Exposed to the piano at an early age, Dr. Martha Saywell started lessons at age 6 and never stopped.
Through high school and college, the Kentucky native dedicated herself to music, eventually becoming a piano teacher and Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s first full-time music lecturer.
Saywell grew up in a musical family. Her mom played the piano for the church choir. Her grandmother, who played old standard jazz, taught herself to read sheet music using books with cartoonish large lettering. And Saywell remembers banging on a piano at a piano sale where her mom decided it was her turn to learn.
Those moments were Saywell’s first introductions to music, and she picked up piano quickly. But once she learned, Saywell felt as though her grandmother played less — and expected her granddaughter to perform more.
“In fact there were times where I was a little frustrated about going to my grandparents’ house because it was immediately ‘sit her down at the piano and play for us’ and anyone that came over, “ Saywell said.
That frustration would one day grow into a love.
Saywell received a Bachelor of Arts in keyboard studies from Murray State University in Kentucky. After earning a Master of Music and a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she found a job at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg.
“And that got me to Texas,” Saywell said. “And then eventually the job at TAMUSA opened up and I applied for it and I was lucky enough to get it.”
In 2016 A&M-San Antonio became a four-year institution and needed to add music or art appreciation to the curriculum to provide core art credits for students, Saywell said. When the job was posted with the request for someone to fill in that art requirement, Saywell took the job.
The university currently only offers music appreciation classes, but Saywell hopes to expand and make her current music classes as interesting as possible.
“I incorporate all sorts of genres,” Saywell said. “I think your traditional music appreciation class kind of focuses on classical music, which is fine because I love it. But I think that that’s kind of one-dimensional.”
As a classically trained pianist, Saywell regularly performed across the country playing classical music and some jazz before the pandemic, but says she strives for more diversity when it comes to the music she teaches in her classes.
“It [classical] is very, you know, brainy, academic, which is fine — I mean, we’re in an academic setting — but music is art no matter what genre it is. … So we actually incorporate, you know, rock music and music from other cultures as well. It’s more fun that way,” Saywell said.
Without any particular favorite composition, Saywell loves a challenge, saying the songs she loves to perform most are often the hardest for her to play. She also loves collaborations.
She recalls her favorite performance in graduate school when she played as accompaniment for Andrew Garland, a well-known artist within the opera and classical world.They spent hours talking about music beyond the usual time spent practicing between guest artists and the accompaniment.
“I thought that was just fascinating because he was such a big star coming in to perform and I would just be the back-up,” Saywell said. “But he really wanted to pull me in and not just make it all about him. And that made the music so much more meaningful.”
It was a similar connection and love of music she wants to share with her students.
On the radio or playing in restaurants, music is everywhere and often becomes background noise, Saywell says. So giving students the opportunity to actively listen and analyze the separate parts of it brings her joy. Rock and pop usually generate the most interest in class, but Saywell enjoys piquing students’ interests with pieces like Ignace Jan Paderewski’s uncommon arrangements and the unique instruments of Africa, India, China, Japan and Eastern Europe.
Saywell says the next step for her is to put in proposals for additional classes. With her current classes falling under the Department of Language, Literature and Arts, Saywell wants to enhance these courses by partnering them with relatable English subjects.
“The two that I’m looking at right now would be an Introduction to Music Theory class. You learn about reading, writing, music, that kind of thing,” Saywell said. “And then the other one would be a women in music class that would hopefully be cross listed if approved with the Women’s and Gender Studies program.”
Alongside her music classes, Saywell has also worked on other ways for those interested to be involved in music at A&M-San Antonio outside the classroom. The University Voices Choral Group, the Jaguar Music Student Organization and the San Antonio Wind Ensemble are the three options currently available.
Assistant Professor of History April Najajj, a three-year member of the choir, calls Saywell a friend and admires her piano playing and unwavering enthusiasm for her passion.
“She plays the piano beautifully and she really knows what she’s doing and she’s always enthusiastic,” Najajj said. “Whether four people show up for rehearsal or 14 people, she’s always so motivated and excited for us to be there. And that’s nice.”
The University Voices Choral Group had been originally started before Saywell’s arrival to A&M-San Antonio but faded out. Staff members who were formerly a part of the choir approached her in October 2016, asking if she was interested in restarting it. Saywell agreed, and in February 2017, the choir was re-established.
“Our primary mission is to sing at university events,” Saywell said. “And in the past couple of years, each semester we’ve done what I call a pop-up concert where we go into the lobby of STEM or the lobby of the CAB building and do like a short mini concert during lunch for the people that are milling around. Now we have a virtual choir.”
Saywell says she loves the collaboration more than anything and the chance to make music with other people that the choir offers. But with everything now online, while she may get to hear their voices and see their faces, it’s not the same.
“To see people, and interacting with them and connecting with them — I miss them. I miss that,” Saywell says.
Saywell also serves as faculty adviser to the Jaguar Music Student Organization, a campus music club, which started virtual club meetings this fall semester. Meeting Saywell for the first time, club President Charissa Stagakes thought Saywell was more approachable than what she expected from a professor.
“She has other organizations that she’s a part of too, so for me it surprises me because she takes the time out of her day to make sure she’s there for our meeting as well,” said Stagakes, a criminal justice junior.
Stagakes says anyone interested in joining should be prepared to “come with open arms” because the club is meant to be a diverse and judgment-free space where members can speak about music.
The club has 30 members so far and has only met through Zoom because of the pandemic. Members want to expand the organization, with plans to one day include guest speakers and small fundraiser events. Those interested in joining can sign up for membership on JagSync.
Saywell also coordinates campus performances of the San Antonio Community Wind Ensemble, also known as SACWE. The university offers the ensemble use of the campus for rehearsals and performances. In exchange, SACWE offers another musical opportunity to students, faculty and staff that allows anyone to join without charging dues to members.
Giving four to five concerts a year, SACWE usually rehearses on Sunday afternoon. More information on SACWE and how to join can be found on their website: https://www.sacwe.org/index.html
But despite all she’s accomplished on her musical path, Saywell says there were times when she wasn’t sure if music was for her. She recalled a moment in the fifth grade when she got frustrated after a practice session.
“I marched into the kitchen where my parents were and told them I was quitting,” Saywell said. “And of course they didn’t believe me. My mothers very smart and she says ‘OK, well, you have to be the one to tell your piano teacher.’ Which of course then didn’t happen, I couldn’t possibly break my piano teacher’s heart.”
Saywell says high school was another rough time. Watching her friends go out to the movies on Friday nights, she stayed at home practicing for competitions becoming frustrated with the fear she was missing out.
“It did occur to me that ‘this is time consuming, you could be out doing other things,” Saywell said. “Out there having fun with your friends like everyone else.’”
She even considered two entirely different career paths. With a longtime love for arguing and animals, Saywell says if music hadn’t become such a part of her, she would have become a lawyer and veterinarian.
“But in the end it won,” Saywell said. “The music won.”