Posts Tagged ‘pianist’

A Language Of Its Own

Saturday, November 21st, 2015
Margaret - Back Then

Margaret – Back Then

I’ve had the rich opportunity to work with many great pros during my career and one of the best of them over 4 decades has been a superb musician and fantastic lady, Margaret Dorn. We first met when I cast her in a leading role in my rock opera, The Wedding Of Iphigenia, that played both in London at the Old Vic and in New York at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater.

In the years since, Margaret and I have worked on countless projects together. And in that time she became one of the top call studio singers and vocal arrangers in New York in a great career that spanned decades.

Here’s a short list of some of the many she worked with as a vocalist, an arranger and a keyboardist both in the studio and in concerts around the world: Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Jennifer Lopez, Carly Simon, Lionel Ritchie, Donald Fagen, Michael Bolton, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Barry Manilow, Jessica Simpson, Michael McDonald, Garth Brooks, The Chieftans, and Diana Ross.

So when it came to doing this Duets album, Margaret was the first woman we thought of. She has such an incredible ability to sing in just about any style, so I was having a hard time nailing down a song for her because there were simply too many directions we could go. So I kept waiting for just the right impulse.

Then, when we were close to finishing the CD, sadly I learned that she was not available to work with us. This was a crusher to both Julia and me. How could we do this album without Margaret?

One day I was searching through some old files trying to find some old tracks to a song and I came across the TV Tracks for my album, Thru Me, recorded about 15 years ago. (A TV Track is a mix of a song with everything on it except the lead vocal, used when the singer might need to sing without her band.)

Margaret had both done the vocal arrangements and sung with the other background singers on the album. I played through the TV Tracks one day and was blown away by all of her fine work on the CD. I was listening one day in the car driving and I got to one song called Playin’ The Fool and remembered that Margaret had come to me and asked me if she could handle the background voices on that song by herself. She said that she had an idea for an approach that might be interesting. I agreed instantly and when she did the session solo she basically just came in and sang emotional riffs in between the lead vocal lines on the song. She used no actual words – just sounds like “oh” and “ah” an “ooo”. It worked great.

So there I was driving in my car, 15 years later, listening to what she had done way back then, and I was so struck by the mastery and beauty of what she had done that day that I had to pull off the road and stop and listen to the song 3 more times. I couldn’t even remember what I had sung as the lead vocalist. I couldn’t even remember how the song went!

Later I played it for Julia and she had the same reaction to Margaret’s mastery.

Then Julia came up with a brilliant idea! “Why don’t you use this track on my Duets album and I’ll sing along with Margaret?” I’ll have to admit that at first I was not too enthusiastic about the idea. Who wants to hear a song with a couple of women singing “ooo” and “ah” throughout?

Several days later I was out taking my walk and thinking how I could satisfy Julia’s insistence, and the thought just came to me that Margaret simply blew me away with pure emotion and no words. There is so much music in that woman that she doesn’t even need words to touch the soul.

The phrase, “Music is a language of it’s own” came to mind, and I knew I had a starting point. I rushed home and dove into the finished track – finished 15 years earlier. It was good that I did not remember so well the original song that I wrote because I wrote a completely different song to this already finished track. I no longer had the multi-track files of the original song, so I had to work only the finished mix of the TV Track, but the ideas came easily. Margaret always led the inspiration.

Julia was thrilled … and then thrilled me with her gorgeous performance. It certainly is one of my favs on the album.

Margaret - Today

Margaret – Today

A Language Of Its Own

Music and Lyrics by Peter Link










[Margaret – 4 bars]

So many languages

So many tongues

So many people tryin’

To touch each other’s lives

And missin’ just the words to say

But music has a language of its own

And everybody hears it

And everybody understands

[Margaret – 4 bars]

So may I introduce you

To my ol’ friend Margaret

[Margaret – 2 bars]

This lady can sing sing to the world

[Margaret – 2 bars]

Sing it Margaret

[Margaret – 4 bars]


She doesn’t need words

To get right down to your soul

She doesn’t need language

To pierce the heart


Cuz the universal language of music

Is a language of its own

And everybody knows what you’re sayin’

And everybody knows how you feel

So sing to us of love Miss Margaret

[Margaret – 6 bars]

Oh yeah ee

Yeah ee yeah

Yeah ee yeah

Yeah ee yeah ee yeah

[Margaret – 3 bars]

Oh oooo yeah

[Margaret – 2 bars]


Yes the universal language of music

Is a language of its own

And everybody knows what you’re sayin’

And everybody knows how you feel


Let’s talk.

[Margaret (Interlude 6) – 4 bars]


[Margaret – 1 bar]

[Julia answer]

[Margaret – 2 bars]

Do dah do dah do dah do

Dah ee yah ee yah ee yah ee do dah day

[Trumpet solo – 2 bars]

Now give it just that classical touch

That makes me love ya’ so much

And brings the tears to my eyes

[Margaret (Soprano Solo – 4 bars]

Sing it to the world now, Margaret

[Margaret (Wah ooo) – 6 bars]











But the language of music

[Margaret – 2 bars]

It really gets ya’ goin’

[Margaret – 2 bars]

It really gets ya’ goin’

[Margaret – 2 bars]

Yes the universal language of music

Is a language of its own

Yes it do

Ooo ooo ooo

[Trumpet solo]




Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

imagesBrooklyn, New York-born pianist and composer Ron Di Salvio is a man of many talents. An accomplished jazz and classical pianist, as well as a prolific composer, Ron has recorded six albums that encompass both genres. He teaches jazz piano, improvisation, theory and composition at Kalamazoo College, and is also Music Director of the United Methodist Church in Marshall, Michigan. Ron has designed and built three homes in Michigan since 1970. He has five daughters, all of whom have graduated college, with two teaching music, and five grandchildren. He is President of Trojan Heat Treat Inc., a position he has held for 35 years.

Ron is getting ready to release his 7th CD Songs for Ten Jazz Legends” featuring NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb. This work of original lyrics and music pays tribute to musicians who have been an inspiration to him. He is author of the Deltadiatonics Method, an outcome of the Baroque figured bass, Jazz notation and the Nashville Number Systems. Ron has developed a succinct universal set of symbols readily accessible to all musicians, composers, improvisers and theorists which simplifies complex harmonic structures and theoretical phenomena.

Ron, you’ve been described as a 21st century “Renaissance man”—what does that mean to you?

Well it was my long departed mother-in-law Betty Petredean who was the first to say that about me. I have a joy and love of life that manifests in all I do. I do many things well and I do them with focus and depth. Whether it’s running a business of fifty co-workers, designing and physically constructing things, cooking gourmet dishes, organic gardening, grinding wheat berries and making bread, composing music, writing poetry, raising children, or teaching at the College, my life flows as one continual stream of events with a lot of improvisation and changes along the way.721_My_Five_Daughters

You started composing and arranging at age fourteen. What about before that? When did your interest in music begin? Do you come from a musical family?

I started accordion lesson at age 11, thanks to my Aunt Anna who gave me her deceased brothers accordion and paid for my music lessons. My Dad played bass and sax in a big dance band in the neighborhood. When I was fourteen I had my first trio and he taught me how to arrange music for the bass and guitar. I also had early training at the Church of the Brethren where the organist, a fellow accordionist, taught me how to play the organ and eventually sub for him.

Pianist Lennie Tristano is one of my personal favorites—you were sixteen when you studied with him. What was that like?

Lennie was blind from birth, you know, so that took a little adjusting for me at the first lesson. I remember there were two grand pianos situated in a very large room filled with mysterious chaotic crayon murals on the lower parts of the walls. The lesson was structured into three parts. The very first thing Tristano did, after I played “What is this Thing Called Love” for him, was to hand me a pad and a pencil. He said write down these numbers: 1,3,5-1,3,5,7-1,3,5,b7-1,b3,5-1,b3,5,b7-1,3,#5,7-1,3,5,7,9-1,3,6,9-1,b3,6,9. This went on for quite some time and by the end of the dictation my head was spinning and my hand was cramped up. He then instructed me that these chord voicings were to be played with the left hand and I needed to learn them in all twelve keys. Next he gave me scales and modes, also dictated with numerical dictation, which employed very unorthodox fingerings. The exercises were to be played at an excruciatingly slow tempo, hands separately and in twelve keys. Lastly I was to bring in a jazz record of my choice and sing (scat) whatever instrumental solo I wanted from that record. Lennie laid down the law at the very first lesson: he told me that he would only listen to one key of chord voicings that he would randomly pick. If I didn’t know them, the lesson would be ended. Fortunately I never had that happen.

You had some success in New York City in the 60s—what made you leave?

The drug-jazz scene was very prevalent in the late 60’s and I was swept up with all of it, I was an amphetamine-hashish addict for two years. I had a steady gig with my trio at the newly formed Top of the Gate, which was on the upper floor of the then famous Village Gate. We were playing opposite the Dave Pike Trio. During this time we got to play with some jazz greats including Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, Enrico Rava and Sonny Rollins to name a few. When my best friend and bassist Lester overdosed on heroine, it was a huge wakeup call for me. I transitioned out of drugs and into Yoga, health foods and classical music all of which helped to save my life. It was during this time of healing that I met Sandy at the Caldron, a macrobiotic restaurant in the East Village, and a week later we married. We wound up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I was organist for St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Tell me about the home you built in Michigan and the organic food and bakery shop you opened.

We left New York in 1969 in a self-converted VW bus which contained all our belongings and headed across the United States in search of the perfect place to settle down. We were your basic hippie-flower-children of the day wandering our big amazing America. It was after our bus was stolen in San Francisco that we headed to Marquette to stay with Sandy’s parents and look for some property to build a house. In 1970, with a $10,000 loan from the bank, we bought 160 acres of wilderness south of Harvey, and I built a 20’X24’ “A” frame Cedar-Redwood home with only hand tools. We lived for years without running water or electricity, heating the house only with wood. We raised two daughters, Shanti and Aria, chickens, milk goats and had a few horses and ponies. Since it was hard to get natural grains and beans at that time we decided to open a health food store and bakery called “Old Fashioned Foods” in an old garage on Magnetic Street. After two years we took on a partner and a new location at a small shopping mall, changing the name to “Wintergreen Foods.” I ground fresh flour from wheat berries and kneaded the bread by hand. The smell of cookies and granola made with butter, cinnamon and Michigan maple syrup gave the place an amazing aroma. I still grind and make bread and granola to this day.Ron

You play both jazz and classical music very well. Which one of those genres do you feel is closer to your heart, or are they both equal?

From my heart springs forth melody and harmony—sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes it’s a popular song, sometimes it’s dolce, sometimes it furioso, sometimes it’s a very long composition, other times it’s a short 16-measure gem, sometimes I feel I have captured the essence of Broadway in a piece and other times the sound of a holy hymn. Jazz always comes out when I feel that way, and lately it’s art songs that fill my day.

One of the main things that sets jazz apart from classical music is improvisation. I’ve heard some jazz musicians say that improvising is a spiritual experience. What do you think?

This is a big question that I am going answer in a small way: All true art comes from the spirit.

You’re a really prolific composer and player. I’m amazed at how much you’ve accomplished, along with running your own business and raising a family. What’s your secret?

An opening lyric from a James Taylor song goes “The Secret of Life is enjoying the passage of time.” I try to be in the moment as much possible, I don’t dwell in the past and I try not to dream of the future. I just try to focus on the here and now. I work very hard at whatever I am doing and I do it in a focused way.

Tell me about your latest project, “Songs for Ten Jazz Legends”. Who are the ten legends?

This is a project that was an outcome of a live concert that I presented with Jimmy Cobb in 2006. The venue was the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. We performed all the music from my “Essence of Green, A Tribute to Kind of Blue,” for jazz sextet. I included two numbers that featured a vocal quartet at the last concert of the series. In the months that followed I was so inspired by the sound of the vocal group with the sextet that I began to compose both lyrics and music for “Songs for Ten Jazz Legends.” This will be released this fall on the Blujazz Label.

The Legends and song titles are as follows:

  1. Oscar PetersonOscar-nice-inicity
  2. Dave BrubeckDave’s Brew
  3. Sonny RollinsSunny Side Up
  4. Shirley HornA Thousand Songs
  5. Charles MingusMingustino
  6. Bud PowellBud’s Blossom
  7. Duke Ellington-Tonight Mood Indigo
  8. Gerry Mulligan-Mulligan’s Stew
  9. Miles DavisMellifluous
  • Chick CoreaChicklet

Do you have any advice to give to young musicians?

Set a routine and create a ritual for practice, composing and arranging, make it a daily event.

Try to play and write in twelve keys with focus on your weak keys.

Study music theory.

Listen to the legends of all genres.

Any future projects on the drawing board you’d like to mention?

I am working on setting the poems of Madeleine L’Engle from the “Ordering of Love” for voice and piano.

To listen to Ron’s music and buy his albums:

To listen to Ron’s compositions and buy his sheet music:

Ron’s website:































Interview with Rebecca Minor

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

ChasingLight_197pxSinger/pianist/composer Rebecca Minor has recently released her first CD, Chasing Light, an engaging collection of five original songs that explore her deepest feelings and personal life experiences. Although her background is in musical theater, opera, and singing at concerts in churches, Rebecca has taken a brave and successful leap into the world of pop music. Here she talks about her new album and her career.

Rebecca, tell me a little about how you first became interested in music…do you come from a musical family?

I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in music. My mom says I was humming before I was talking. My older sister was taking piano lessons, and one day I climbed onto the bench of our upright piano and started playing melodies I had heard. At age 6 I began taking lessons myself. Everyone in my family enjoys music, but I am the first to pursue it 1

You graduated in performance from Ithaca College…what was your dream at that time?

I had studied opera and classical repertoire at both Principia College, where I studied for 2 years, and at Ithaca College, where I got my degree in voice performance. At the time the dream was to sing in operas, in concerts, to continue soloing in churches, and perhaps sing the role of Christine in The Phantom of The Opera on Broadway some day.

You have sung in operas, musical theater, concerts, in shows and at churches. Do you have a preference for any of these, and has it changed over the years?

It seems at different stages throughout my life I was passionate about each of those. During childhood I was 100% into music theater. In college I was all about opera. After college, in the midst of pursuing both of those industries, I fell in love with songwriting. I’m very happy where I am at this point: writing and performing sacred music at The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, and for Watchfire Music, and also writing and performing mainstream pop music. I feel blessed to be on a journey that already feels so good, and has the potential to lead to any number of possibilities and opportunities._MG_6066

You’re also a pianist. In addition to reading music, have you studied harmony and composition?

Yes, throughout my piano lessons and in my musical studies through college I learned music theory, harmony, sight singing. However, I never studied composition, and often wonder what my music would be like today had I gone through a composition program. I’ve had the invaluable benefit of being coached on songwriting and lyric writing by Peter Link, and studying it further isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

And you’re a composer. Tell me about the inspirations for the songs in your debut CD, Chasing Light.

The songs on Chasing Light were born from my own experience over the past 10 years of my life, mostly while living in NYC. There is a clear issue being grappled with in each song, and what has been so remarkable about completing and releasing the album is that I look back and realize that each of those issues or questions has been answered. I struggled with the idea of sharing such personal and vulnerable material, but the feedback I’ve received over the years is that many feel inspired by the questions I’ve sought answers to, or simply feel a kinship with the situations I describe, so that’s why I chose to go forward with it. I would hope the spiritual foundation from which I seek to live my life is apparent in the songs, despite them being of a more human, personal nature.

How would you describe the style of your CD? Who are some of your influences in pop music?

I am still learning about musical classification and branding, but basically I describe the music as piano driven pop music. Some influences are the great piano rock music of Elton John, the classic Beatles, Van Morrison, and also Sara Bareilles, Sara McLaughlin, John Mayer, and on and on.

Did your background in sacred and inspirational music influence the music on your CD?

I wouldn’t discount that the sacred solo music I’ve sung over the years has had some influence on my writing, but definitely the ideas and values of Christian Science I’ve studied my whole life have influenced this CD. I like to think that Chasing Light represents much of what I was working through before I “got it”—you know, before the light broke into what is now a new chapter in my life. Singing at TMC, moving out of NYC, finding a truly loving partnership, and a deeper sense of spirituality are some “answers” to the questions I’ve asked in these songs.

At this point in your life, what direction would you like to pursue with your music?

I’d like to continue along this vein of writing and performing sacred music, continuing to develop within my soloist position at The Mother Church, and also working on mainstream music of all styles with other writers. This year I plan to focus on collaboration, and exploring co-writing. Nashville is a community I plan on exploring for co-writing. I can’t wait!

Aside from singing, playing, and writing music, what do you like to do in your free time?

I’ve recently begun teaching voice and piano, and I find working with children enriching, so this is a particularly fun challenge. I also love traveling, meeting new people wherever I go, playing around with friends, going to the beach, and spending time with my beloved family, who are pretty spread out over the US. There is never a dull moment.

If you could give any advice to young, aspiring singers, what would it be?

Advice would be to not limit yourself in any way! Study with as many people as you can, learn the “rules,” but don’t lose your unique vision. Take chances, and believe in what you do! Something that has always been helpful to me is asking WHY I’m doing what I’m doing. If you’re clear on that, and it’s good, you can’t go wrong!

You can read more about Rebecca, as well as listen to samples of her songs and buy her CD at:

You can see samples of and buy Rebecca’s sheet music here:































Interview with pianist Deborah Offenhauser

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

D. OffenhauserIt would be hard to find anyone as dynamic as pianist Deborah Offenhauser—she’s a performer and teacher who has done everything from Broadway shows to playing at resorts to accompanying famous groups like The Four Lads, The Moody Blues and the Coasters. And she does it all with great joie de vivre and humor. Here’s our interview with Deb, as her friends call her:

Tell me about your earliest beginnings. When did you first start playing the piano?

I started piano lessons around age 6. My first piano teacher gave lessons in our home to my older brothers. I was too young to take lessons then, or so the teacher thought. But I begged brother “Timmie” to teach me whatever he learned that week. Once when Mrs. Fisher came inside the house, she said, “Oh, that’s so sweet. Timmie is practicing his piano before his lesson.” But it was me instead, so she relented and gave me piano lessons. Meanwhile, my Dad noticed that friends of mine that took from another teacher were playing more musically, so he switched me to Mrs. Edith Buckhalter. She auditioned me at the tender age of 7, and at first refused to take me, because my fingers weren’t curved and I already had many bad habits. Fortunately, she relented, and so began my proper musical education.

Tell me about your early piano studies. Did you enjoy them?

Mrs. Buckhalter had one commandment: “Only the classics shalt thou play.” I enjoyed everything I was given….theory, scales, chord progressions, early Hanon studies, then Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. But Dad would sneak home ragtime and movie themes that HE wanted to hear, so actually, I had a rather eclectic education in that sense! My CD “Dizzy Fingers” is dedicated to my dad, because it has such fun music that he always liked to hear me play, like “12th Street Rag” and “In the Mood,” which I use in my Show Concerts.

Have you ever studied another instrument or sung?

Oh, boy, you just do NOT want to hear me sing! Even the cat runs away if I sing in the shower! However, I did enjoy playing the violin during my school years. Later, in college, I turned that into “fiddle” playing, and also taught myself the 5-string banjo, guitar and mandolin.

You’re certainly enjoying a wide-ranging career. How did your musical tastes become so eclectic?

As I mentioned, I had a definite grounding in the classics, attending symphonies at a young age, and because of also playing violin, I was in youth symphonies. But simple little things, like your dad offering to do your turn at washing dishes in exchange for playing George Shearing and Peter Nero transcriptions helped broaden my tastes. Then, of course, you find out somewhere in your early teens about those novel creatures called “boys.” They weren’t impressed with my Chopin waltzes, but DID enjoy my ragtime, Carol King, and other rock band music. Ya gotta please your audience!

Tell me about your first album, “Nashville Bound.”

My boyfriend from years ago was a guitar aficionado, and one of his idols was “Little” Jimmy Dempsey, who was a Nashville sessions player, and was the guitarist in film scores such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” & “Harper Valley P.T.A.” When Jimmy heard some of my music (a jazz trio recording), he called on the phone and said, in his wonderful Kentucky accent, “Darlin’, if you ever want to make a country record, I’ll produce it for you.” Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse! So off I went to record 10 classic country hits in the Everly Brothers studio, complete with a Nashville backing band. I got some connections to radio stations in America and in 14 European countries, and this was in the days when there were individually owned stations, and no internet or satellite radio existed.

Deb at age six

Deb at age six

You’re also a teacher. What do you like best about teaching?

Passing on knowledge about a subject dear to my heart (expressing Soul through music) brings great joy to me. I love to see shiny young faces that are eager to learn how to make music by reading notes, clapping rhythms, improvising and composing. It takes great patience and great love, for both the child and the music.

What do you find most challenging about it?

The challenging part is mostly in tailoring the music lessons to the child’s needs. It’s not enough to keep showing a concept the same way if the student is just not getting it. You have to listen for a new way to express the concept, while knowing that each child CAN understand and apply what you’re showing them. However, my greatest challenge is when I have a music student that just doesn’t want to be there—period. It’s infrequent, but it can be a painful experience on both sides of the piano bench! I always look for the good in each student, and try to bring that out, even if music isn’t the predominant vehicle. Sometimes I am a therapist, counselor and advisor, as students of all ages may need a listening ear that particular half hour of time.

I understand that you teach your students from pieces you’ve composed yourself? Tell me about that.

While I employ wonderful methodology books by several publishers, I find that utilizing my own compositions on occasion can enhance the musical experience. If a particular student is struggling with a rhythm consistently, the student can really master the concept if you’ve composed something just for them. Often I utilize elements from that child’s life (their dog’s name; what grade they’re in) and create a piece that motivates them to practice something much harder than they would have otherwise.  But many times an idea just comes to me, and I go from there, hence pieces like “Party Monster,” which has lyrics dealing with “goo and slime” and other monster-like niceties!

What other teaching methods do you use? Do you teach various styles, including playing by ear?

The teaching methodology books I use for children have an accompanying CD, so the children learn their pieces, and then must play along correctly with the CD’s slower, and then “performance” tempo versions. This helps piano students learn to play as an ensemble, as some of the CD tracks might have an accompanying string quartet, or a jazz band, along with hearing their piano part being played. Because practicing piano can be a lonely vigil, having these accompanying tracks makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves. My “Viva Mexico” collection, geared for 1st and 2nd year students, has a piano accompaniment that makes the “single note” student parts just sparkle. As far as teaching various styles, my main focus is learning “the basics,” which includes the theory behind what the students are playing, along with learning to read notes and rhythms correctly. But, children do learn in their first lessons to play by ear, to transpose, and even to compose!

How about playing in hotels and resorts…do you ever run into people who don’t listen, talk loudly when you’re playing, or blow smoke in your face? If so, does it bother you, and how do you handle it?

“Hey!! People never listen, always talk loudly and blow smoke in your face in hotels and resorts! They rarely come to hear ME play!” I always have to laugh with a question like this, because as a child, I was always trotted out at bridge club parties to “play something.” Because the piano was in another room, I was partially hidden, which made me more comfortable. But I requested that all of the adults “have to talk while I’m playing” or I wouldn’t play for them. I guess my performance anxiety at that young age was comforted by this ploy. That thinking as an adult has made me totally comfortable playing in resorts and hotels, which I’ve done across the country. In high school, I got a job one summer playing Friday nights for 3 hours at a country club. I was ecstatic, because I was being paid $5 an hour, and babysitting only paid 75 cents an hour at that time. Wow…..playing piano for big money? Count me IN!! I was allowed to bring my piano lamp and play from the music (everything my dad had ever bought for me to play for HIM while washing dishes). But one evening came a big electric storm and BOOM—the lights went out in the middle of a piece! Fortunately, I remembered what key I was playing in and put a cadence in so I could stop playing. I didn’t know what to do next, but I realized I needed to memorize some music! Later, I knew I needed to be able to improvise and took a year of jazz lessons in my 20’s. That really opened up doors in my thinking and career.

Early in my playing career, I started out by getting bar gigs (I grew up in a blue collar GM town in Michigan….lots of factories and lots of bars). Smoke was part of the territory, and it didn’t take me long to get out of that atmosphere. I remember thanking God for the opportunity to perform my music, but if my experience was to be in bars with smoke, and having to fend off tipsy patrons, thank you, I’ll just do something else with my life.  I was shortly thereafter lifted from the smoky bar scene, and landed a wonderful job playing in a brand new Hyatt hotel with a gorgeous open air atrium. No smoke, better pay, and I worked during the daytime!

The scariest thing that happened was when I was playing with a trio for New Year’s Eve at the Naples Ritz Carlton in Florida. A lady who had obviously had several drinks already leaned over to request something and ended up slamming the piano lid right down on my hands while I was playing!  Of course, my only option was to fake a smile and go “ouch,” while the lady continued her requests, blithely unaware of what she’d done. I decided I could be really angry with her and nurse my hands throughout the evening with continuing pain OR I could toss it off my plate and continue playing, knowing that I could “pray and play and come out OK.” Which is what happened. No after effects. Only a story to tell years later.  Of course, there are funny things that happen along the way, like when clients come up to request something. You play it for them in the next 5 minutes or so. They return 15 minutes later and ask why you haven’t played their request. Or, along the way, a different client comes up to request the very song you just played 10 minutes earlier. These were all great lessons in public relations!

Another interesting story is when I was playing classical music at the Ritz for tea time. A handsome gentleman in a suit walked up very slowly to the piano and extended his hand, so I guess he expected me to shake it, which I did (while continuing to play left-handed whatever Mozart piece I was doing). I added in a quick cadence and chatted with him, thinking he was from the local population, and was on an outing for the day.  After my shift, the wait staff was all in a buzz—had I seen Muhammed Ali? Hoot, hoot! I hadn’t recognized him while I was focusing on Mozart! I’m grateful to say that I was told that he had sat and listened to my music for over an hour, and returned to do the same the next day.

It must have been fun to play behind groups like The Four Lads, The Moody Blues and the Coasters. Any special stories about that?

It’s always fun and always a learning experience to back big name artists. As I type, I’m in the middle of a month long tour backing a wonderful vocalist, formerly with The Lettermen. When he’s not on cruise ships, he does the occasional “land tour.” For this tour, I get to hear his wonderful stories of traveling around the world with The Lettermen, plus cruise ship adventure stories. And, there are always technical things to learn along the way, like combining live musicians with “click tracks” and so forth. While backing The Moody Blues (I was part of a 60 piece orchestra), I had fun pretending that the 12,000 people in the arena were cheering for ME. What a grin! Another story concerns a wonderful vocal group (to remain unnamed!) that showed up without any music or charts. They said, “Oh, you know our music.” Well, we mostly did, or could fake it, but there were a few songs we just weren’t sure of. The group also didn’t know what keys they sang in, so the rehearsal was quite something. They hadn’t even typed up a set list for the band, so I finally located some copy paper and extra pencils for the band. We jotted down the songs and the keys. It ended up being a fun night, but that also included a 30 minute delay, because the headliners had decided to drive to their hotel after the sound check and rehearsal and return to the performance venue during rush hour, not allowing for the heavy traffic. Sigh…

How about playing for Broadway shows—have you ever found the repetition boring?

Playing for Broadway Shows…..yes, it definitely CAN lure you into the boredom side of things. But, one must always look on every performance as a unique expression for that particular audience. I always look for something new in the music, whether it’s in my part or the rest of the orchestra’s. Sometimes a particular song gives you goosebumps, because everyone from the stage into the pit is really “in sync” and feeling their parts. It’s almost a religious experience when that happens!

How do you approach an arrangement for a song…let’s say a well-known one from the Great American Songbook that just about everyone knows…what do you do to help give it a new spin or make it stand out?

With well-covered melodies, it’s nice to treat them with unusual keys, which, for a pianist, forces you to think differently, because your hands have to move “outside the box” into less familiar territory. Often, while transposing a song or piece, I’ll make mistakes that I then decide I like rather well. So, I can incorporate them into my arrangement and build on them. Changing the harmonies here and there brighten up a melody. Same with the rhythm being tweaked a bit, and of course, the melody straying a little here, a little there. I love taking familiar hymns and jazzing them up a bit. I’ve done that when I’ve been playing in public, and have church friends coming to listen to me. It’s my way to checking to see if they’re actually paying attention to my piano playing!

On a more serious note, I have to say I really enjoyed taking “Londonderry Air” (from my “Sweetest Sounds” CD) and treating it differently from the hymn version I grew up with. The average person thinks I’m playing a version of “O Danny Boy,” but for me, I am singing the hymn while I play, and being really uplifted. You never know who’s going to be inspired by your music. My piece used on the ABC Hit TV Show “Desperate Housewives” (“Billy Boy,” also from my “Sweetest Sounds” CD) was written for, guess what, a guy named Bill from Chicago. To me, it’ll always be a love song, but for TV, it can have many other uses. My “Butterflies” tune (on my “Butterflies” CD) was written with nature in mind, lilting and uplifting the thought. The Weather Channel ended up using it for their spring time weather forecast one day. What fun!

What have been your most and least enjoyable gigs?

Let me start with….. The least favorite now are the ones where I have to sit in the full desert sun dressed in black, hauling my equipment in 100+ degree heat, playing “Here Comes The Bride.” I’ve found that many brides are NOT rational creatures when planning outdoor weddings! But all of my professional level gigs are enjoyable, because usually I’m getting at least 2 out of my 3 requirements for doing gigs: “Good Hang, Good Music, Good Bread.”

My most meaningful, and important gig is as organist for my weekly Sunday morning church service. No matter how late I am playing the night before, I know I have to be “firing on all burners” for Sunday morning, because I have to prepare 10 minutes of classical organ preludes, 3 minutes of a classical offertory, 5 minutes of a classical postlude, plus rehearse a solo with the vocalist that morning. The pay doesn’t compare to what I earn doing pop music at big venues, but “the hang” is THE BEST and the music is always meant to inspire and heal those that attend the service. As with any occupation with those motivations in mind, I seem to be the one most blessed, for which I am very thankful.

What are you plans for the future?

My future plans include getting into a showcase in Nashville with a big agency, so that my Show Concert, already booked here in my region of the country, can get into other Performing Arts Centers across the country. I also have on my Bucket List getting onto a cruise ship with my act.  But, meanwhile, I will continue to compose sacred vocal solos for the church, teach piano, and compose more educational books, like the one I’m currently revising for teaching “Older Beginner” piano students. Always something new to do, and I’m just glad Life is eternal, because I’m going to need every minute of it to express all of the wonderful things coming into my experience each day! Could I ask for a few clones, though, to help me out? So much to do…

Here’s Deborah’s Watchfire Music page:





Steinway Hall – Part 2

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Last night’s posting (Steinway Hall – Part 1) about the gifted Laura Garritson got me to thinking. I suppose if you haven’t read that one yet, you might go there first. It got me to thinking about greatness in performance.

npstsignAs a young man I came to New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. There I spent two intense years under the tutelage of world-renowned teacher, Sanford Meisner.

There I learned to act, but interestingly enough, I’ve always liked to say that it was there that I learned more about composing music than anywhere else. At an acting school. Had I ended up being a sculptor, I really believe that this acting school would still have been my high point in study.

It was there that I learned what makes an artist tick – an understanding of the reality of doing. That acting is reacting. To act before you think. That there is no indicating in the reality of doing.

It was there that I found my inner sense of emotion and experimented with and finally figured out how to bring myself to my art – whatever the medium. It’s something I’ve thought about and taught all these years since my student days.


Steinway Hall – Part 1

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

garritsonI went to a classical music concert at Steinway Hall here in NYC the other night. It was presented by my alma mater, Principia College. The whole evening was extremely well done and the talent fierce. Students, faculty and alumni performed a variety of music – all inspired. While the others were all excellent, one alumna totally blew me away.

Laura Garritson, pianist, is some performer. Probably in her mid to late 20s, she is not only a wonderful pianist, but also an accomplished violinist.  She played both instruments in this concert and, for my money, dominated the evening.

Later on, reflecting back, I asked myself why. Besides her technical excellence, she played with a total deep commitment to the passions of the music. Her strength was evident in the way she stood, the way she sat, the way she walked on stage. At one point she turned pages for another pianist. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her focus at turning the pages was that complete. Her commitment to even that job was total.


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