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Interview with David Hicken, April 2008
Interview with David Hicken, image 1
David Hicken recently burst onto the solo piano scene with an incredibly beautiful trilogy of CDs of original music. Hicken is an overnight sensation, and it has taken only about twenty years to get there! It is rare that an artist will have two CDs on my list of Favorite CDs for any year, but Hicken’s “Goddess” and “Angels” both made the list for 2007 (“Faeries” hasn’t been released yet, or it would have been on there, too!). I have had the privilege and pleasure of editing the piano songbooks for “Angels” and “Faeries,” and know first-hand what a pleasure it is to play Hicken’s music. He has had a very interesting life thus far, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know him and his music.

Born in Wellington, England, David Hicken spent most of his childhood in a quaint little village called Tettenhall in central England. Known as “the black country” because coal miners’ faces were always black with soot, the village had a pub, a church that was more than a thousand years old, and a park that was the site of a fierce battle between the Saxons and the Normans. David has an older brother who showed early promise as a guitarist and an older sister who was a talented singer. They both quit music around the age of sixteen when they discovered the local discotheque. Hicken’s mother was the vice-principal of a very large school near the family’s home. She was also a piano teacher and taught many students every evening after school. Hicken’s father was trained as a blacksmith and made part of the gates that surround Buckingham Palace. He was also a very talented carpenter who spent a lot of time working in that trade. He had a fine tenor voice and although he didn’t sing professionally, he was featured in local newspapers as well as on local radio.

KP: How old were you when you started piano lessons, and how long did you take lessons?

Hicken: I had my first piano lesson from my mother at the age of three. I continued with her until I was twelve and then moved on to other teachers until I was in college.

KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teachers?

Hicken: Not really, but it was mostly due to a lack of time. I was constantly preparing for music theory and piano examinations, and with all of the scales, aural tests, Hanon and Czerny exercises, as well as the pieces that needed to be learned, there was no time. When I was sixteen, I attended a masterclass given by a famous Hungarian organist, and was asked to improvise a five-part tarantella. I looked at him dumbfounded and then realized that I should probably learn to improvise.

KP: How did you go about that?

Hicken: I wasn’t particularly good at improvising when I started (at the age of eighteen). I felt that my classical training had inhibited me because I was afraid of the “unknown” and was only comfortable with printed music in front of me. I improvised small sections of pieces and recorded them as I refined them. Then I’d improvise another section. Sometimes I was unable to perform the finished piece because of the way I had assembled it, so then I had to go back and relearn the whole thing.

KP: Do you play other instruments?

Hicken: Yes, I play the organ, which I have always considered to be my primary instrument, and I played the clarinet for eleven years. I haven’t played the clarinet for a long time, but I feel that I could pick it up again without too much of a problem.

KP: How old were you when you wrote your first song?

Hicken: When I was eighteen, I sequenced a Mendelssohn organ sonata and a Bach trio sonata into a synthesizer. I received favorable comments from all who heard it. I then decided to try my hand at composing, and the first piece that I wrote was called “Raindance.” It was on my first CD and is all electronic.

KP: When did you start playing professionally?

Hicken: I played the organ for a wedding at the age of twelve and started working steadily in churches after that. My first public solo recital was on my sixteenth birthday. I started training choirs and playing the organ regularly from the age of eighteen onwards. That’s also when I started teaching piano lessons.

KP: Were you a music major in college?

Hicken: Yes, I was an organ major, but looking back, I feel that I should have chosen composition instead.

KP: When did you come to the US?

Hicken: I came to the US at the age of seventeen to attend Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. It was one of the most exciting years of my life because it was so different from the life I was used to in England.

KP: Was all of your musical training in classical music?

Hicken: Yes, very much so. I worked with Patrick Moraz for a while (of Yes and Moody Blues fame), and he taught me a lot about rock, jazz, and blues, but I had to figure out a lot by myself regarding anything that was not classical.

Interview with David Hicken, image 2
KP: How many CDs have you recorded?

Hicken: Seven so far. The first was “The Final Toccata,” which was released by President Records in 1990. The second, “The Shadow of Youth,” was released by Prestige Records in 1993. Both of those CDs were a blend of classical and new age music which was all produced using Korg keyboards and samplers. In 1998, I recorded two CDs of classical organ music for Laserlight Records, “Symphony Gothique” and “A Christmas Pastorale.” My trilogy of piano CDs - “Goddess,” “Angels,” and “Faeries,” was recorded at my studio in Hawaii during the summer of 2007.

KP: Is the music for Goddess/Angels/Faeries the first music you’ve written for solo piano?

Hicken: Yes. Before this, I always composed using synthesizers. I love technology and always wanted the latest and greatest equipment, but this became a hinderance to my creativity. I decided to work with just one sound for a change and found that composing for solo piano was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

KP: Which came first, the concept for the trilogy or the music?

Hicken: The concept for “Goddess” came first and then the music literally wrote itself. This was new for me because in the past I had a hard time coming up with titles. This time, I came up with the concept and the names and then wrote the music to match. It was surprisingly very easy to do. I researched a specific goddess/angel/faerie and then wrote the music that came to me. Even though the music for warrior goddesses such as Ishtar and Pele is very mellow and relaxing rather than fast and furious, I decided to keep it that way because I wanted to focus on the positive. I’m sure that Ishtar’s fury was only one part of her being and she must have had a softer side, which is reflected in the piece.

KP: How long did you work on the music for the trilogy?

Hicken: “Goddess” and “Faeries” were composed and recorded during a period of only two months. “Angels” was composed earlier and took about eight months to complete.

KP: How did you find the artist who did your cover artwork? It’s amazing stuff!

Hicken: My mother had a book by Doreen Virtue, who writes about angels. The cover of her book featured artwork by Howard David Johnson that I thought was exquisite. Upon visiting his website, I just knew that I had to use his artwork, which is now on all three of my CDs. I may use his work again in the future.

KP: What’s next?

Hicken: I’m currently working on another piano CD entitled “Lovers,” which features pieces named after history’s great lovers such as Tristan and Isolde, Pelleas and Mellisande, etc. Needless to say, it’s a very romantic album. I’m also developing ideas for a piano concerto and a requiem.

KP: What made you stop teaching piano to teach scuba diving?

Hicken: When I moved to California, I became highly sought after as a piano teacher and had more than sixty students per week. These were all one-hour lessons AND I travelled to their homes. This made for very long days, seven days per week, and I completely burned out. I needed a break and decided to pursue scuba diving, which was my other passion at the time.

KP: Where did you teach scuba?

Hicken: I taught in Malibu, CA for a couple of years and then moved to Thailand where I taught scuba and English, and later moved to Sri Lanka to teach scuba.

KP: When did you start performing as an organist?

Hicken: I have worked as an organist on and off since I was twelve. I have played for hundreds of weddings and funerals as well as for services of many different denominations. I was Director of Music at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, where Elizabeth Taylor was married once and where Frank Sinatra’s funeral was held. I still play every week at an Episcopal church in Hawaii, and I’m fortunate to be playing on one of the finest organs in the state.

KP: Have you composed much music for organ?

Hicken: I have never composed anything for the organ. I have thought about it several times and I did start one piece, but later felt that it would work better for piano.

KP: Do you have regular playing gigs?

Hicken: I play regularly at a beautiful Japanese temple in Hawaii. It is a replica of a 950-year-old temple in Uji, Japan. I have had a number of requests for regular performances, but it’s hard to find the time to do them. I am doing a series of concerts at universities and churches which I enjoy very much.

KP: What is a typical week like for you?

Hicken: I am the accompanist and chapel organist at a private girls school in Honolulu. I accompany five choirs, which perform a variety of musical styles. When school is over, I teach six piano students each day. By the time I get home, it’s been a twelve-hour day, but I try to get in some practicing and composing. I live on the North Shore of Oahu, and it’s a thirty-mile commute to work, but traffic on this island is really bad and it can sometimes take as long as an hour and a half. My Saturdays are usually free, but I play at a church on Sunday mornings and after that I direct a children’s choir followed by performances at the temple.

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KP: How many piano students do you have?

Hicken: Until recently I had sixty-three students per week, but now I’m down to thirty-five which is a lot more manageable and leaves time to compose and perform more often.

KP: Do you encourage your own students to compose and/or improvise?

Hicken: Very much so. Because I missed out on that in my own lessons, I think it’s very important to encourage students to explore their creativity. It makes them such better musicians in the end. Although many students are uncomfortable at first, I will give them a rhythm and get them to improvise a four or eight bar melody using that rhythm. Very often, they are really surprised at what they come up with.

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

Hicken: Definitely Bach. As Pablo Casals once said, “Bach is the God of music.” I’m also particularly fond of Saint-Saens, Durufle, and Rachmaninov. I enjoy film music, especially by Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and James Horner (whose daughters were once my piano students). As far as pianists, my all time favorite is Vladimir Ashkenazy.

KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?

Hicken: Nothing in particular. I just thought I should give it a try and then I found that I really enjoyed it. I find that it’s far more rewarding to create a piece of music than to work for hours trying to perfect a sonata written by somebody else.

KP: Have you done any composing for films or TV?

Hicken: I wrote a couple of scores for student film projects years ago, as I was told that my music was perfectly suited for film. However, I didn’t pursue it because I realized that I didn’t particularly care for scoring. I’d much rather write what I want and if someone wants to use it for film or TV, that would be fabulous.

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

Hicken: One of the most memorable experiences was when I played for organist Nicholas Kynaston, who was my idol at the time. I had listened to his recordings for years, and to get to play for him was a real thrill. The most exciting time was when I played an organ concerto by Alexander Guilmant with the Westchester Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles.

KP: Are there any specific pieces that you feel say the most about who you are as a person? Any favorites, if they aren’t the same pieces?

Hicken: One of my favorite pieces is “Lakshmi,” which is the first track of “Goddess.” Its melody is simple yet beautiful, and I feel that the piece is well-balanced in its construction. I like a life of balance and simplicity. I work so many hours that I’m still working on the balance, yet I do live a happy and stress-free life and I think it comes through in that piece. I also really like “Sarasvati” from “Goddess” and “Celeste” from “Angels” for similar reasons.

KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

Hicken: Yes. I feel that, just like a good story, a piece of music should have a good beginning, middle, and end. A clear melody should stand out throughout, and although it’s not always easy to come up with a memorable melody, one should be there. Form is very important, as are dynamics. I hear a lot of pieces that start beautifully, and just as I’m waiting for something to happen, they don’t seem to go anywhere. I try to avoid this in my music as I can’t stand music that meanders. Much of the music that I hear is obviously improvised and it’s hard to create good structure off the top of your head. I feel that improvisation is a good start to get initial ideas, but then the ideas need to be carefully developed; this is a step that is so often overlooked.

KP: Who are your favorite performers?

Hicken: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lang-Lang, Kevin Kern, Michael Dulin.

KP: What do you like to do in your free time, or do you have any?

Hicken: I don’t get too much free time, but when I do, I love to spend it with my wife and three-year-old daughter. The beach is only two minutes down the road and I love to walk there. I enjoy kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, scuba diving, and anything to do with the outdoors. I love watching good movies, too!

KP: Do you have any hobbies?

Hicken: Music is my hobby as well as my profession. When not composing and performing, I read books about music history, composers, musical instruments, as well as the music business. I love technology and enjoy exploring new computer programs such as Sibelius and Logic Studio.

KP: What are your favorite colors?

Hicken: Purple and royal blue.

Interview with David Hicken, image 4
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

Hicken: To go back in time and meet J.S. Bach; health and prosperity for my whole family (I think that’s two wishes right there); and an end to the senseless violence that is so prevalent in our world today. Perhaps if more people listened regularly to beautiful music, the problems of the world would be far fewer.

KP: Do you have any words of advice for young people who are studying music now?

Hicken: I would suggest that anyone studying music should “live, breathe, and eat music.” It is such as vast subject and there is so much to learn that it is a terrific adventure. If you’re learning a piece by Beethoven, find out all you can about him. What were the pianos like in his day? What did people do in their spare time then? All of this is important for any music student as is as a thorough study of music theory. Above all, keep at it and never, never give up. No matter how challenging a piece might be and how reluctant we may be to practice, we must keep at it - the rewards will be tremendous. Bach once said, “anyone can do what I can do if only they are willing to work as hard.”

KP: What’s up next for you?

Hicken: I’m looking forward to touring throughout the U.S. and Asia to promote my new trilogy of CDs and continuing to create new music.
For more information about David, check out his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com
Kathy Parsons
April 2008