Albuquerque composer Dennis Alexander still remembers the large truck pulling up to his family’s Kansas home to deliver his first upright piano when he was 7.
More recently, the teacher and performer received a more regal gift from Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.
The organization has honored Alexander with a commission for six works penned during the pandemic. The RCM is one of the largest and respected music education institutions in the world.
“I was delighted because the RCM books are the gold standard in music education,” Alexander said. His collection of “24 Character Preludes” covering all the major and minor keys is regarded as one of his most significant contributions to the piano repertoire.
“Dennis Alexander is a very popular composer,” said Elaine Rusk in a telephone interview from Toronto. Rusk is the vice president of academics and publishing at the RCM.
The institution was founded in 1886; it launches a “Celebration” series, a collection of piano books and repertoire, every seven years.
“We cover all style periods but we are especially interested in new composers,” Rusk said. “We’re trying to inspire students’ creativity.
“He writes in a variety of styles,” she continued. “Some of them are playful; there’s a piece called ‘Prickly Pear Rag.’ He has a beautiful nocturne.”
Alexander has given master classes, recitals and workshops in North America and abroad.
“They’ve got composers from all over the world contributing to this edition,” he said. “They gave me specific levels they wanted me to write for. It’s no guarantee they’re going accept them.”
Alexander grew up in Dodge City in southwestern Kansas.
“My father was a farmer and they had limited income and they knew I wanted to play,” he said.
The day his piano arrived turned magical; he began taking lessons. By 1987, Alexander had made his Carnegie Hall debut.
The composer would go on to teach piano pedagogy at the University of Montana. He retired in 1996 when his gig composing for Alfred Music Publishing turned into a second career. He is the co-author of “Alfred’s Premier Piano Course.”
But his inspiration for studying the instrument in the first place came from a less-than-classical source.
“Growing up in a small community in Kansas, my folks watched ‘The Lawrence Welk Show,’ ” he said. “There was a ragtime pianist called Jo Ann Castle. She always had so much fun when she was performing.”
He insists he never aspired to be a composer.
“I was a piano performance major,” Alexander said. “I knew I wanted to perform and teach.”
In 1986 a University of Texas at Austin colleague recommended him to Alfred. The company asked if he would give teaching workshops using their methods.
“I was flattered that they had asked me,” Alexander said. “I had taught piano pedagogy; I knew what was out there. I was fortunate I could improvise and play by ear.”
Pressed for his favorite composers, he named the Romantics: Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Brahms.
“It’s an instrument that allows you to express your soul,” Alexander said. “It has melody, it has harmony. A piano is like an orchestra in a box.”