Sound Advice: An Interview With A Pianist

piano4Let’s take a quick break from the mixing articles for an article about me!  I get asked about my piano playing all the time.  So, in an effort to help others either thinking about learning the piano or those already a piano student, or simply for the curious, here are the answers to my most asked questions regarding the piano and me…

Q) How long have you been playing the piano?

A)   I started taking piano lessons at about age 7.  But after really enjoying piano for the first few months, it quickly became like a job, especially for a young boy that really started to hate it.  But, my parents–especially my mother–made me sit at the piano EVERY DAY during my mandatory 30 minute practice time.  Whether I played it or not was seemingly not a big deal to her.  She told me that I had asked to learn to play the piano, they bought me a piano, and so now I was going to learn to play it, or sit there and cry the time away!  So, I sat there at that piano daily, for 30 minutes, with probably more crying than playing for the next few years.  I also think I went through 3 or 4 different teachers during that time.  Around the age of 13, I finally met a teacher from the Beulaville area, Mrs. Sumner, that made the piano fun, at least for me.  See, I had seen the way the piano players in gospel quartets played and that’s what I wanted to do.  She finally taught me what the other teachers had failed to do, which was really learn music structure, chords, and improvisation, and see the piano as more than sheet music and classical theory.  So, I instantly began enjoying the piano again!  I continued to take lessons until around age 17.

Q) When did you start playing for church?

A)   I think it was around 13 years of age, filling in when the pianist was absent at my little home country church.  I became the regular pianist there at about age 15 and held that position until I was in my early twenties.

After over 20 years playing with Southern Gospel groups, I’m now a church pianist, again.  I’ve been the pianist in my current church for about 4 years.

Q) Do you play by ear or do you read music?

A)   Some of both.  Well, I started out playing strictly by the music, as most piano students.  But Mrs. Sumner taught me how to improvisate, or embellish, the hymnal music by playing more rhythm with the left hand instead of what was written in the hymn book, since those notes were intended for the vocal parts and not the pianist.  I wasn’t a huge fan of her exact style, but she showed me how to actually “hear” the music as opposed to just “seeing” it on a sheet of paper.  But, I still depended on the music in front of me.  When I was in college, some friends and I started a local gospel group in which I was obviously the pianist.  They quickly told me I was going to have to ditch the music, since that wasn’t going to work on-stage.  Nervous as I was, I had to sink or swim.  So, I learned to memorize songs.  This opened up the door to begin playing more by ear, and then transitioning to only needing a chord chart and hearing the songs to learn them.  For the past 20+ years, I’ve been involved with, primarily, southern gospel quartet style music and not traditional church music, so, even though I can read music, I’m fairly rusty at sight reading something unfamiliar.  My work in the recording studio for the past twenty years has also heavily relied on number chord charts instead of sheet music, since that is the preferred format for most studio session musicians.  But, I am getting slowly better at sight reading sheet music since I see and use it more now as a regular church pianist, again.

Q)   What has been your most memorable piano moment?

A)    Good?  Lots of them.  Playing on the road for a gospel quartet created many of them.  I do remember one time when I was 12 years old, my family and I stopped at a very nice restaurant in, or near, Akron, Ohio.  They had a nice grand piano in the restaurant that I was just in awe over.  The waitress wanted to know if I wanted to play it.  “Me?  No.  I’m scared.”  She talked me into it.  Come to find out many famous pianists had sat at that piano and played there many times.  Fairly impressive to a 12 year old.

Bad?  Not going to share those!  Let’s just say I’ve had a few very embarrassing moments over the years.

Q)  How often do you practice?

A)   Honestly?  I’ve never practiced as much as I should have.  There’s no telling how great a pianist I could be if I had practiced exactly as recommended by my teachers, especially as a young pianist.  Today, I spend a few hours at the piano weekly, depending on my schedule and if I’m working on new material.  I enjoy getting at the piano each week sometimes late at night (in the soundproof studio, of course) and playing along to some of my favorite music.  It’s a time of relaxing and worship for me.

Q) Who is your favorite pianist?

A)   Tough question!  I can honestly say that I really have the most respect for, and look up to, the studio musicians that live behind the music.  These are the ones everyone has heard on all the top albums you hear on the radio or purchase from your favorite artist, but their names and faces are unknown to most people.  Their touch, style, ear, and skill on the piano is unmatched to those usually pranced across stages or most seen by audiences.  I could drop a few names here, but you wouldn’t know them.

Q) What’s the best compliment you have ever received?

A)   Easy.  I like it when people tell me that what I do fits the song or the service and doesn’t fight with other instruments or detract from the singing.  I remember one particular occasion while on the road as a quartet pianist, a distinguished man pulled me over to the side after our service and began to tell me how I was the first pianist he had seen in his church that didn’t try to be the show.  He went on to correctly describe the roll of the pianist as an accompanist in a band and how the piano should fit with the other instruments and not fight with them or cover them up.  The music should also properly envelope the vocalists.  This man was talking my language and I was humbled, and excited, of his compliments!  It was refreshing that someone noticed the work I had put in to being that kind of pianist.  If I was a piano teacher or coach to an aspiring church pianist or future band member, that would be my number one “lesson” to the students.

Q) What advice can you give to aspiring pianists?

A)   First, understand learning the piano, or any instrument, takes a desire, passion, dedication, and commitment like few other things.  I’ve heard from more than a thousand people how God has given me the talent to play the piano.  And, without being disrespectful to them or to God, I somewhat disagree.  God gave me the desire and passion to want to play the piano.  It took lots of discipline from my family and lots of work on my part to get to where I am today.  I do believe God has blessed my efforts.  But, I also believe God has given me nothing without putting in the work.  He expects that from his children.  Learning piano is NOT easy, and it’s a lifelong journey that I’ve tried to embrace.  I still have a LOT of learning to do!

Next, find a teacher that fits your musical interests and style, if you know what style you prefer.  If you don’t, there’s nothing wrong with starting with classical piano.  You will learn extremely good techniques from classical music.  Then, you need to supplement classical with either jazz, gospel, blues, or a similar discipline, ESPECIALLY if you plan on playing modern christian music, among others.  Some teachers simply teach traditional classical piano and music theory.  Others can start you into chords, improv, and the “fun” theory early on so you won’t get bored.  But, theory is important.  It just doesn’t all have to come first (we do learn to talk before we read, right?).  I know there are tons of “lessons” online these days, but nothing beats a real teacher and coach that will push you to succeed.

Q)   Do you teach piano?

A)    Not at this time.  I may at some time in the future decide to do some teaching, but it would probably not be for beginning students.  We’ll see.

Q)  How do you feel about electronic keyboards versus a real piano for students?

A)   For piano, I do not like electronic keyboards or digital pianos.  They do not sound like a real piano.  They don’t feel like a real piano.  But, I realize they can be cheaper and more convenient for some.  They are, however, better than a real piano that you are not going to keep properly maintained by a piano technician.  But, since you asked, I prefer, and recommend, a real piano for a piano student.  You can usually find them used at a local dealer, on Craigslist, or by contacting a local piano technician and asking.  They sometimes know where the good, used pianos may be available for purchase.  After all, they see dozens of pianos and piano owners every week!

Used pianos in good shape and properly maintained are far better than the best keyboards for learning piano.  Regardless of how good keyboards have progressed over the years (I have a couple of them), there’s no substitute for the real thing.  If you must consider a keyboard, it needs to have 88 full-sized keys and weighted piano action.  Learning on anything less will cause issues for the student when they have to play a real piano.  Poor quality or inadequate instruments don’t motivate an aspiring musician to practice!  Simple as that.

Let me also say that most keyboards have lots of sounds other than piano, and do many things, all of which could be a distraction for a piano student.  There are enough distractions today to pull a student away from learning and practicing piano.  I don’t think their actual instrument should be one of them.  Just my opinion.

Q)  What other instruments do you play?

A)   Nothing… Well, nothing too good.  I’ve had some mandolin lessons in the past, since I do like bluegrass music.  But, I’m no mandolin player!  I’m actually not too bad on a bass guitar.  With all my years recording and mixing christian music, I’m fairly good at hearing how several instruments are supposed to be played on particular song, such as drums, bass, guitar, strings, etc., but I can’t play them!  I can fake some of it on a keyboard, but I always prefer the real thing.  Yeah, it’s frustrating.

And, that’s about it!  I do own an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar, but have yet to really sit down and learn either of them.  I stay busy with piano or recording engineering in what spare time I have devoted to music.

Q)  What is your favorite genre of music?

A)    I’ve been through it all over the years, well, except the extreme stuff like electronica, punk rock, etc.  I would say I like different genres for different reasons.  My favorites are Christian music, both contemporary and southern gospel, and classic pop (top 40 from the 70’s and 80’s).  I really enjoy bluegrass music, but am not a fan of bluegrass singing!  Some of the classic country is good stuff, but I’m not a fan of modern country.  Some genres are great for learning piano technique from, such as pop, country, blues, and jazz.  I love jazz, but get easily frustrated that I can’t play it!  My car radio usually toggles between a contemporary christian or pop oldies station.

Q)   Final thoughts?

A)    I whole-heartedly encourage kids (and adults) to get involved with learning an instrument.  I think parents should push it more than sports or dance, because the dividends and rewards will go much, much further.  Piano has literally shaped my entire life, in one way or another, for good.  Little league didn’t do that, basketball didn’t do that, nor did golf, even though I was involved in all of them.

The instrument of choice should be carefully considered.  Piano is good, but violin, guitar, drums, and several others are also very good instruments to learn.  Some of it will have to do with the teacher availability in your area.  It also depends on interests in the instruments and the musical preferences.  I personally love to hear almost any instrument played by a good musician.

If I could answer any more specific questions that people may have, I certainly don’t mind.  Just leave a comment here or send an email.  Now, go and find you an instrument to learn and locate an available and passionate music teacher!


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