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Interview with Gary Girouard, June 2014
Interview with Gary Girouard, image 1
Gary Girouard recently released the fifth album in his Naked Piano series, Elements. It’s an incredible album and very likely to be on my Favorites list for 2014. Gary and I have been in touch off and on over the past ten years, but we really connected when he released Light & Dark, which was named “2012 Album of the Year” by Whisperings Solo Piano Radio. Gary is obviously very passionate about the piano and music itself, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know more about him.

KP: Hi Gary! Let’s start out by talking about how and why you named your recording series “The Naked Piano.”

GG: Thank you Kathy! I’m very happy to be here! “The Naked Piano” moniker has definitely raised some eyebrows over the years (laugh). It all started with my first album. I had written these intimate compositions and wanted to use as little synthetic effect as possible. At the same time, I’m fascinated by the timeless beauty and expressive capacity of the piano. “Naked” captured these sentiments perfectly.

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Click the album covers to read Kathy's reviews.
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KP: I have some artist friends who get booked to play concerts in “naturist” resorts. Does the “Naked Piano” title generate interest from those places? (laughing) I just had to ask!

GG: (Laugh), Sounds like an interesting opportunity! Reminds me of a true story - I once had an elderly woman show up at an outdoor performance several years ago - she walks up and (completely serious) asks “Where’s the Naked Pianist?” I got a good laugh from that one!

KP: I guess so! She was probably looking for a cheap thrill!

Your latest release, The Naked Piano: Elements, is definitely one of my favorite albums of 2014 so far. Let’s talk a bit about what inspired this album and what it is about.

GG: Thank you! Elements began as a study of timeless themes. I was searching for those experiences or things which are “in this world,” but not necessarily “of this world” - universal themes. I began with the more popular “classical” elements like “earth,” “water,” “fire,” and “air.” However, during the two years I worked on the album, I discovered deeper characteristics or traits of these timeless themes. This led me in some startling and powerful new directions: love, loss, joy, time, seasons, miracles, dreams, consciousness - even space exploration! All of these themes can be found in Elements.

KP: It’s amazing how you can start down one path and discover that it leads in so many different directions! Your 2012 release, The Naked Piano: Light & Dark, was awarded Whisperings Solo Piano Radio’s Album of the Year and was an especially personal album. What was the inspiration for that album?

GG: Wow - Light & Dark - a very personal album and I’m so thankful and appreciative it won "Album of the Year." The back-story on this album was my wife’s battle with cancer. I think everyone can relate. It’s during difficult periods like these when it’s hard to find hope and light. I know I struggled. I wanted to understand, but many days I just felt so angry and bitter. However, inside all this adversity came a blessing: my wife and I gained a greater appreciation for each other. We’d hug our kids just a little longer, a little tighter. We’d say “I love you” a little more often. We’d be kinder to others. Out of the darkness, there came light - this is the inspiration for the album.

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KP: You and I shared quite a bit after you sent me Light & Dark to review. Until it happens, it’s impossible to comprehend what a person goes through with a diagnosis of cancer. Life changes dramatically, as does your whole thought process. I passed my 5-year mark a few months ago and feel I came out on the other side of experience quite changed. And yes, there can be a silver lining once you get past those turbulent emotions!

GG: You may not know this, but you were one of the first people I opened up with about the intimate nature of this album. You were so kind to share your story and all the challenges you faced with your battle with cancer. I knew we had made a connection, and it kind of put an exclamation point on releasing the album at that time. I’m still so thankful we were able to share such personal accounts. By coincidence, my wife’s 5-year date is coming up later this year - definitely an occasion to celebrate!

KP: Wow! No, I didn’t know that, other than we had connected in that regard. I hadn’t shared my experience with very many people at that point, but it felt good to do so.

Are you working on your next album yet? Are you comfortable talking about what it will be about?

GG: I’m always working on new material :) I don’t have a title for the album yet, but the theme I’ve been studying and writing about is “energy" - what is it, and how does it affect our lives? I have thirteen compositions currently written, but I usually like to have 15-20 before I begin recording.

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KP: I’m sure it helps to have a few extras! Are you still working for a piano store as well as composing your own music?

GG: When I began my music career, I worked for the Steinway Piano Store in Boston. However, I haven’t worked there for many years. I’m currently doing some consulting work for an Italian piano company. I really enjoy staying active in the “business” side of the piano business. I truly love the piano and am always looking to promote the benefits to others. I am so thankful to have so many good friends and colleagues throughout the piano industry.

KP: Now let’s go a little farther back and find out more about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

GG: I’m a Bostonian! I was born in Framingham (MA), grew up in Lexington (MA), and spent much of my young adulthood in Cambridge and Boston. I also spent a year living in Milan, Italy and three years in Michigan. I’m currently living on Cape Cod - about 70 miles south of Boston.

KP: That sounds nice! Are any other members of your family musicians?

GG: This is a funny one - my mother always says she played accordion and that’s where I got my “musical talent" - but I never once saw or heard her play, (ever!). My dad had a broken banjo in the closet.

KP: LOL!!! Truly inspirational!

How old were you when you started playing the piano? When did you start piano lessons, and how long did you take lessons?

GG: The original inspiration came to me when I was only three years old. My Nana Leconti had a little toy piano in her house, and I remember the feeling when I first plunked those keys - a feeling of joy to create sound with my fingers. That said, I didn’t start piano lessons until I was around nine - after seeing a friend play “The Entertainer” at a birthday party. I just HAD to play piano! My father was a printer, so it wasn’t easy to pay for piano lessons. My mother invited a woman from the nursing home for dinner on Sundays. Her name was Ruth Driscoll. She was my first piano teacher and I’ll never forget her. She taught me for about a year. At age ten, I was put into a group-piano program with five other kids. I remember because I was (by far) the WORST in the group! I studied another year or so, but all told, I had about three years of piano lessons before going to college.

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KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teacher(s) or anyone else?

GG: I started improvising almost right away (age 10). I remember learning “The Maple Leaf Rag” (Scott Joplin) and then improvising on it. My teacher at the time (Epp Sonin) is the one who called it “improvisation” and encouraged me along. She was super sweet. In high school, I was in the Jazz program which was my first formal experience with composing and improvising. Sandy Peaslee and Jeff Leonard were the great teachers during this period (Whisperings Artist Steven Cravis was in the same class with me - he was super talented even back then!). In college, I did a lot of work and composition with Ellen Rowe - an amazing Eastman School graduate - but, my most important teacher was after college, Craig Najjar - my mentor to this day. He’s a former Berklee Piano Professor and he’s nurtured me along since I was 23 years old. He pushed me hard - with 5-6 hour practice sessions a day, complicated transcriptions, song analysis, ear training, etc. I just call him “Maestro” now and owe him so much.

KP: I always find it incredibly humbling and also a little scary how much teachers can influence a young person!

Do you play other instruments in addition to the piano?

GG: Thanks to technology, I can play ALL instruments (using the keyboard, of course!). I played the trumpet for a short spell in 7th grade. I also tried drums/percussion, but they kicked me out of school band pretty quickly.

KP: The band’s loss! How old were you when you wrote your first song?

GG: Same age - ten years old. My first piece was called “Big Chief” and it consisted of a repeated open fifth in the left hand with these really dark and sad minor melody notes on top. I actually wrote out the music on staff paper, which makes me wonder if I still have it packed away.

KP: You’ll probably stumble upon it sometime when you least expect it! Were you a music major in college?

GG: Yes, I majored in music, but I transferred from the engineering program. I’m not sure why I even started in engineering - probably because that’s what all the guidance counselors told me I should do - but after my freshman year, I applied for a transfer. This was a very involved process that included interviews and a performance evaluation. I played “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (not an easy piece, mind you!) and almost got laughed out of the room. “Mr. Girouard,” the professors sneered, “we only accept Mozart, Beethoven or Bach.” So, I studied some Beethoven, came back two weeks later and got accepted. By the time I graduated, I was on the Dean’s List and had one of the highest GPA’s (take that, stuffy professors!).

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KP: Man, I really wish stories like that were not so common. I love that you went so far and above what they expected from their narrow points of view, but how do these people get the attitude that the only legitimate music was written a couple of hundred years ago? Makes me crazy!!!

When did you record your first album?

GG: The original Naked Piano was recorded in 2003.

KP: When did you become a Whisperings Artist?

GG: I believe it was one year later - in 2004. I’m so thankful to have met David Nevue. It almost seemed like divine intervention because I was just getting started and I connected with David almost immediately. He’s such an amazing person. Not only is he an inspiration for anyone in the solo-piano genre, he’s just a super kind and caring human being. Thanks to David, many of my best friendships have come from the Whisperings community.

KP: I agree completely. David Nevue is amazing and has been able to make his vision for Whisperings a reality. Not many people can do that, and he’s done it so well without losing who he is. Great guy!

Do you perform in concerts very often?

GG: I wish I could perform all the time! Unfortunately, this isn’t currently possible. I try to limit my travel so I can spend more time with my family. So, these days I’m trying to perform less often, but with more impact.

KP: Do you have sheet music for many of your pieces?

GG: YES! My most recent album Elements, is available in its entirety (special thanks to Rebecca Oswald for doing an amazing job with the transcriptions). It’s the only album available in a physical sheet music book. My other sheet music is available in digital versions only. Doug Hammer turned me on to the idea of creating compilations that feature a bunch of files at a discounted price, so I’ve created several of those too. (Thanks Doug!).

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

GG: That’s a big one! I’m always listening to new music. Sometimes, it just hits me. It’s hard to explain, but I feel something inside my chest which rushes through my senses. I FEEL something strongly. This can come from anywhere, including art, current events or the physical environment. That stated, here are some strong musical influences of the past several years (in no particular order): Eva Cassiday, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, Esbjorn Svensson, Philip Glass, Keane, Tchaikovsky, Keith Jarrett, John Legend, Mark Isham, Hans Zimmer, George Winston, Arvo Part, Johnny Cash, Pink, Claude Debussy, Yiruma.

KP: Now, that’s what I call an eclectic group! This could be the only time Johnny Cash, Pink, and Claude Debussy have been or ever will be mentioned in the same sentence! I know what you mean, though, about certain music having a huge impact! What inspired you to start composing your own music?

GG: I think it was just a natural progression. I’d have a tough day - I’d express myself at the piano. I’d have a great day - same thing. The piano became my “comfort zone” - the place I could disappear and just be myself.

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

GG: Yes - but I’m sure you wouldn’t know any of them (laugh). There was a short indie film called Print about these bizarre neighbors living in New York City. The filmmakers wanted the theme to feel like a take-off on “The Godfather” - which made it funny. I’ve also written a bunch of pieces as themes for local businesses (radio/TV ads) and for the local news and cable TV. I was once hired by Walt Disney Company to demonstrate music and technology - and one of my long-term goals is to write a theme used in a Disney film.

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

GG: There are days when the house is silent and I have several hours of uninterrupted time in front of me. I’m well-rested and fed. My hands and fingers are warm and nimble. As I sit down at my piano, I’m overwhelmed with possibility. I get a rush of adrenaline which surges through my body. This is the most exciting moment for me. It’s a moment of euphoria.

KP: Gee, Gary - I get the feeling you really enjoy playing the piano! Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

GG: My philosophy is always evolving - as I hope my music is. I’ve come to appreciate the little things we take for granted, so I think “gratitude” is one of my over-arching themes. Passion and virtue would be strong elements as well. If I had to pick a term for this philosophy, I’d call myself a “Passionate Stoic.”

KP: I like that! Who are your favorite composers?

GG: Tchaikovsky, Philip Glass, Beethoven, Chopin, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Carlos Jobim, George Gershwin, Esbjorn Svensson, Mark Isham, Arvo Part, Hans Zimmer.

KP: Another eclectic group! Who are your favorite performers?

GG: This is a tough one. I don’t go to a lot of live shows these days. If I do, it’s mostly classical, jazz or theatre. One incredible performer I saw recently was Nicolas Kendall on violin. Amazing! I always enjoy Brad Mehldau. From what I’ve seen on TV, I’d give a nod to Yo Yo Ma, Diana Krall, Sara Bareilles, and John Legend. Michael Jackson was the best in his day.

KP: Are your kids showing an interest in music yet?

GG: My son, Gabriel, (12 years old) is playing trumpet and piano; my daughter, Siena (10 years old), is playing flute, clarinet and wants to start violin over the summer. I admit I’m super proud of both of them!

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

GG: 1. A cure for cancer..
2. 1-year, all-expense-paid trip with my family around the world. That would be the memory of a lifetime - and worth more than all the money in the world!
3. A new piano :)

KP: What’s up next for you?

GG: I’m composing music for an adult piano-method course for a local piano instructor. I’m also finishing up “player-piano” tracks for the Light & Dark album (for QRS Music) and looking at adding merchandise with the theme “Got Stress? Get Naked!” Of course, I’m working on the next Naked Piano album. I’m planning to release an updated Naked Piano Christmas album, and I’m working on a new project which will involve orchestration and other instrumentation (loosely called Naked Piano+).

KP: Is that all??? (laugh) Is there anything else you’d like to “talk” about?

GG: I’m so thankful for what you - and others in the piano community - are doing to promote piano and piano music. I’m a strong advocate for more musical training - basic music literacy - for people of all ages. There’s a ton of scientific evidence to support the benefits. This comes back to my exploration of “energy.” We place so much emphasis on sports and pop-culture, and not enough on the improvement of our minds and spirit. Music is energy and we’re just scratching the surface of what this implies. So, in the end I just want to say - "Play Piano! It’s good for you!” :)

KP: Very wise words, Gary! Thanks for sharing so much with us!

GG: Keep up the great work Kathy!!!

KP: Backatcha, my friend! I hope to see you soon in the Pacific Northwest!
Many thanks to Gary Girouard for chatting with us! For more info about Gary and his music, please visit his website and/or his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
June 2014