Pianist Peter Dugan hosts the popular radio show From the Top, “which showcases the music, stories, and unique humor of America's best young classical musicians.” But when he isn’t hosting this well-known NPR program, broadcast weekly to hundreds of thousands of viewers nationwide… he’s watching birds.
“Birding is my hidden passion,” he said. “I never used to talk about it [as a kid], but birding is becoming a more popular pastime. These days I’m pretty into it.”
Dugan began “birding” when he was just 10 years old. As someone who travels regularly for work, birding is an accessible, versatile hobby, one he can practice almost anywhere in the world, even in small time windows. “If I have the morning off I can go do that, and find some peace and quiet,” he said. “[Watching birds] slows things down in [my] rather chaotic life. It’s become an important sanctuary for me. I find a lot of peace in it, connecting with the natural world.”
Dugan has a life list of birds he’s logged, and he tries to keep track of how many new birds he spots in a year, but ticking boxes isn’t a big motivator for him. “[Birding] for me is experiential,” he said. “If I can be somewhere beautiful and see a great bird up close… that’s a moment in time that’s often really magical. That means much, much more to me than whether or not it’s a new checkmark on the list."
It's perhaps unsurprising that in addition to birding, one of his other hobbies is the similarly meditative act of completing crossword puzzles. When we spoke, Dugan was on a 900-day streak of completing the New York Times Crossword each morning. “I do the Crossword religiously,” he said. “I got into a really good rhythm after six months or a year of really struggling,” and today he usually takes less than five minutes to complete each puzzle, sometimes a bit longer for the beefier weekend puzzles.
Calming, meditative activities like crossword puzzles and watching birds pair well with Dugan’s fast-paced life as a musician and host. Dugan feels that birding, especially, also offers a natural antithesis to the rigorous, unforgiving nature of performing classical music. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the weeds with music, stressing like, ‘Oh did I play a wrong note? Did I do that crescendo too soon?’ But when you’re sitting there looking at a bird that’s just flown across the ocean, it’s like ‘Eh… There are more important things in life.’ Birding keeps things real.”
Like Putting on a Glove
Born and raised in Philadelphia, the youngest of three brothers, Dugan was around music from an early age, as both his elder brothers played. “I was around music so much because of them, that it permeated everything I did. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that music was what I wanted to do as well.” Starting in high school he began buckling down into music, but he never had the confidence that comes with seeing oneself as a prodigy. “If anything, I felt like I was a late bloomer compared to the people I saw around me, but I just decided to put in a lot of hours and see where I went.”
In the summer, he attended the prestigious Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island in New York. “That was when I was first exposed to really high-level music-making among my peers, and that further motivated me.” Most of the students and teachers in the program were New York-based, so Dugan set his sights on New York. He ultimately earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Juilliard, where he met his wife Kara, a talented mezzo-soprano, as well as close friends and frequent collaborators like violinist Charles Yang and operatic baritone John Brancy.
During his college years, Dugan and his friends started Operation Superpower, a musical assembly program that traveled to schools around New York. “The concept of the show is that a superhero is just anyone who can figure out their talents and translate those talents into helping others, making the world a better place. It’s taking a trope that gets kids excited, superheroes, and morphing it into something that can inspire them in a positive way.”
In 2018, four years after leaving Julliard, Dugan was invited to guest host From the Top as an alum (he’d appeared on the show as a teenager). “[Hosting] was just like putting on a glove,” he said. “It felt so comfortable, I loved it immediately.” In January 2020, he was announced as the show’s full-time host.
It was an unfortunate time to debut, because the COVID pandemic hit just two months later. “It was wild, but we just figured out how to adapt,” he said. Initially, the team took huge crates of recording equipment and shipped them around the country to the kids, coaching the kids remotely on how to set up the equipment in their homes. Later, they were able to remotely monitor recording sessions. “I would record piano parts to go with them remotely. They’d record a track and send it to me, I’d record and send it back to them. They’d record and send it back, and so on until we finally had a passable amalgam.”
Today, luckily, things on From the Top are relatively back to normal. But Dugan is still working hard to expand the show’s reach.
From the Young to the Old
That’s because, as far as NPR broadcasts go, From the Top is somewhat unique. Like most NPR programming, its average listener is 50+ years old. But the show itself, of course, is completely focused on youth. It may seem a bit incongruous to share the stories of the uber-young primarily with the middle-aged and elderly, but Dugan hopes to change that, both by expanding the podcast’s presence on streaming platforms and networking with his teenage guests—many of whom already command impressive social media followings.
“We know that there are young musicians who listen in, but the bulk of our audience tunes in to the NPR broadcast [as opposed to on Spotify or Apple Podcasts]. That’s hundreds of thousands of people each week… but it’s generally not Gen Z or millennials,” he said, laughing. “That’s not a bad thing, and we don’t want to lose a single listener, but we do hope to keep expanding our audience into younger, and broader demographics.”
The larger brunt of Dugan’s aims reaches beyond expanding the audience and focuses on the young musicians appearing on the show themselves. In a broader sense, From the Top refers to an overarching nonprofit with the same mission, offering fellowships and scholarships—in addition to providing a podium—for developing young musicians across the nation.
“We’re much more than [the broadcast],” said Dugan. “At the end of the day, the mission is ‘What can we do for young musicians?’ Radio is part of getting their story out there, but also we’re hoping to set them up for success—whatever success looks like for them.”
He doesn’t just hope to do that by sharing their stories, but by influencing their relationship with music in a positive, fulfilling way. “From the moment we meet these kids, I’m trying to model a certain kind of behavior and relationship to music for them, which might be different from how they feel when they step out of their orchestra rehearsal or walk off stage after a competition. It’s all about positivity, love, and passion around music.”
The musicians who appear on the show are all part of a fellowship. Each participates in seven sessions where they can learn more about industry careers and recording technology, and meet professional musicians, as well as other young musicians in a similar field. “We’re trying to educate them about those aspects of the music industry that they won’t be exposed to in their lessons,” Dugan said.
Each student also receives a special community project. Currently, that project begins with the students identifying a person in their community with a different relationship to music than them. “Maybe that means [the person] loves music but they don’t play, or they play a different style of music…whatever,” said Dugan. “These kids have to identify the person, get to know them, and curate a program specifically for them. It’s focused on the idea that music is this powerful tool for connection between two people who might not have that much in common.”
Fostering True Collaboration
When kids come on his show, Dugan often plays with them. But he wants to model a different sort of collaboration than that which they might be used to back at home. “For young people [when collaborating with other musicians] you’re often either playing with someone whose job is simply to show up, play the notes, and leave, or with a coach or teacher, an authority who is there to tell you how to play. I’m careful about making sure that it’s neither, that it’s a true collaboration. I want them to know I really want to hear what [they] have to say through music.”
The trick, Dugan said, is never telling a young player a given piece has to be played a certain way. “Instead, I’ll ask, ‘Hey, what do you think about this bar? Or even ask them what they think about my own part, how I’m playing it. This gets them engaging with the music as a creator.”
Along with fostering authentic collaboration with his guests, Dugan needs to make the show worthwhile for his listeners. Talk shows and podcasting, of course, are very much in vogue these days. It often seems like everyone from your brother-in-law to your boss to your old burnout, stoner college roommate is posting on social media about starting a podcast.
The trick, Dugan said, is to pick and choose the most impactful and engaging aspects of each young player’s story. He could likely air a full episode about any one of the kids who comes onto his show, because there’s so much interesting material for each kid. “But we have a mission of reaching as many kids as we can,” he said, “and want to feature a good deal of music on the show. We also want to capture a broad range of genders, ages, races, ethnicities, hometowns, and of course instruments and repertoires as well.” As a result, each of his weekly From the Top broadcasts features around five young players.
From the Top used to be a live show, but today, as an offline studio chat that is recorded and then published, Dugan and his team luckily have a wealth of audio to pick and choose from, usually 25 to 30 minutes per young musician, and the team “picks the five minutes or so that is most representative of what makes this young person compelling to get to know.”
“The goal is to capture the spirit of this young person,” Dugan said, which can mean that often the broadcasts aren’t even really about music. “Sometimes the interview is very focused on music, but sometimes it's something else. Some kids want to talk about mental health, others their dog… We’re trying to serve the kids and amplify their voices in an authentic sense. We don’t have an agenda for what we pull. We’re just trying to capture what’s real.”
The Athleticism of Music
Dugan is a newcomer to the Coregami family. He only discovered our apparel a few months ago, “but it’s been a complete game changer,” he said.
“As a pianist, the tightness of a suit jacket or shirt in the shoulders majorly inhibits the motion of the arms moving across the body. There are so many times when your hands have to cross each other, and that becomes almost impossible… at least while trying to look presentable in formalwear.” This issue has been problematic for Dugan for many years. So when he began hearing about other musicians using Coregami apparel, he gave it a try. He hasn’t looked back.
Two days before we spoke, Dugan performed in a Coregami shirt. “To be that comfortable on stage is honestly like a brand new experience for me. Until Coregami, I’ve never had the feeling of full freedom of movement while also being dressed up.”
“People forget how athletic music making is, and to go out there wearing Coregami and be able to get in tune with the athleticism of music for the first time… Well, it’s been truly incredible.”