The motivation within

Dr. Ruple had faith in me
By Barbara Burton Powell ( '97)

Originally published in Winter 2006, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

Piano professor Eric Ruple

Piano professor Eric Ruple

"Undecided." That's what it read on the top of my freshman orientation packet, next to my name. Only it wasn't true. I wasn't undecided. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and my four years at Madison. But when I arrived at orientation in the summer of 1993, "undecided" was there, staring me in the face. I knew I wanted to major in music and be a music teacher.

I was accepted via early admission to JMU, and I hadn't applied to any other schools. Based on my audition, though, I was denied entrance to the JMU School of Music. After orientation, I registered for every class that freshman music majors take. The only difference in my schedule was my private lessons. I would receive "minor-level" lessons only if there was an opening in someone's studio.

Luckily, there was space in Dr. Eric Ruple's studio during fall semester. Though I was passionate and dedicated, I obviously lacked skills in almost every area of piano performance, but I was eligible to audition again next semester. We worked hard, and I somehow passed the audition. Then we worked even harder. I was at the bottom of my studio in terms of difficulty of pieces studied, but Dr. Ruple made me feel successful. He never compared me to anyone but me.

My years as a piano major were not easy. I studied hard, practiced harder and went to what must have been hundreds of concerts. I did fine in all my classes but was always behind in my solo performances. I was always scared someone would "find me out" and send me packing, but Dr. Ruple was never ruffled by the times I messed up or almost gave up.

The panel of piano teachers canceled my senior recital four times because they thought I wasn't ready. The night my recital finally happened, Dr. Ruple told me "not to worry," that "I was going to give a wonderful musical performance. Others may play more difficult music, but I would play musically and should be very proud."

I am still proud of that performance. I have never worked harder for anything in my life, and I was grateful to prove I could do it.

I vividly remember Dr. Ruple's thoughts on motivation. "It is not a teacher's job to motivate students," he said. That struck me as strange because I saw him as my motivator, and I wanted to be a teacher and motivate the world to learn. I thought, 'Isn't that what teachers do?'

I'm now married with children and have seven years of successful public school teaching under my belt. Now I understand the greatest gift my cherished mentor gave me. He was right about motivation all along -- just as he was right about so many other things. I had the motivation within me. What he gave me was faith.

Dr. Ruple had faith in me. Simply put, he knew I could do it. I strive to give that faith to my students and to my children. I search for things in others to believe in. I never want to let the legacy of his faith end with me. Thank you, Dr. Ruple.

About the professor
Eric Ruple joined the faculty in 1987 and has served as coordinator of the piano area since 1992. He earned MTNA national teacher certification in 2001. He also has an active career as a soloist and chamber musician. His particular interest in Beethoven will culminate in a spring 2006 sabbatical to study and perform Beethoven's monumental
Diabelli Variations.

About the author
Barbara Burton Powell ('97) taught music for seven years in Spotsylvania County schools. She currently has a studio of 25 private piano and voice students and is a part-time worship leader at Salem Baptist Church. She and her husband, Scott, live in Spotsylvania County with their twin sons, Christian and Andrew.