To the good fortune of music students for decades, Professor Emeritus Murray Present’s decision in 1948 to remain at Montclair State for “a trial year,” turned into a career at the University that lasted 44 years.
The first full-time piano teacher hired at the University (then a teacher’s college), Present began his career with just a handful of students, but by the time he retired in 1992, he had taught hundreds, indeed, a couple of generations of piano students.
Present’s dedication to teaching and to the success of his students was always evident. Even now at 91 and retired for 20 years, he still teaches piano privately and takes great satisfaction in the success of his former students who have careers in music. He continues to keep in touch with many of them and gets together regularly with a group who call themselves the “Murray Present Fan Club.”
One such successful former student is Kathleen Gaffney ’62 who taught music in public schools for 42 years before retiring in 2006. “All the good things that he gave to me, I pass on to my students,” says Gaffney, who still teaches piano privately and serves as the choir director and organist for her church. “It’s that continual chain of sharing the joy and the passion of what you love.”
Although widely recognized for his impeccable technique and classical piano “lineage”—Present studied with some of the best-known piano teachers of the 20th Century as an alumnus of the Juilliard School, the Mozarteum and the Fontainbleu Conservatoire Americain—he is probably best remembered for his professional manner, integrity, gift for teaching and his dedication to the success of his students.
“He was always very proper and took his work very seriously,” recalls Karen Kelly Travellin ’82. “We never wanted to disappoint him and those high expectations forced us to excel. He was a wonderful professor!”
Phyllis Haefner ’66, one of the leaders of the Murray Present Fan Club, says that part of what made Present a wonderful teacher was that he treated all students with equal concern. “He gave his best to every student—not just the very talented ones,” she says.
Karen Kayser Lagos ’66 agrees with that observation: “I certainly wasn’t one of the most talented students Murray ever came across, but he saw what I needed to accomplish and made me into the best piano player I could possibly be.”
Present, who still resides in Montclair, is also remembered fondly by former colleagues including Edmund (Eddy) Battersby, who considered him a mentor. “For the 20 years I was at Montclair I learned from you what it was to be a University professor,” Battersby wrote to Present on the occasion of his retirement, “but also something added, that I now realize was very special, and that is an absolute integrity and fairness in all matters relating to the students that we teach.”
Dennis Boyle ’70 is grateful to be have been taught by Present, and could be speaking for many others: “I arrived at Montclair State in the fall of 1966 and thankfully, I was assigned to have Murray Present as my private piano teacher,” he says. “He proved to be one of the best teachers—in anything—I’ve ever had.”