Musician Origin Story


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

Jessica is a composer whose path took a sharp turn (from astrophysics to music!) at the start of her college studies.

MW: When was the first time that you can remember feeling the impulse to become a musician?

Jessica Rudman: I was involved in music from a very early age since the school system in my town had a very strong marching band program, but I didn’t really consider it as a possible career until college. I grew up playing percussion and made some abortive attempts at composing, including a bet with my private teacher that I couldn’t write something he couldn’t play. (Not the best approach to composing, by the way!) My senior year in high school, I took AP Music Theory and had my first experiences with notation software. I start composing regularly then and haven’t stopped since.

MW: What moment/person/piece/etc. served as the catalyst for your starting down the path of a practicing musician?

Jessica Rudman: When I went to college, I was planning to major in astrophysics.  That lasted about one semester before I realized I couldn’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life. I had been taking music classes as electives and loved them. I switched my major and started on the path that eventually led to me becoming a composer.

MW: How did you proceed to become a musician?

Jessica Rudman: Growing up, I was very fortunate to go to schools where music was a priority. I took general music, band, and private lessons in percussion. I then went through a college music program and graduate school. I’ve studied with composers outside of any formal academic program and participated in a lot of summer music festivals and similar programs. I’m also a strong proponent for self-motivated learning throughout one’s career. Score and listening study, reading, and professional development activities are a big part of my daily life as a composer and help me to continue to grow as an artist.

Jessica Rudman is a Connecticut-based composer, theorist and teacher.  She is currently the Chair of the Creative Studies Department at the Hartt School Community Division and a board member of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford.  More info about Jessica and her music is available at www.jessicarudman.com, and she is active on Twitter (@jessicacomposer).

Many thanks to Jessica for sharing her story!

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

Anna-Lisa hired me for my first full-time job in publishing back in 2012 and edited all of my posts for the OUPblog so I’m very pleased to present her action-packed story here:

I’m not sure when I first thought about becoming a musician, or even if I thought about it at all. Music-making for me has always been less about becoming something or achieving something and more about a way of being in and responding to the world around me. I don’t remember not making music. My parents have recordings of me singing Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary songs from around age 2. I started studying ballet at three or four and violin at eight. And I’ve pretty much never stopped. It’s a constant, like breathing.

Music-making has also served as a way of entering the room. When I was nine, my family moved to England and I had to leave my rental violin behind. We bought a used fiddle that came in a black wooden case shaped like a coffin that was a couple of sizes too big for it, so I kept it wrapped in towels and pieces of foam rubber. The case had a thin brass handle—like the ones on the drawer of my grandmother’s desk—that would slice into my fingers when I carried it for too long, leaving red welts on my hands that didn’t fade until after math class.

I was awkward and shy when I started in fourth grade at the American School in London, but I joined the Suzuki violin class and was instantly part of a crowd. I quickly became known as the violin girl, an identity I outwardly rejected but secretly prized. I had a place, a name. I changed schools five more times before I graduated from high school and the violin was always my identity card. I found I could hide behind it. It helped my introverted self to navigate the terror of walking into a classroom where everyone else knew each other and I knew no one. I didn’t always know what to say, but as violin girl, I interested them and I didn’t have to think of things to say because they would ask questions. If they knew me only as violin girl, then I didn’t have to worry about whether they’d like any of the other parts of me. It made moving around easier and quickly became tied up with my sense of self.

My senior year, a harpist moved into my school and we started playing together. She had an entirely different approach to her music. I loved reading and logic puzzles and riding my bike to the beach, and singing in the school musical. I especially loved writing and was an editor for my school paper and wrote stories and poetry for fun. I practiced violin to learn the things I needed to know and played for fun, but I didn’t play every single day. I did enough in my lessons, but not a lot more. The harpist got up early to play, stayed up late to play. Every day. She logged her hours, learned lists of repertoire. She was preparing at a level that I was not. I considered this: Should I be doing that? But I realized then that I didn’t want to. (My duet partner is now the principal harpist for a symphony orchestra).

That was when I realized I wasn’t going to be a musician. That’s the epiphany I remember – that to be a musician would require a focus I wasn’t ready for because it meant giving up things that were too important to me to lose.

And yet I didn’t stop. But I did start thinking about how to work in music without being a musician. I went to Smith College and played and played and took music history classes and violin lessons and played the piano in my dorm’s living room and thought I wanted to be a music critic or an arts administrator. I got an internship in marketing at an arts center and another for the Philadelphia Orchestra. When I broke my hand and couldn’t play for a few months, I joined the glee club and the chamber singers and toured England. I took a class called Writing About the Arts where I wrote a paper about a friend, now a professional jazz guitarist, who once gave me part of her record collection (I still have it) and my professor told me I should consider writing about music professionally. I fell in love with music theory, with the watchmaker’s view of the music, with taking pieces apart to figure out how they worked. I took composition and conducting. I played a solo recital. I graduated.

I spent a year playing in pit bands and working in group sales for a small theater company in Boston with an office in a converted apartment across the alley from the back door of the Shubert Theatre and downstairs from a brothel. I ushered shows for extra cash, turned pages for pianists in a new music group a friend managed, babysat on the weekends, sang in a choir, played a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan at Harvard, learned to play canasta from one of the brothel girls one warm spring night sitting on the loading dock of the Shubert and applied to graduate school.

I didn’t tell my boss at the theater company when I asked for a day off to fly to Chicago to meet with faculty of the University of Chicago, which had just accepted me into their graduate program in the History and Theory of music, what I needed the day off for (and then, it turned out, she was on my plane. How she didn’t see me, I do not know). In one of my interviews, the only female professor asked me if I was serious about my instrument. Was this a trick question? I said yes. She warned me that you couldn’t be a serious musician and a serious grad student. I gave notice at the theater company and spent another summer on Cape Cod playing musical theater and then moved to Chicago.

In Chicago I studied music theory, musicology, ethnomusicology, aesthetics, and composition and I played in the chamber orchestra and the new music ensemble and sang in two choirs. I got my masters, started a Ph.D. that I’m still trying to finish, changed my focus, lost my thesis advisor, and got a job managing a baroque orchestra and chorus. I founded a small a cappella choir that performed early and new music. I joined a chant choir at a church near my office in Chicago’s Loop and got paid for singing Vespers after work several nights a week. I became music director for a schismatic Catholic church that, since it didn’t accept Vatican II, still performed the Medieval format of the Mass in Latin. With a quartet I rehearsed and performed a full Mass setting every Sunday for a year.

At some point I got married and had a baby. With a lot of time at home in my own head, I made my way back to my dissertation topic and started thinking about returning to school. Then we moved to the exurbs, away from all scholarly and musical communities, and my musical life – my professional life in general — more or less came to a screeching halt. I continued to research, I taught occasional classes at the University, but mostly I raised my son. We sang together a lot. When he was a little older I taught him violin when he asked. I took him to a lot of Gymboree classes.

One Christmas, my sister-in-law decided to give my son an electric guitar and asked for my help picking one out. We drove to a small guitar shop near my house. We walked around and looked for a while and the man behind the counter came out to talk to me. When you’re a girl in a guitar shop, I find it helps to let people know you’re a musician, much the way you need to let mechanics know you know how your car works, or people will talk down to you. I mentioned that I’m a violinist. As we were checking out with the guitar we’d picked, the man at the desk mentioned that they were looking for a violin teacher. “Oh, I haven’t done that in years.” “Think about it. If you change your mind, here’s my card.” I took it home and stuck it on my bulletin board. I’d started teaching when I was 16, first helping out my violin teacher and then taking on my own students, but it had been at least a decade since I’d had a regular student. Did I still remember how to do this? A few weeks later I wandered back in and they hired me on the spot, never having heard me play or seen my resume. My first student was the man who’d helped me with the guitar.

I spent two years teaching there and it revived me. I took on a teaching job at another music studio a couple of towns away. Pretty soon I had 30 students and started to think about this less as a side hustle and more as a business. I was hired to teach at the local community college. I was writing a lot. And then I got another job, editing Grove Music Online. Halfway across the country in New York City. I said goodbye to all my students and started spending a lot of time in airports traveling back and forth while we waited for someone to buy our house.

Once we finally moved to New York, I slowly returned to performance, first playing violin and cantoring at my church and then serving as a ringer second fiddle and mandolinist with a friend’s band, playing in the back rooms of Brooklyn bars. I started teaching myself to improvise on fiddle and writing and arranging for both the church group and the band. And then I fell in love with a guitar.

Before I left Chicago, my sister-in-law had given me an old acoustic guitar that she’d bought off of the Home Shopping Network and never played. I had fun fooling around on it, but struggled. The guitar I fell in love with I didn’t meet until years later, standing in Retrofret Guitars in Brooklyn, which I’d wandered into on a long aimless walk on a hot day. I played a lot of guitars that day, but the minute I picked up the 1957 Gibson J-45, I knew it was the one. I’ve never been that sure about anything. I’ve played it just about every single day since then.

I think back to my harpist friend in high school and realize that maybe I just didn’t love making music enough, or maybe I was too afraid of it, too afraid of failing. Now I love it enough. And I fail all the time, but I don’t give a damn. I almost look forward to it. It’s the pleasure and privilege of learning something new at middle age. When I would fail in ballet class or in my college violin lessons, I would be terrified of the wrath of my teacher. Now there’s no terror, no self-flagellation (well, maybe just a little). I just try it again. I may never be good enough to perform the way I’d like to, but I can do enough to keep myself happy. I work as a church musician and I started a small informal band at my office so I can play regularly with others. I love it all. And even though I’m working less as a performer (my day job as a music editor keeps me plenty busy), I have never felt more like a musician, never been more disciplined and exacting about learning. And never has it felt less like work.

So I’m not sure I really have a musical origin story. If I had an epiphany about being a musician, it’s a recent one, and it’s built on a lifetime of music-making with a heavy does of self-forgiveness for my many imperfections. In that regard, it’s less about a point of origin and more like a pilgrimage, an evolution, a long narrative. I’m looking forward to the next plot twist.

Anna-Lise Santella is Senior Editor for Music Reference at Oxford University Press. She shares a Brooklyn apartment with her husband, son and a lot of guitars. She tweets as @annalisep and writes about her guitar-playing escapades and quest to write a song at song.

Many thanks to Anna-Lise for sharing her story!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Scott’s story demonstrates how varied the ways can be in which a person interacts with music and music-making.

At age six I decided I had had enough. Grabbing my grandfather by the face, one hand on each cheek, I declared, “No, Poppy, I want to learn piano now.“ I was spending the night at my grandparents’ house, and earlier in the evening he had been playing on his out-of-tune upright piano in the living room, most likely a jazz ballad from his Real Book. He was a music teacher, high school band. My father is a saxophone player, my aunt is a violinist with her own student orchestra. At the time, my older brother had recently started taking clarinet lessons with my grandfather and playing in school. I wasn’t one to be left out and I certainly wasn’t one to be patient. So when I told my grandpa that night that I wanted to learn how to play piano like him and he told me I should wait until the 3rd grade, I was unsatisfied. To a 6-year-old, that was an eternity. So I grabbed him by the face and made myself very clear. Needless to say, he began giving me lessons. He is not a particularly great piano player, and I was not a particularly good student, but that is the beginning of my musician origin story.

The passion and understanding were always there, and there was very little doubt in my mind from that young age that I wanted to be involved in music for the rest of my life, but I couldn’t seem to find the right outlet. In middle school I tried to explore more. I took up guitar, and then the electric bass. I played in rock bands. I joined the orchestra at school playing cello. I was competent but lacked the discipline to really practice any of it, even with better teachers than my grandpa. This is why I turned to composition. I understood the music theory and how things should work, so if I wasn’t going to be great at playing, I could find my calling as a creator.

Throughout high school I wrote arrangements of songs and pieces for our orchestra to play. I composed music for my brother’s films, who had given up his clarinet for the camera in college. I would substitute-conduct orchestra class when our teacher was out sick. And then I went to pursue a degree in Classical Composition at SUNY Purchase College.

But I soon found myself running into similar issues with this new passion. Firstly, I was falling out of love with Western Classical Music and finding deeper passion for popular music. But also, I began to realize that my mind is more analytic than it is creative. So as my four years were coming to an end, I decided it was time to shift focus once again, this time towards musicology. Using essays on “Call Me Maybe” and The Beach Boys written in my spare time, I applied to graduate programs.

I went to CUNY Hunter College to pursue this new field, finding it exciting and feeling more comfortable musically than I had in my entire life. I wrote my master’s thesis on One Direction, focusing on the intersection of gender and genre. During this time I also started a podcast called Pop Unmuted, with the goal of being a small piece of public musicology featuring intelligent discussions of contemporary pop music.

As one might expect, though, this phase of my life is coming to a close as well. I love academia and musicology, but I’m less sure about going back for a PhD than I was previously. I’ve become anxious about putting my voice out into the world on the podcast and have ceased its production. I’m now working for a music licensing company and occasionally playing bass on tour for a solo artist, and feeling content with being mostly directionless.

The fervor with which I grabbed my grandfather by the face to demand an education in music that very second is gone. My love for music is not, but I’m once again unsure of my place in it. I’m starting 2017 with no music plans. Maybe I’ll compose a musical. Maybe I’ll stop playing all together. In my cynical days I think that the truth is I’m just not good enough at any of it. In my hopeful days I think that this is exactly what makes music so exciting. It provides the opportunity for us to change, or for it to change with us, or for it to change us. I hope I never have to find out the real answer, and I can continue reinventing myself through music.

Scott Interrante – is a musician, sort of. He holds a B.M. in Composition and an M.A. in Musicology. He is the former host of the Pop Unmuted Podcast, former leader of the band The Tiny Elephants, and sometimes plays bass for Skylar Spence. He’s figuring it out. (@ScottInterrante)

Many thanks to Scott for sharing his story!

 

 

 

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

Kris is a friend of mine from the ’90s(!!). His journey starts at the home piano and leads to much bigger arenas.

MW: When was the first time that you can remember feeling the impulse to become a musician?

kp1Kris Pierce: From a very young age, my parents introduced me to the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, which my three-year-old self nicknamed, “The Boom-Boom Song.” I remember listening to it on repeat and was very surprised when our next door neighbor’s son, who was my age, had never heard of it before. When I was six years old, I don’t remember the moment exactly, but at some point I must have walked up to a piano and began hammering out my own melodies. My parents recognized a burgeoning talent because they signed me up for piano lessons very soon afterwards.

MW: What moment/person/piece/etc. served as the catalyst for your starting down the path of a practicing musician?

kp2KP: Throughout my ten years of lessons, I always included one or two pieces I had composed at my piano recitals. In 7th Grade, after having taken violin lessons for a few years, I joined the Tampa Bay Junior Orchestra and the Burns Junior High Orchestra, sitting in the first violin sections, and the seminal event of my life happened: I was playing one of my new melodies right before class on a piano and everyone immediately gravitated around me. I had found a hit; with them at least. So I convinced my teacher to let me borrow some books on scoring and I composed my first orchestral piece, Melodys Theme. We performed it at the final school recital of the year to a standing ovation. It was at that moment I decided I had to write music for the rest of my life.

MW: How did you proceed to become a musician?

kp3KP: In 1997 my best friend, Wendi Hughes, and I started a darkwave band called Mind Static (my stage name, Halo, began here). In my four-year residency with this project we landed a couple record deals, a movie placement, and performances on TV. In 2000 I began writing mostly electronic music under the moniker, Haunted Echo, which I still write as with thirteen commercial releases under my own record label, Halo Askew Entertainment (also created in 2000 but became a legitimate digital publishing company in 2016), Cleopatra Records, and Interscope Records. In 2004 I attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Phoenix, AZ, and from there have lent my music writing and technical audio skills to many celebrities including Whoopi Goldberg, Cyndi Lauper, Jennifer Lopez, and Marc Anthony, in addition to an ever increasing roster of friends and talent like Kim Cameron, Zef Noise (Peter Murphy), NativeLab, Rob DeLuca (Sebastian Bach), and DJ Freddy Bastone.

kp4Kris “Halo” Pierce is a graduate of the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, prolific music producer, and professional audio engineer based in NYC. Some notable projects have included heading up productions with Whoopi Goldberg, Cyndi Lauper, Julie Taymor’s smash off-broadway hit, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Steve Martin’s Bright Star at NYSAF. He owns and operates the digital publishing company, Halo Askew Entertainment.  

Many thanks to Kris for sharing his story. Here’s where you can connect with him:

www.HaloAskewEnt.com

Spotify: http://spoti.fi/2jSQph0

YouTube: HaloAskewEnt

Twitter: @HaloAskew

Facebook: @HaloAskewEnt

Soundcloud: HaloAskewEnt

Beatport: http://dj.beatport.com/haloaskew

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

Dean is a composer who I first met at an avant-garde concert series I used to help run in Brooklyn Heights. Here’s his story.

MW: When was the first time that you can remember feeling the impulse to become a musician?

Dean Rosenthal: Well, when I was probably two or three, there are pictures of me banging around on my Fisher-Price drum and toy instrument and clearly that made some kind of an impression. But it wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 that I first remember wanting to play an instrument and make music. So it was a self-motivating situation, I was never given music lessons or forced to take them (although we always had a console piano available for me to experiment on – and I’m sure I did that often).

The reason for my interest in making music came from a good place, although some classical people might consider it somewhat embarrassing. I was enamored of Eddie Van Halen’s (of the 70s and 80s rock band Van Halen) guitar playing on the album 1984 and it inspired me to learn how to play guitar. I asked my mother if we could pick one up and if I could take lessons and she said “yes”. That inspiration, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar chops, is what got me going. I have to add that I still consider him a great melodist in his guitar solos and a monster instrumentalist – up there with the best guitarists of any style of playing.

MW: How did you proceed to become a musician?

DR: As I took my weekly guitar lessons, we found I had a natural talent for it and moreover that I was intensely passionate about playing and improving and so on. After several years of playing other people’s songs and improving my technique, I began writing my own material. Almost all of it was instrumental, much in the vein of the rock/metal/guitar-god 80s and early 90s style. But I was also listening to The Beatles, My Bloody Valentine, grunge and a touch of New Wave.

I also started to write more of an experimental sort of music, letting my technique be overtaken by my creative and intuitive impulses, rather than writing structured songs. I knew next to nothing in terms of music theory because I was learning almost everything by tablature, but I had learned how to put together songs by teaching myself how to play hundreds of them. But for the more experimental or instrumental kind I wrote, I let my ear guide me.

I do still think that work I put in, hundreds if not thousands of hours—six or seven or more hours a day I can remember, most every day—is how I best developed the ear that I count on today as both a composer and a performer to let me know if what I am doing is good music.

In answering your question, I am finding that much like my conservatory studies at McGill and CalArts much later on, it was still the self-motivation that put me there. But ultimately I have still learned the most from studying scores, going to concerts, and playing my own music and the music of other musicians I admire and get with as a listener and a performer and a composer. I never studied composition or orchestration as a subject at a school or college or university, so in many ways I’m an autodidact. I don’t think of that proudly in particular, it’s just how it happened.

Today, my music is performed, installed, choreographed, and broadcast internationally, I’m an editor of a web magazine, and a contributing editor and contributor to Open Space Publications, and have published several articles and reviews in noted journals and magazines. My music is sometimes taught and written about by others (I would like to see more of that happen) and now, in 2017, I feel that I have accomplished some of what I set out to do. I haven’t released a recording or published, so that is hopefully in the future, as well, of course, as continuing to maintain and foster relationships in our community and with the public for my music. I’m very positive about where new/contemporary/experimental music has come to today.

Many thanks to Dean for sharing his story. Find out more at www.deanrosenthal.org and www.stonespiece.com.

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

Mrigendra’s story contains a great lightning-bolt (or, in this case, earthquake) revelatory moment. Read on:

Well let’s start by saying I hated playing and practicing…

My maternal grandfather was a violinist and used to perform for Indian movies as popular as Bollywood. At that time the Indian government allowed musicians to buy an instrument without paying any tax, so he found an old upright piano and brought it home. He taught himself then taught my maternal uncles and they taught me. But I hated to practice and play and it was big burden to learn as I loved sports and hanging out with my friends. There was an initial fascination was when I saw them perform, but once the real teaching started I hated it.

After a year everything changed. We were staying in my grandfather’s house because my mother and father were struggling with their marriage. I was 14 at the time. My father was a drunkard and his behavior was drastically changing. My grandfather mysteriously found an expat who had this old upright piano he wanted to sell. He bought it and installed it in a restaurant in Thamel (a very happening touristy neighborhood in Kathmandu with lots of restaurants) for me to perform on so I could earn some money for my dismantled family.

It was a bad experience for me; I knew literally 15 songs and to top it all the piano was bad. It sounded like a honky tonk. I played for 7 days those 15 songs then the guests slowly shifted from inside dining to outside dining. Since they couldn’t move any farther from me they complained I was playing the same songs for a month. So we moved the piano to another restaurant. Now it’s been three months and my repertoire has increased to 20 songs. Then another restaurant for 4 months. I used to start at 7pm and pray that no guests would show up so that they wouldn’t have to listen and I wouldn’t have to play. The evening would just go by. I would just play to pass the time and every minute passed painfully slowly.

The bad, old-sounding piano thrashed my confidence. I could hear people gasping at the bad sound. After I got fired from there my grandfather found an even bigger place, a five-star hotel for me to play in. He was tenacious. That three years with that piano was all I needed to completely lose my sense of musicality and my self confidence. I became robot-like, just playing to pass the time and earn something. I had no passion, no love for music and no excitement in playing it. It was just a lame and bland job I was doing because my parents said I had to. I had to play because I had to make a living.

After three years of this torture, my maternal uncle was leaving for the US; he had been playing in the Shangri-la hotel and wanted me to take his place. So another responsibility. To my utter amazement the piano in the hotel was in even worse shape than my previous piano, because the manager had been shifting the piano from the first floor to another floor with the help of ten people. So the sustain pedal was broken. The entire 5th octave had been dismantled.

One day I met a very generous young man who had a friend running a newly opened restaurant. It was very lush and high end. He asked me if I wanted to play there and I said yes. I thought maybe I would get the chance finally to play maybe a digital piano, which will have all the keys working. However, they didn’t have a piano and the owner didn’t want to buy one. So out of no choice I had to use the Yamaha keyboard I had bought with my earnings.

I could play a song now without thinking about a broken note. Slowly it started to unfold after all these years of playing that constantly playing on an un-tuned, broken piano had complete stripped me of my musicality. No one liked what I played.

The owner had a resort in another city. The moment I arrived at the resort I found that the seven-hour bus ride to the resort had resulted in a broken key on my keyboard and the display had completely gone. So once again I dealt with a broken note and display-free keyboard for two long years.

You might notice I am sounding a little like Bruce Almighty, because I blame all this on god only here he is half naked (you should check out some Hindu gods). I was asking for a break all these years from this misfortune. Because I was sick of playing all the time on broken pianos and keyboards.

Like old saying goes, you should be careful of what you ask because god works in mysterious ways. We had an earthquake. The restaurant building fell. The hotel guests fell to nil. Here I am, back at square one with no work and no money. Now I am Bruce Almighty without the power. I blamed everything on god for this mediocre life.

In the midst of these dark days I had a light of positivity when I was window-shopping in a mall. There was a cell phone shop and it had one big poster that said every problem comes with equal opportunity. I went back to the hotel. After a few minutes of playing in the empty lobby I thought since there is no one here I can practice new songs. I get extremely nervous to play a new song even after I practice. I feel I will make mistakes and out of fear I do.

After that day I played 5 new songs every day. I practiced everyday, all year. I get excited to play in the hotel. Even with the un-tuned notes I was learning new songs every day. Suddenly I have new songs to play, and in different genres. Pop, classical, and even jazz and Chinese songs. The restaurant that had been destroyed in the earthquake opened a new location and called me, to my surprise, asking me to play for the restaurant every week. The first time I played there, with all of my new repertoire, everyone complimented me and were happy with my playing even though it was the same no-display keyboard; and back in the hotel I got tips despite playing on a broken, bad piano. I was still playing the same piano and the same keyboard but the audience response had changed. (We have lot of Chinese visitors so I learned their songs and that’s where I get most of my tips, too.)

Even with the bad piano I get excited to play a new song now every day. I don’t know how exactly it happened, but now I have started to like playing. My passion and inspiration is coming through all the time now. I don’t know where I will go from here. Nothing has changed except the way that I look at the problem and see the opportunities.

God bless.

Bruce Almighty

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

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.