The Sanford-Hill Piano Series Celebrates 20 Years

'We have a great future ahead.'
Story by Frances Badgett



For 20 years, Western’s Sanford-Hill Piano Series has brought to Bellingham the LeBron Jameses, the Taylor Swifts, the Picassos of the classical piano world to perform and give students an opportunity to learn from internationally recognized pianists.

The series, which has attracted such artists as Spencer Myer, Di Wu, Jeremy Denk and Vadym Kholodenko, began in 2003 with pianist and Music Professor Jeffrey Gilliam and Sibyl Sanford, ’73, teaching certificate, a former arts educator who is now a watercolorist and philanthropist. Professor Emeritus of piano Ford Hill entered the project in 2011.

“I consider it the greatest honor to be a part of the Sanford-Hill Piano Series, and one of the most important and rewarding experiences that I have ever had,” says Sanford. “It has been thrilling to collaborate with both Ford Hill and Jeff Gilliam to help bring amazing pianists to Bellingham.”

Jeffrey Gilliam, Professor of Music
Music Professor Jeffrey Gilliam

The Bellingham Festival of Music and the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra are also active community partners for the Sanford-Hill Series, and they often collaborate on bringing performers to multiple venues or promoting each other’s events.

Western initially brought many U.S. and Canadian pianists to Western for the series, until Sanford and Hill traveled several times to the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano competition in Texas and started bringing Cliburn competitors to Western. Pianists typically come out of the Cliburn with recording contracts, performances with major orchestras, and extensive touring schedules.

The Sanford-Hill series was so successful at bringing bright talent from the Cliburn competition to Bellingham, the director of the Cliburn Foundation now invites Gilliam to the competition in Fort Worth, Texas, as an official guest. This allowed the Sanford-Hill series to move up a few notches in prestige from finalists in the Cliburn to the medalists.

“This would not have been possible without Jeffrey Gilliam whose outstanding management of the series has made this all possible,” Hill says. “Recently Jeff has secured an arrangement with officials of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, probably the most prestigious competition of its kind in the world, to get the prize winners for our series. We have a great future ahead for the Sanford-Hill Piano Recital Series!"

Sanford and Hill have ensured the series is funded in perpetuity.

Not only does the piano series inspire and educate Western’s most accomplished piano students, it occasionally brings them together.

David Brooks, ’08, and Annie Stankovic, ’10, met in Gilliam’s class, graduated with degrees in music performance and attended SUNY at Stony Brook in New York together. They now both teach in the music department at Wingate University near Charlotte, North Carolina.

Annie Stankovic
Annie Stankovic, '10

The Sanford-Hill Piano Series left an immense impression on Stankovic, and not just because of the opportunities to socialize and attend master classes and recitals with internationally known artists. She treasures the community of artists the series inspired.

“Ford Hill would host house concerts, allow us access to his beautiful instruments and recording equipment, and attend our performances and competitions. Sybil was a beautiful artist and person who always had kind words of wisdom and encouragement every time we met, attended every event she possibly could, and gifted each of us with books of her beautiful paintings,” says Stankovic, a collaborative piano and opera coach at Wingate. “These two gave more to WWU's piano department in spirit and kindness than anyone else in our time there.”

 Brooks, who teachers piano and music theory at Wingate, calls Gilliam his greatest musical influence. “When I arrived at WWU as a freshman, I loved music but had absolutely no training in how to improve as a musician,” he says. “Jeff was somehow able to point my unfocused energy in productive directions and shape my understanding of the depth and importance of musical traditions. I constantly find myself referencing things Jeff has said in my own teaching, which indeed is how traditions are passed down.”

David Brooks, '08
David Brooks, '08

Speaking of passing down traditions, the couple have created a “seed” of a series in North Carolina with a visiting pianist and master class and have invited Gilliam there to play. “Perhaps in another generation we will have something that can be a peer to Sanford-Hill,” Brooks says.