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Interview with Gary Schmidt, October 2023
Interview with Gary Schmidt, image 1
I first "met" pianist/composer Gary Schmidt when he released his first studio album, Landscapes of the Heart, in 2016. He recently released an album called Afterthoughts, his fifth "official" album (plus some singles), and it seemed like a great time to do an interview. I hope you will enjoy getting acquainted with Gary and his music as much as I have!

KP: Hey Gary! How are things in Colorado today?

GS: First of all, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to share a bit about myself and my music in this interview. I really do appreciate it.

Things in Colorado are beautiful this time of year. I live in the foothills with my wife, Ellen, just east of Rocky Mountain National Park, so how can you go wrong? Skies are a brilliant blue over the mountains and the leaves are turning all kinds of brilliant colors. I'm very grateful to live here.

KP: Colorado is such a beautiful state!

You recently released your mostly solo piano album called Afterthoughts. What was the idea behind the title?

GS: I am a typically reflective person by nature and thought that the title mirrored my approach to life and music. Things are not always exactly the way they look at first glance. Digging a little deeper and contemplating are just a natural part of who I am as a person and in my music.

KP: Tell us about Afterthoughts.

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Click on album covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.
GS: Well, first of all, I am very excited to see that the album just hit the number one spot on Amazon in the "Music for Relaxation Category." What a nice surprise!

KP: Absolutely! Congratulations on that! It's well-deserved!

GS: There are 10 tracks on Afterthoughts, seven of which are original plus three classical selections. Two of the tracks also feature some cello; the others are solo piano.

KP: Do you have any favorite tracks?

GS: I think one of my favorite tracks is one of the classical ones, the Transcendental Etude by Liszt. Liszt composed twelve of these etudes and they represent some of the most difficult works in the literature to play - except for number 3 which is more meditative and I think it's a sincerely profound piece of music. Still, I didn’t know if I would be able to pull it off in the studio, but surprisingly things went well. I believe the piece speaks deeply about the human experience.

KP: It's really beautiful, and you did such a great job with it!

How do you feel about the push to release singles and EPs rather than full albums?

GS: It has been a few years since I released a full album, but I think, for better or worse, we are losing out on some things in the process by focusing on singles. There is still something to be said for releasing a longer work that hopefully holds together as a single entity and journey.

KP: I agree with you. Albums offer a much more complete musical experience that a playlist of singles can't do without someone putting a lot of thought into it.

Speaking of singles, how did you choose which pieces to release ahead of the full album?

GS: They were written first so I guess it was just natural to release them as they were finished. Then I waited for the rest of the album to come together before releasing the album as a whole. The single “Ellen’s Song” was written as a processional for my wedding a year and a half ago.

KP: Will you be releasing a sheet music book for the album, too?

GS: That is a great thought. I do have all the sheet music written down already, as that is how I compose. (I am not really a great improviser.) I will start by posting the sheet music for individual pieces on my website. My previous two songbooks have sold well, so I will try and put one together for this album too!

KP: I have been reviewing your albums since your 2016 Landscapes of the Heart. Did you release any albums before that one?

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At The Grand Ol' Opry.
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At Carnegie Hall
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Gary and Ellen's wedding photo.
GS: That was my first what I would call "professional release." I was thrilled to be able to work with Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton at the famous Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont. I used to listen to Windham Hill recordings a lot of years ago and never thought I would be there in person! Previously, I had released two very home-grown albums which I simply called Sacred Spaces. None of the pieces had any titles. At that time in my life, I found myself quite often just meditating at the piano, and all these short pieces were coming out so I thought I would record them just for friends and family. However, the recordings started spreading out and taking on a life of their own, which is what eventually led to Will Ackerman inviting me to record.

KP: Interesting! Some of your albums have received very impressive awards. Tell us about those:

GS: Yes, I have been very fortunate in that regard. The Landscapes of the Heart album went on to win the Album of the Year award from One World Radio in Europe for best Piano with Instruments. It also won the same award from Enlightened Piano Radio. My next album, Even for a Moment, was nominated for the same award (although it came in second). It also got nominated for Best Piano Album by Zone Music Reporter. And I just received an email that my new album has been nominated for Album of the Month by One World Radio.

KP: Congratulations again!

I remember really liking your 2020 Christmas album, Christmas Meditations. Will you be giving that album a push this fall/winter, too?

GS: Thanks for listening and glad you enjoyed it. I think that project was one of my favorite things I have ever done. It was such fun and a joy to write. It has also proven to be a favorite on Sirius XM and last year was streamed some 600,000 times on their Holiday Traditions channel. I am sure I will be reminding folks again about the Christmas album. If they like meditative Christmas piano with some fresh takes on familiar songs, I think listeners will enjoy this album.

KP: I'm sure they will!

I know you were invited to perform at both Carnegie Hall and Grand Ole Opry with the Enlightened Piano Radio group a few years ago. So many phenomenal musicians have played at both places. How did those experiences feel to you?

GS: It was very surreal actually. To be backstage at Carnegie Hall and also on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry was something I never could have imagined. I think the backstage hallways at Carnegie Hall were particularly awe-inspiring when looking at all the posters of people who have played there.

KP: I can only imagine!

Okay, let's get to know more about you! Where were you born and where did you grow up?

GS: I was born in a little French-speaking rural town north of Montreal called Rawdon. It was a very idyllic place in the Laurentian mountains. I lived there until I went off to college in Toronto at the age of 17.

KP: Where did you go to college?

GS: Tyndall College (Bachelor of Sacred Music in Piano) and the Royal Conservatory of Music (Piano Performance), both in Toronto. 

KP: Do you have brothers and/or sisters? Are any of them musicians, too?

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Click on album covers to
go to Kathy's reviews.
GS: We were a family of five children. I am not sure how my parents managed! My brother is a fine guitarist as well as an artist. His art even appeared on the cover of the book The Best of Contemporary Art. He just released a wonderful solo guitar recording of original pieces called An Acoustic Palette. He also owns a fine guitar shop west of Toronto called Brickhouse guitars.

KP: Interesting! I have read that you decided at the age of six that you were going to be a professional pianist when you grew up. How old were you when you started playing (or playing around with) the piano?

GS: I believe I was about six when I heard a classical piano record called Rubinstein Plays Liszt. My mom was an avid music listener and it was one of her albums. I remember being so enthralled with it that I announced I would be a pianist when I grew up.

KP: And you were mostly self-taught?

GS: Yes, once I caught that bug, there was no stopping me! We had a very old beat-up upright piano that was painted white. It was severely out of tune and some of the keys didn’t even sound, but that didn’t deter me.

KP: How did you teach yourself to read music and music theory?

GS: My mom got me some beginner piano books and helped me get started, but I mostly learned to read by purchasing classical scores and following them while listening to the recordings. By the age of 12 or so, I was playing very advanced classical pieces. At the age of 14, I did take a few piano lessons from a real teacher and I remember my first lesson including a Chopin Etude and the Brahms Rhapsody.

KP: Yikes! That's beyond impressive! Did you learn to play other instruments, too?

GS: I did pick up the acoustic guitar as a teenager and would say I am an average rhythm player. I do enjoy it, though.

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

GS: In high school, I was part of a band that was trying to write and play French church songs. I guess that was my first foray into writing music.

KP: When did you start playing professionally?

GS: I have been very fortunate in life and have only done full-time music since graduating from college. My first big piano concert really was not until after college when I was invited to debut some newly-discovered piano music by Shostakovich at the famous Glenn Gould Theater in Toronto. Like most musicians, it has been a mixed bag of teaching, writing and performing. I have also done a lot of church music-directing over the years. I count myself very lucky to have been able to follow my passion!

KP: It sounds like you worked really hard to get there, though!
Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

GS: Funny you should ask. I was a total Rubinstein fan as a kid. I would listen to his piano recordings over and over. I would say he was my biggest influence and he was even my teacher in a way. In high school, I even wrote book reports on his autobiographies. Yes, I was that nerdy!

KP: Lol!!! Have you done any composing for films and TV?

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Gary is on the right.
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Rock climbing
GS: It is not something I have had much opportunity for. A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a theme song for a film documentary for Arts Nova on some recently-discovered cliff drawings on the Tennessee River. However the film got tied up in some research copyright and is on hold at the moment. Actually, the track I wrote for that appears on my new album and is called "Ancient Time Telling."

KP: And I reviewed it earlier this year!

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

GS: Hmm.. I would say that giving a three-week tour of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany with a national choir and orchestra from Canada was a definite highlight. I was a last-minute sub and actually had to sight-read the first concert! Lol!

KP: That must have been a real challenge!

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

GS: I have a little motto for life: “Enhancing Life Thru Music.” I know it is a mystery, but somehow I believe that great music and art have some kind of spiritual connection with the “other side." As a performer, I really try to get out of the way as the experience for me should be primarily about the music and not about me. I truly do hope I can bring a little bit of peace and healing into the world through my music.

KP: I have no doubt that you do!

Who are your favorite composers and/or performers?

GS: For me, Bach is king. There are no words. My other favorite composer is Rachmaninoff. I have several favorite classical pianists. One would be Daniil Trifinov for his profound interpretations. In the more contemporary contemplative piano world, I would say Philip Aaberg is my favorite. And of course George Winston is the hero for all us new age-type pianists.

KP: That's a very diverse list!

How long have you been a piano teacher?

GS: I really didn’t start teaching until about 12 years ago, but I do love it. I have students of all ages and abilities and learn so much from them. I even have some students now that are learning music I can’t play myself, but somehow it works out! Lol. I just love sharing my thoughts and helping as much as I can!

KP: How many students do you have?

GS: It is close to thirty at the moment. That is more than I set out to have, but somehow I have a hard time saying no! Lol!

KP: I know the feeling!

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

GS: I love nature, and living in Colorado gives me an unlimited playground for that. For years, I volunteered as a rock climbing guide, teaching and guiding trips around the state as well as some road trips to other states. However, I have pretty much given up on that. As I get older, I have taken up the default activity for persons approaching the retirement age - bad golf! :)

KP: That sounds much safer as long as you don't get run over by a golf cart or smacked in the head with a golf ball!

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

GS: I truly wish we could get over all of the political divisions in this country. I am still a Canadian citizen, but have lived in the U.S. for some 25 years now. People are wonderful everywhere and I just wish we could all get along. I think a lot of it, unfortunately, is fed by whatever brand of media we choose to listen to.

As for other wishes, I hope that I can continue to write and perform music for a long time and that it will be a blessing to as many people as possible.

KP: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

GS: Wow, we have traversed a lot of territory and feel like perhaps I have already over-extended the allotted number of words. I am just very grateful for life and all the very fortunate opportunities I have had. And of course, I'm more than thankful for so many wonderful listeners. Without them the music would never be complete.
Many thanks to Gary Schmidt for taking the time to do this interview! For more information about Gary and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com!
Kathy Parsons
October 2023