TIME IN with Pianist Peter Dugan: Always Finding Joy, from Upper Darby to Host of NPR's From the Top

Nov 4, 2020

Pianist Peter Dugan was a teenager living in Upper Darby, when, in 2006, he was chosen to perform on From the Top, NPR's nationally syndicated radio program that "showcases the music, stories, and unique humor of America's best young classical musicians."  Now he's the host of the popular program, which is broadcast on over 200 stations across the country, including WRTI.

He also plays concerts in a variety of genres; his collaborations include recording with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, touring with violinist Joshua Bell, and performances with his wife, mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan and fellow Juilliard alums. In this TIME IN interview, he talks about what fuels his eclectic musical career, even during a pandemic. 

At the end of the day, there has to be joy in whatever you do.—Peter Dugan

Playing music is what Peter always wanted to do. The youngest of three boys, he grew up in a musical family. “They weren’t professional musicians," he says, “but my older brothers played; I went to Settlement Music School; I was playing since I was tiny. And listening to WRTI in the car with my family—I’ll never forget those memories.”

This is Peter in 4th grade, when his school choir teacher asked him to conduct the choir for one song. He was very excited to hold the baton!
Credit Courtesy of Peter Dugan

When he was 18, the young pianist appeared on From the Top. After graduating from St. Joe's Prep in Philadelphia, Peter moved to New York City to study at The Juilliard School, and has lived there ever since.

By the beginning of 2020, his musical life was brimming with activity on multiple fronts.  In late 2019, his recording of Charles Ive’s Fourth Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Franciso Symphony had been released. 

He was playing a wide range of music with orchestras, chamber ensembles, and in recital, as well as teaching at Juillard and diving into duties at From the Top, which appointed him as the new host in January, 2020.

Peter at the piano performing with a From the Top clarinet quartet at Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West, Florida, January 2020.
Credit Peter Arnow

When everything shut down in March, Peter had just wrapped the taping of an episode in California, then had flown to South Carolina where he performed at the Aiken Music Festival with his wife, mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan. “We had our last concert on Friday the 13th of March.”

Back home, the couple hunkered down with the rest of New York City, gradually doing a little traveling again as time went by. Peter met with me on Zoom to talk about life during the pandemic and how he’s reinvented himself and his work. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation: 

So, Peter, what's life been like for you at home? Or what was it like before you started traveling again?

Well, the first week felt like an eternity. We started doing puzzles on day one, and then after a couple of days I wanted to start being creative. One of the things that I was reflecting on was how my schedule had been so busy, in terms of touring and preparing [for concerts]; I'd really been missing this idea of allowing my creativity to just go wild.

So for me, that's really what the early days of the pandemic were about: allowing myself to just be freely creative. I started doing multiples of myself and in all sorts of genres, and just weird things that were fun for me. It was what I missed about not having more time.

Here’s Peter creating a doppleganger of himself to perform music from the Marriage of Figaro for 4 hands:

From the Top, fairly early on, decided that we needed to continue to make shows. And obviously we were able to do remote interviews, but the way we did it was, we put together a big box of gear and shipped it around the country to our young musicians.They would set up forts to deaden the sound. And so we called them the Blanket Fort shows, and we did two of these.

Peter set up his own blanket fort in his home studio: 

This little structure is how he gets a dry, studio sound for recording NPR interviews from home.
Credit Courtesy of Peter Dugan

You also have From the Top’s Daily Joy.

We came up with that in the very first week of lockdown! The team in charge of social media devised this Daily Joy series, which would be every day, just a little snippet of something from one of our alums. It's great to just see that there are all these young musicians out there who are still being creative and producing beautiful music.

How do you plan your concert part of your career?

Oh, I've been my own manager, my own personal assistant, my own travel agent. So it's a lot of hats to wear but it keeps it exciting for me. I'm very lucky in that all the performances, especially before quarantine, all the concerts were things that I was excited about, and things I love to do. And that meant often there'd be a big variety in terms of musical content.

The kinds of music I play with, for example, Charles Yang, would be very, very different from a concert with my wife, who's a mezzo-soprano.

Peter and Kara Dugan perform Gershwin’s "Embraceable You"

Or if I do a recital with Joshua Bell, who I play with quite a bit, that's more standard repertoire.

Here are Peter and Joshua performing a Daily Joy offering.

And then when I do a solo recital, that also is unique, because I start off with more traditional classical repertoire. And then in the second half, I play my arrangements and originals. It was always very varied and even though I was busy, I was always pretty happy.

The videos on your website are fun to watch;  one with [violinist] Charles Yang involves some theater!

If you're referring to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that one is fully produced by ourselves!  We just spent all day filming and being our own directors. We were at this beautiful spot in, in Western Colorado right near the Utah border. We had a show that night and rather than rehearse for the show, we just decided to have some fun and be inspired by the landscape. So we put together this parody of [music from the film] The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We reshared it this year after Ennio Morricone passed away; it felt like a good opportunity to pay homage to that iconic song.

For me, at the end of the day, there has to be joy in whatever you do, if you're going to go into the arts. Otherwise, why are you doing it?

During this pandemic period, have you started doing things that you hadn't done before? Did you go out and buy a rowing machine or start some new exercise or cooking habit?

We've definitely been cooking more, which has been a great joy. And we're very lucky to have a rooftop space. So we got into gardening, especially Kara, my wife.  In the early part of the summer, late spring, we bought a bunch of seeds and got to watch pepper plants grow. And just last night we were eating these stir-fried peppers that we planted as seeds. That was pretty cool.  We'd never done anything like that before.

Peter's rooftop garden includes peppers, basil, and tomatoes.
Credit Courtesy of Peter Dugan

And then the other thing for me is just diving into the tech world. My dirty secret, which now everyone knows, because I've been telling people, is that I didn't have a computer until the third week of March! I did everything on my iPad. And then, mid-March, I just knew I was going to need some good gear.

So I got a serious computer and an audio interface and two microphones and pretty much transformed this room into a functional studio. That's been interesting—learning all the software, video editing and audio editing. It's something I've always wanted to do and never had the time or the mental space to actually learn it and figure it all out.

Wow. So doing that—and the gardening—both sound like things that you'll continue after the shutdown is over, or the pandemic has passed?

For sure. The gardening we’ll have to see, because it’s really hard to keep a rooftop garden, where everything is in pots, if you’re not home all the time. Those things need so much water! We went away during the summer for two nights to go camping. And we came back and were just devastated because everything was ...[he groans].

And I called my mom and said, “Mom, all the plants are dying!” And she said, “They’ll be fine. Don’t worry. They’ll spring back up with some water.” Which they did. So we'll see, we'll see if we're able to keep planting once we're traveling again.

Is camping something you've done your whole life or did you just start?

That was another new thing that will continue. I'm very close with my brothers and they all have families and we wanted to be able to see them, but it just didn't feel like there would be a safe way to do it. So we all went camping together. We bought a tent, sleeping bags, and all that stuff.

Well, it sounds pretty adventurous. Somebody has to know what they're doing.

Well, yes, that's true. Which neither of us really did, although we both were trying to convince each other that we did, but my brothers have done it more and it's not like we were backpacking. We had our cars and we weren't very far from civilization.

We did practice setting up our tent in the living room, because we didn't want to show up and be totally clueless, especially in front of my older brothers.

A test-run of the tent in Peter and Kara's living room.
Credit Courtesy of Peter Dugan

They would have just mercilessly mocked the city brother. I couldn't stand the prospect of getting mocked by them. So yeah, we set up the tent in the living room. We crawled inside, figured it all out.

And then when we went to go camping, it was good because it was raining. So we had to actually set it up really fast or else we would've gotten soaked.

So you grew up around Philadelphia, in Upper Darby. Did you go to school there? Upper Darby has produced some other famous alumni, including Tina Fey.

Tina Fey famously went to the Upper Darby Summer Stage—the performing arts theater program. I went through that program a little bit as well, but playing in the pit band rather than acting on stage. I didn’t go to Upper Darby High School; I went to St. Joe's Prep in North Philadelphia.

I went to see shows at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center. I would see The Philadelphia Orchestra there when they would come. We were always exposed to really great music and culture being so close to Philadelphia.

Here’s Peter playing tribute to Aretha Franklin and Philadelphia:

When you have so much music  in all aspects of your life, and you want to relax, what do you do? Do you listen to music? Is there a certain kind of music that's your -- 'I'm not going to think about work'-- music?

I'll come in here and just play the blues or listen to the blues. And I've been doing that since I was little. That was always my way to, to kind of unwind since I since I was very small, so that's what I do.

What drives you and what are you looking forward to as things open up again?

What drives me? Creativity and musical exploration, that can take many forms. Learning new repertoire, any act of discovery, is hugely exciting to me and drives me. Collaboration keeps me going, whether that's with my peers, or with the young musicians on From the Top. Collaboration is a huge inspiration for me because you bring all of your own energy to something, and then you discover a wealth of other energy that you can bounce off of. 

Surprises are always welcome for me. I always like when new things pop up.

Well, maybe working with kids a lot also fuels that sense of surprise. You're a From the Top alum; what's it like to now be a host and work with all these kids? What have you learned?

I was on the program when I was 18. And every time I think that I'm going to bring something to them to open their minds or give them something new to think about, they just give back two or three times as much in terms of the inspiration there they're giving to me.

What do I learn from them? Hope for the future. These musicians are becoming more and more open minded, thoughtful and aware of what's going on around them. They're truly a source of inspiration, not just in the way they play, but in the way they think about the world. 

Peter working with a young From the Top pianist at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, CA, March, 2020, the last show before quarantine.
Credit Paul Cressey

And kids seem more resilient than you might think. So when we have this kind of a crisis, they seem to go with the flow.

They say, "How can I make the most of this situation that I'm in?" And that's what we all need to be doing.

That's great. Well, thank you so much, Peter, for sharing your thoughts with us.

Absolutely. It's a pleasure and I'm really happy to be talking, especially to WRTI, the station that I grew up listening to.

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You can hear From the Top on WRTI every Sunday from 3 to 4 PM. 

Listen throughout the month of November, when performances by young musicians from the Philadelphia area will be featured. Details here!