Welcome to the first installment of Musician Origin Stories, a series in which musicians describe how they started down the path of music-making.

David’s story reminds us that sometimes the state of becoming can extend far past the initial impulse to play music. Here’s his story:

When I look back over the last forty years since I began learning songs by ear, I’m really struck by how many twists and turns there have been and the unpredictable nature of it all. This is about as far from having a plan as one can be. Yet, who I am and what I’m doing now feels so good and right that, it seems I must have had a plan.

I’ve grown up as a pianist in a very unconventional way. I quit my childhood piano lessons after age 6 and didn’t start again until age 18. At that time I refused to take any lessons and only learned songs from recordings. I spent six hours a day doing this, for five years. I finally realized how limited I was.

Then I decided it was time to study the piano and college seemed like the best place to do that. I was 23 and already had a Bachelor’s degree so I enrolled in a second degree program at one of the top performance oriented colleges in the country. Because of my by-ear playing, my ability to read music was so slow. It was faster to just memorize each piece measure by measure. My faculty piano teacher said, “You’re going to spend the rest of your life catching up.” She was absolutely right.

I hired a private ear training teacher. I also was taking private lessons off campus with a jazz teacher in addition to my faculty piano teacher. I was having so much fun that one day I practiced eleven and a half hours. After three years I left college to go on tour with a working band.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, I continued playing in a variety of working ensembles around Southern California. Most of this was playing by ear but I did play many of the pieces from my college repertoire on solo piano jobs. I took away a lot from my college experience. However, when I had the occasional brush with a reading situation it was clear: I needed to be a sightreader if I was going to have any kind of stable work life and be considered literate.

I found someone teaching sightreading and took private lessons with him for about three years. He was a well known LA studio musician and conductor, Joseph A. Valenti who had published a set of sightreading drill books. Looking back on these lessons, I understand now what Joe was trying to teach me, but I didn’t get it at the time. I dutifully did his drills and kept sightreading. Every day.

I spent the next thirty years “catching up.” I took private lessons for twenty years with top LA-based jazz pianist, Terry Trotter. At the same time I became a full time public high school teacher based on my first degree. I was also performing both classical music and jazz regularly at many venues. At different times, I also accompanied dinner theater and improvisational comedy groups. I was a solo pianist at many hotels, most notably at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. Most importantly, I kept practicing, every day, for all of those thirty years. Life continued on like this until I had a life-changing medical issue: a retinal tear with complications that almost blinded me. I realized I wasn’t doing work I really loved at the high school so I quit my position and started rounding up piano students.

During the first two years of my piano teaching, a colleague of mine introduced a new piano performance “technique” to me, devised by internationally renowned Professor N. Jane Tan. At first I thought it sounded outlandish. How could I have not heard of this before? Despite my thinking mind, I did know I was hearing something and based only on that, I started taking lessons from my colleague. By the end of a month, I had discovered an element of control over the piano I had never experienced before. After a couple of years, I went to the source and called Professor Tan, and she invited me to attend one of her piano teacher courses.

A course was a yearlong series of private one on one piano lessons with Professor Tan. These lessons would take place in front of other teachers that were also enrolled in the class. This was a powerful format because a teacher got all the benefits of a private lesson but then got to watch the other “students” go through their individual lessons. I was lucky enough to be invited into two of these courses over a period of almost three years.

Regarding sightreading, I found another book of reading drills about eight years ago and recognized immediately that it contained what I been looking for all these years. Several years after starting these drills, I was in Jane’s class and she put some music in front of me and asked me to sightread it. When I was done she said, “You’re sightreading is ok.” I just about fell over.

It’s been two years since I had my last lesson with Jane and I have been exploding with breakthroughs ever since. Aspects of playing the piano that I have struggled with for decades are just coming out of my fingers now like magic. I know it’s the result of lots of focused hard work but it still feels like magic.

Now, eleven years since I started teaching piano, almost every day I get to perform and work with students. Despite a full schedule and a waiting list, I now see a way to have an even larger impact on piano education. I realize there’s a deep reason why most piano students quit and I see a solution to this problem. I’m currently finishing an ebook on the subject, which I will offer for free as part of a longer term vision. I’m planning to fundraise to put together a high quality piano ensemble rehearsal studio that I will make available to the wider community of piano teachers and hobbyists in Los Angeles.

Mine is the quintessential story of being in the right place at the right time. Despite good and back luck, I’ve come to believe that because I’ve worked so hard, the “universe out there” knows what I’m doing, it cares and when the time is right miracles happen.

Many thanks to David for sharing his story; you can connect with him on Twitter.

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