Dr. Elaine Harriss, a professor in the University of Tennessee at Martin Department of Music, has been inducted into the Steinway & Sons Teachers Hall of Fame as a member of the hall’s fifth induction class. She was inducted on Friday, Oct. 6, at a ceremony hosted by the Steinway and Sons firm in Astoria, New York.
She was nominated to the honor by Amro Music of Memphis.
The Steinway & Sons Teachers Hall of Fame is a prestigious designation recognizing the work of North America’s most committed and passionate piano educators. Every two years, teachers are selected from the United States and Canada for induction into the hall of fame.
Harriss has been teaching piano for more than 50 years, having earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the Peabody College for Teachers, currently the Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Harriss earned her doctorate from the University of Michigan.
Harriss began teaching piano as an undergraduate student in Nashville and continued in Monroe, Louisiana, when her late husband, Dr. Ernest Harris II, taught at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
“That was in the early days of integration,” she said. “When I said, ‘The color of my students’ skin is not important and I’d be glad to teach in a Black school,’ they made a place for me. That was my first year of teaching.
“It was an interesting experience. This was in the late ‘60s, and even my room was fire-bombed by segregationists. The students were precious and deserved all the help they could get. That was a good experience in my life.”
Harriss came to UT Martin in 1970 from Monroe when her husband got a job at the university.
“After a year or two, I began playing flute in the Jackson Symphony and teaching piano lessons and accompanying,” she said. “I did that for quite a few years, and in the ‘80s, I took a workshop in Kindermusik, which was teaching children from birth to age 7 using music as the primary tool.”
Harriss taught through Kindermusik for 18 years in Martin and worked for Kindermusik International, giving workshops around the world.
“I’m proud to say that I’ve taught workshops on five continents as well as all over the U.S.,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience.”
In 2001, a faculty position in piano opened up in the department of music. Harriss applied and was hired.
“At the age of 55, my career took a completely different track, and the change was unbelievably energizing,” she said. “Instead of teaching 7 and under, it was 17 and above, and I concentrated on piano and flute performance.”
Harriss also played flute for the Paducah Symphony Orchestra, so for more than 25 years, she was the principal flute for an orchestra, either in Paducah or Jackson.
Soon, Harriss retired from Kindermusik and from orchestra performances and focused on her work at UT Martin.
Harriss said she enjoys teaching music because of her love of music and her love for education.
“To be a good teacher, you must know how to work with people of different ages and levels, and you need to know how they learn; then, you can tailor your approach for each student,” she said. “Every person has different ways of learning, and the good teacher works to find the best way to help them achieve their goals..
“Teaching is hard work because you must be aware of all those things. That is why I enjoy teaching so much.”
Harriss was nominated for the Steinway Piano Teachers Hall of Fame not only for her 50 years of teaching experience but also through her success in teaching. She has had many students win competitions, especially in the Tennessee Music Teachers Association (TMTA), earn high school diplomas in music through the National Guild of Piano Teachers and be selected for Tennessee’s and Kentucky’s Governor’s Schools for the Arts.
Harriss has also worked with organizations that help piano students. She has served as the state director for TMTA’s spring and fall competitions for students from kindergarten through college.
“I’ve done that for many, many years,” she said. “Here at UTM, I run a week-long piano camp for middle and high school students each summer. In addition, I direct the UTM piano competition each March for pre-college students.”
Harriss enjoys performing, playing for her church each Sunday and performing in special programs.
Later this month, she and Dr. Keith Herris, a professor of music at Bethel University in McKenzie, will perform as duo pianists in “Music from Outer Space,” featuring music from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. It was one of the earliest pieces of music attempting to represent outer space.
“The music is very powerful and has been imitated by many composers in writing music for space films,” Harriss said. “For example, John Williams in ‘Star Wars’ has taken many of the musical characteristics of ‘The Planets’ and adapted them for his work. You will hear snatches of Holst’s music in Williams’ music for ‘Star Wars.’”
That performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at the Blankenship Recital Hall in the UTM Fine Arts Building. There is no admission, and the public is invited to attend.