at UW, estimating that he must have taken part in hundreds of concerts during those years. And in his 70s and 80s, Hokanson points out, the frequency of his public performances actually increased, since his time was no longer divided with teaching obligations.

And now more than ever before, Hokanson revels in having the time to compose — an aspect of his musical ambition since his youth, though for decades he could only spare time to jot down ideas to be worked out in the future.

“I started learning to compose when one of my teachers assigned me to write a serenade for tenor and piano to the words of the poet Andrew Marvell,” Hokanson tells me as we sip coffee in the light-filled penthouse apartment where he lives in Queen Anne, commanding glorious views of Mount Rainier and the city.

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