Campus celebrates life of music professor Dennis Abelson

On September 1, Carnegie Mellon music professor Dennis Abelson passed away at UPMC Shadyside. He was 56 years old.

The cause was cancer.

For 16 years, Abelson was professor of horn in the department of music at Carnegie Mellon, specializing in French horn. He was head of the Abelson Horn Studio within the department of music, which prepared students for professional careers as horn players. The studio provided rigorous lessons and access to horn ensemble groups, chamber music, and off-campus performance venues.

Abelson began playing the French horn in elementary school. He went on to play in the orchestra while a student at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill.

Abelson earned his bachelor’s degree in music at Duquesne University, where he was an adjunct professor before he joined the Carnegie Mellon music department in 1991.

Abelson’s musical pursuits were not confined to the classroom. He performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Mendelssohn and Bach Choirs, the Civic Light Opera, the Chicago Ballet, and the Grand Teton Orchestra, according to the Post-Gazette article.

In addition to his rich background and experience in music, Abelson’s most enduring contribution to the arts is the sincere, wholehearted encouragement he provided to his students.

“Abelson was a fine musician, but particularly dedicated to his students. He was able to relate to them in an individual way,” said Natalie Ozeas, associate head of the department of music.

Through his work at Abelson Horn Studio, he provided a nourishing environment where horn students could hone their talents.

“He made the studio feel like a home away from home,” said Annie Bosler, one Abelson's former students, who graduated in 2003.

Bosler is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in music at the University of Southern California.

Abelson played a significant role in Bosler’s career. She came to Carnegie Mellon as a double major in math and music. However, “After talking with Mr. Abelson I decided to switch over to music,” she said. “It was the best decision of my life.”

Abelson exhibited a dedication to teaching and the musical arts.

“He was always looking to help his students out,” said Bosler. Abelson would often stay after class on his own time to work with students, she said.

Like Bosler, Abelson enjoyed playing tennis, and the two sometimes played together. On the tennis courts, the role of teacher and student would switch — Abelson often welcomed tips from Bosler on his tennis game, especially on his backhand.

Such were the unique, individual connections that Abelson developed with several of his students.

“He made each of us feel special and good about ourselves and how we played,” said Melissa VanTimmeren, a senior French horn major.

In addition to endowing his students with the instruction and confidence they needed as young musicians, Abelson inspired them with his upbeat perspective on life in general.

“He was always good at making a joke and finding the humor in life,” VanTimmeren said.

VanTimmeren recalled visiting him in the hospital.

“He had a positive attitude even in the hospital,” she said. “He was asking how we were doing and if we had met the new French horn student.”

Often going above and beyond the call of duty as a professor, Abelson once took VanTimmeren to get her horn mouthpiece repaired.

“He was honestly more like a friend to me,” she said. “He loved music and his students. He was very humble, kind, and caring.”

Throughout his extraordinary career as an educator, performer, and artist, Professor Abelson effortlessly inspired his students not only through his actions and encouragement, but in his simple words of advice and reassurance. To Bosler he said, “You’re going to be fine, just practice.” And to VanTimmeren he advised, “You just can’t worry about what other people think.”

Dennis Abelson is survived by his wife, Lu Ann Cowan Abelson, his daughter Elizabeth Ann, who plays the French horn and is currently a student at West Virginia University, and his brother Michael Alan of Banksville, Pa.

The Carnegie Mellon department of music will hold a memorial service in honor of Dr. Abelson on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in Kresge Recital Hall. Annie Bosler will be sharing her memories of Abelson; Melissa VanTimmeren will perform with the Carnegie Mellon Horn Choir.