Pianist, music teacher, composer and author Catherine Rollin began learning piano by ear before she started kindergarten, with formal lessons starting in her elementary school years. Today, Rollin has written hundreds of compositions from her Bloomfield Township home and music studio, where she shares her knowledge with students from around the world.
"My whole family could play by ear. My parents were very musical," Rollin said. "I was already playing very well from a young age. I remember as a kindergarten student that I played for the first graders. It was Beethoven, and I was playing by ear.
"That has helped me a lot as a composer. Now, I'm a very schooled pianist, but playing by ear has given me freedom to sit down and be much more creative, as opposed to playing by notes my whole life."
More than 400 of Rollin's compositions have been published by Alfred Publishing Company, including several books, earning her a reputation for creating works with a combination of musicality and teachability. Her work is also available in Japan and Taiwan, and has been featured on many prestigious lists throughout the world.
Rollin's students have also gone on to find their own success as featured performers. Additionally, her own performances have occurred throughout the world, including her solo work and her recent trio Suite Detroit: Sounds of an American City.
Rollin starting taking on students about 35 years ago, after coming out of music school. At first, it was side work while preparing for auditions. However, she quickly learned she had a passion to help students.
"There was something in me where I had this desire to help students discover a passion of music, and to bring out the best in people," she said.
Soon, Rollin was not only teaching students but writing her own compositions, many that she would use in her lessons. The idea, she said, is to provide appealing music to students to inspire them to learn.
"If they are already outstanding musicians, they don't have any trouble finding music to showcase, but at early levels it's challenging to find something that sounds like real music."
It was at the intersection of art and music where Rollin found another way to connect with students.
"In my role as a teacher, I am always using imagery from art to try to inspire a student, in terms of their playing. If I want someone to use their arms in a way that is flowing, I might show them a painting by Monet and how the brushstrokes flow for the water," she explained. "As a person who loves art, I thought it would be really wonderful to have the artworks inspire me to write music."
The idea was the inspiration for a four-book series, "Museum Masterpieces," which features musical pieces motivated by great works of art. Born and raised in Detroit before moving to her Bloomfield Township home 31 years ago, it's not surprising that many of the artworks featured in the series are at home at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The series earned an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2015. And pieces from the books have been featured in two concerts at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
"I didn't know how accepted a book like that would be. A lot of my writing is for people who are studying the piano at different levels," Rollin said. "As it turns out, it had an incredibly accepting reception."
Photo: Laurie Tennent