Ralph and Tina Votapek’s gracious home of 46 years looks like any other. The dining room table covered in papers and the soft colonial style furniture attest to a comfortable, busy life.
“I don’t really see why FAITH would want to interview us,” Ralph muses from his recliner. “We’ve had problems along life’s way, like most people, but none has been insurmountable. God’s been good to us.”
Seated on the couch, Tina nods. “On the outside we’re just normal people.”
Ralph interjects, “Maybe we are among the few professional classical musicians blessed with combining normal family life with concertizing!”
Indeed. As members of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in East Lansing, Ralph and Tina throughout the years were always supportive of the music ministry, and gladly helped out wherever they were needed—with the adult choir, the children’s music ministry, both in church and in the school, and for special liturgies.
Tina continues, “We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last December. Our children are grown and all happily married.” She gestures toward the family photos around the room. “Everyone’s healthy, and we’ve been able to keep working together,” Tina continues, nodding imperceptibly toward the two grand pianos filling a third of the living room.
Snuggled side-by-side with the keyboards facing each other, the large black and smaller brown concert grand pianos provide a perfect metaphor for the life of this typical couple belonging in two worlds.
Two grand pianos in the living room can feel normal for people who have composed their life around music together.
“Our parents weren’t musical because they both came from large families with little means,” Ralph explains, “but my mother and Tina’s father were especially supportive and encouraged our interest. They both believed that if God gives you a talent you have a responsibility to use it.”
“To use the gifts you’ve been given is a pathway to happiness,” Tina agrees. “We were both at Julliard in New York doing graduate work when our piano teacher, Rosina Lhevinne, introduced us. Her students recognized her as a match-maker, and in our case she was right. We are indebted to her.”
Ralph nods, “We were lucky enough to have met through music, and now we’re sharing it with our children. Paul (clarinet), Kathryn (violin) and Mark (cello) are all successful professional musicians. Music is also important in the lives of our five grandchildren.”
Tina smiles, “After Ralph won the first Van Cliburn competition, he toured as a concert pianist all over the world. We lived in New York when our first two children were born, then just before our youngest was born, he accepted a position at Michigan State University in the College of Music.”
Ralph says, “Teaching gave me a chance to perform in concert but also to develop musical talent in others.”
“For us, music is more than a job. It’s a vocation—something we love and that we feel is good for other people,” Tina explains. “I loved taking care of our children and we both helped foster their musical talents. When our youngest child was midway through high school I also joined the faculty at MSU.”
“Tina and I perform together either recording or in recitals for two pianos and four hands,” says Ralph. “Our family has collaborated musically throughout the years. We still perform together, though less frequently now because we live far apart.”
“Ralph and I tend to feel music alike. We have conversations about what a piece of music expresses to each of us. As performers, we’re always looking for what the composer is trying to express. It’s more than notes on a page.”
“Saves time when you rehearse,” Ralph quips.
“Many musicians enjoy the thrill of playing with each other,” Tina smiles. “How expressive, dynamic or subtle you are often depends on person-to-person interaction during the performance. The whole point is the interaction within the group to express the composer’s intentions. To be really fine-tuned you have to spend a lot of time working together.”
Ralph leans forward, “So many factors play into the quality of a performance—acoustics, health, rapport with other performers and with your audience. I can only think of a few performances that really stand out when everything came together and I achieved the excellence I was seeking. In spite of this, if the preparation is good, I am usually fairly calm and enjoy the anticipation.
“At our home parish, St. Thomas Aquinas, we performed in concert and during special Masses such as Christmas Eve and Easter over the years. I played piano and Tina played either piano or organ—usually accompanying other musicians or the choir in sacred music. The recordings they sold from these events helped pay for the organ and choir tours to different Catholic communities worldwide.
“It surprised me the last few times I played in church, that I actually felt very nervous. I want to do it well because I’m playing not just for the people, but Ralph glances up to the ceiling] for a higher purpose too.”
Tina laughs lightly. “That reminds me of a quote from Thomas Merton where he talks about how everything—the incense the words the music—are all peripheral because The Lord is on the altar. It helps me focus on the core of why we’re there. It helps remind me what’s truly important in life.
“We talk all the time about how we have to appreciate every moment while we have it. At 75, Ralph still does 20 to 30 concerts each year. We occasionally play together in recital for two pianos.
“When you think about the future, how can you possibly know?” Tina asks. “We have to be open to what God brings into our lives and try to think and do what would honor our love the most.”
“If you go before I do, I’ll still play the piano,” Ralph chuckles, “and clean the basement.”
Tina shakes her head and smiles at her musical and life partner. “And I will try to live in a way that would keep you living in and with me.”
Ralph smiles back, “Music is a solace. Whether we play or listen, together or alone, it lives on.”
Ralph Votapek is professor emeritus of piano and former artist in residence at the Michigan State University College of Music. Gold Medalist of the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, he also won the prestigious Naumburg Award.
Frequently featured as the Chicago Symphony’s guest soloist, Mr. Votapek has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics; the Boston Pops; the Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and National Symphonies; and other top ensembles. He has performed internationally in London, Taiwan, Russia, Japan, Korea and various Latin American countries and has recorded on various labels.
To learn more about your church’s music ministry or about opportunities to become involved, contact your local parish.