Piano Program co-chairs Nicola “Nikki” Melville and John Milbauer celebrate decades of friendship

Chautauqua Piano Program Co-Chairs John Milbauer, left, and Nicola Melville on Sunday, July 29, 2018 outside of the Amphitheater. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Sunday, July 29, the Piano Program co-chairs John Milbauer and Nicola “Nikki” Melville played a duet of a tango piece by Astor Piazzolla on the Amphitheater stage.

In 1989, both Milbauer and Melville spent their first summer at Chautauqua as piano students. That year, they also played duets, and it was the very first time they played music together. That began their friendship, which has lasted for 30 years.

When Melville recalled her arrival to Chautauqua from New Zealand, she said she flew into Jamestown when it was already dark outside. Chautauqua was the very first place in the United States she actually saw during the day.

There was a strangely cold day during the summer of 1989, so Melville wanted to buy a sweater. Melville and Milbauer, her peer and duet partner at the time, walked into a store near Bestor Plaza. The lady in the store started a conversation with Melville, asking her and Milbauer where they were from and what they were doing at Chautauqua.

They told her, and said how great of a time they were having. Then the lady said to them, “Oh, you’ll be back.”

Melville said they weren’t sure, although she and Milbauer did have a lovely time and learned a lot.

“Musicians at that age are going in so many different directions,” Milbauer said.

Melville said at that age, she wanted “to try different things and go to different festivals.”

Both ended up participating in the Chautauqua Piano Program for four consecutive years from 1989 to 1992. But they lost track of each other over the next decade because communication was limited and not as convenient.

Melville said life was very different in 1993 than in 2018; there was no internet, cell phones or social media apps like Facebook.

And, Milbauer said, “long-distance phone calls were expensive.”

“You have to write a letter, put a stamp on and put it in the mail,” Melville said, only to ask “Hey, what are you doing?” or “Where are you?” something that is now easily achieved by cell phones.

Melville and Milbauer reunited in 2003 at Chautauqua, and Melville said it felt like no time had passed.

Milbauer said it wasn’t like they decided they were both going back to Chautauqua, but a happy coincidence.

“I started teaching (at Chautauqua in) 2002, Nikki started teaching (in) 2003,” Milbauer said. “… if you add them up, four years as students, 16 years teaching in the program, this is the 20th year for us being here in the summer.”

The two co-chairs of the Piano Program said they work well together because of their like-mindedness and complementary traits.

“People asked me why (Chautauqua) is going so well; one of the big ones is that I have a like-minded colleague,” Milbauer said.

Sometimes they make decisions independently because they know the other would agree. Milbauer said it is a “huge asset,” and Melville added that it is a “huge time-saver” for decision making.

Milbauer said this like-mindedness is rare among collaborators who run the same program, and he and Melville often take it to the extreme, saying the “exactly (the) same thing, same time, same inflection.” Melville said it is because their minds process information similarly.

They are not only colleagues who work well together in decision-making and music-making, they also have been good friends on a personal level and are often seen together around the grounds.

Milbauer always tells the joke — a joke Melville refers to as “John’s joke” — that “people think Nikki and I are married because we are fighting in public constantly.”

“That always happens when you have a guy and a girl who are good friends, people always think that they are together,” said Arsen Jamkotchian, a piano student. “(It happens in) high school, college.”

Jamkotchian said Melville and Milbauer make each other laugh, and that’s what good friends do.

“I think they are good friends enough to be honest with each other,” Jamkotchian said. “They voice their problems instead of keeping them inside and starting dramas.”

Chautauqua is where Melville and Milbauer’s friendship started, and also a place that had a large impact on them. And now, they are making the Piano Program influential for the students. Melville and Milbauer said that they invest personal efforts in making the students and guest artists enjoy their time with the Piano Program.

“Chautauqua for us was transformational, in a variety of ways. And for many students, the program now is also transformational. It’s one of the aspects of the program that we are proud of.”

-John Milbauer, Co-chair, Chautauqua Piano Program

According to Melville, the Piano Program in Chautauqua is a different experience than students have during the school year.

“It’s a different experience. When they are not in a degree program, they are not with their usual teacher. There’s no hard deadlines,” she said. “It’s just to be here and experience stuff and try stuff and be open. I think, for many of them, it’s the first time they feel this breaking down of these thinking barriers, just sort of opening up and being willing to try and experience different things.”

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The author Flora Junhua Deng

Flora Junhua Deng is covering the School of Music for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She is a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is studying journalism and music. A native of China, Flora is not a huge fan of coffee but likes tea. She is a cat person but also loves dogs.