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Interview with Lisa Downing, July 2010
Interview with Lisa Downing, image 1
I recently reviewed all three of Lisa Downing’s solo piano albums, and she has become one of my favorite artists. Also a piano teacher in Colorado and the owner of Vision Quest entertainment, Lisa’s story is one of a strong, determined, and immensely talented woman. I think you’ll enjoy getting to know her as much as I have.

KP: Hey Lisa! How are things in Denver today?

LD: Things are fantastic here -- it’s finally Summer!

KP: Congratulations on A Delicate Balance’s rise to near the top of the charts! It’s such a great album - I’m listening to it again now as I think of questions to ask you. The liner notes to the CD underscore how personal the music is and how everyday events can trigger the inspiration to compose. Do you have new music floating around in your head all the time?

LD: I was composing a lot during those years. Many of the pieces on A Delicate Balance were composed during that time. Since I was a single Mom, I was really focused on making a living, so even though I was doing some concert performances, I played a lot for hotels, restaurants, weddings and corporate events. Fortunately, I was able to play some of my own compositions mixed in with all the cover tunes I needed to play in those situations.

KP: Robin Spielberg and Rebecca Oswald are two artists who did pretty much the same thing getting started. Mixing their original music in with the standards and pop tunes and gauging audience reaction to their music really helped to give them the confidence to focus on their original work.

When did you start as a piano teacher?

LD:I was 18 years old when I started teaching piano professionally, but I was always showing people how to do stuff on piano even when I was a kid.

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KP: Do you teach your students to compose as well as to play?

LD: I definitely do. The whole focus of my piano instruction is to create musical literacy in my students. It’s really important to me that students learn the theory behind the music and understand why certain chords go with other chords and that they can have a certain amount of control with that knowledge so they can create their own music.

KP: What an amazing gift to your students! When did you start playing the piano?

LD: Since we didn’t have a piano until I was 10 years old, I played any time I could find a piano from the time I was about 2. I started taking formal lessons when I was about 12, but I started teaching myself to play when I was about 8 years old.

KP: I read that as a child you would make pianos out of cardboard boxes. That’s pretty amazing! Did any of them work? =)

LD: Well... only in my imagination! They were really difficult to tune...

KP: I can imagine!

LD: I wanted a piano so badly when I was young and, like I was saying earlier, we didn’t have a piano until I was 10. My Dad rented a Lowrey organ for a while, but that really wasn’t the same. The whole “cardboard piano” thing wasn’t what I was after, either!

KP: Yeah, there is definitely something lost there! Was most of your piano training classical in nature?

LD: I had a great balance of jazz and classical training as I was learning to play. Even in college, I designed a
specialized degree program between two different schools - The University of Colorado at Denver and Metropolitan State College - and I called it “Traditional and Non-Traditional Music with Keyboard Emphasis.” It was a fabulous way to integrate both traditions into my compositional style and my teaching methods.

KP: Your technique is wonderful! Do you still play a lot of classical music?

LD: I’m glad you think my technique is wonderful! Thanks for saying that. Actually, right now I’m focused almost solely on my original compositions and preparing for concert performances. Maybe I’ll get back into playing some classical when I retire...

KP: Are there any other musicians in your family?

LD: My Uncle Charlie (my mother’s brother) played the guitar when he was younger, and my son, Andy, plays piano, flute, alto sax, tenor sax and clarinet. Andy and I actually did a couple of concerts together a few years ago. He’s more into electronic and sequenced music now.

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KP: It looks like you have a busy concert schedule this summer! Who are some of the artists you’ll be performing with?

LD: I just did a concert with David Lanz, Joseph Akins and Native American Flute player, Scott August. I’m producing and performing in a concert with Peter Kater this weekend, I’ll be performing in a concert in Mallorca, Spain with Suzanne Ciani this October, and I’m on tour in Arizona with Liz Story and Joseph Akins in November.

KP: You, David Lanz, and Joseph Akins must have been a phenomenal line-up! I wish I could have been there! You and Peter Kater sound like a fantastic match as well. I’ve never seen Peter play live, but I think I’ve heard all of his albums.

LD: I am really looking forward to my concert with Peter! I’ve admired him for a very long time and it’s an absolute privilege to share the stage with him.

KP: How long have you been a Whisperings Artist?

LD: Almost four years now, I think. I remember how excited and honored I was when David Nevue accepted my album and put four or five songs from my first album Think On These Things in the Whisperings rotation. Hearing my songs played on the air was significant motivation for finally recording Christmas for Two and A Delicate Balance.

KP: Have you done much performing with Whisperings?

LD: I’ve done about four Whisperings concerts so far and have really enjoyed them. I’ve gotten to know and have become good friends with several Whisperings artists. I’ve also encouraged a couple of my piano friends, including Sandra Berkley and Lee Bartley to become Whisperings artists and that’s really exciting!

KP: It’s a great group of people, and David Nevue has done an incredible job of bringing this segment of the solo piano world into a community.

I understand that you and Liz Story are very dear friends. Have you performed with her much?

LD: Liz and I did a three-city tour a couple of years ago with Joseph Akins in Arizona. We performed in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson. It was one of the most memorable tours I’ve ever done. We rented a large vacation home and lived together for a week or so.

Liz and I talked over the phone a lot before that and became friends before we even met in person. It feels like our connection was absolutely immediate -- like we have always known each other. Liz has a special kind of genius that surpasses her fantastic musical abilities. I am proud to be her friend.

KP: Believe it or not, back in about 1987, Liz opened for Yanni at Davies Symphony Hall in SF! It was a great concert! Yanni was just really getting started and had John Tesh and Joyce Imbesi on back-up keyboards along with Charlie Adams on percussion. That was really a long time ago!

LD: You know, the first concert I ever saw Liz do was at a place in Colorado that no longer exists. It was called “Rainbow Music Hall” -- a cool, funky little place that seated about 500 people. I sat in the front row when she was performing and the stage was so tall I could barely see her. When I was coming into the theater, someone was selling single roses, but I didn’t buy one. After Liz had finished playing, I wished I had bought that rose because I was close enough to hand it to her!

KP: At that time, did you even dream of sharing a concert stage with her?

LD: You know, ever since I first heard her recordings, I had fantasies of meeting her and sharing my music with her. It took several years before I felt confident enough in my own playing that I could even think I would be capable of sharing a concert stage with her.

It was so incredibly cool when we arrived in Arizona to do that tour with her and I got to meet her and give her a hug! That whole tour felt kind of surreal for me. I am so fortunate to be living my dreams right now.

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KP: Who and what are some of your other musical influences?

LD: When I was a kid, I was a real “Metal-Head.” My favorite music came from Black Sabbath (I had a terrible crush on Ozzy...), Led Zepplin, Jethro Tull, Yes and Deep Purple, just to name a few. Even now I love Nickelback, Green Day and Avril Lavigne.

When I was a young adult, I was heavily influenced by all the Windham Hill artists like George Winston, Liz Story (of course), Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges and on and on. I studied jazz harmony for a very long time and listened to a lot of Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, too.

More recently I’ve loved the music in movies like Edward Scissorhands and Alice composed by Danny Elfman. My piece called “Make Believe” on A Delicate Balance definitely has the Danny Elfman influence.

KP: Your Christmas For Two album is one of my favorite holiday albums. What inspired you to record a Christmas album?

LD: I’m so glad you like it! There are several holiday tunes that I have been playing in hotels, country clubs and corporate events for many years. When I knew I was doing a Winter tour with Liz Story, it made it more imperative to record these pieces so I had the CD for those performances. It was a lot of fun to create the medleys of pieces that I have loved all my life. There are still more traditional holiday songs that I would arrange for solo piano, so I might even do another holiday CD in the future!

KP: I was fascinated that you dedicated Think On These Things to your former husband. That’s pretty unusual!

LD: Yes, it is pretty unusual. Lance and I have always had a special relationship. Even when we decided that being married to each other wasn’t the best path for either of us, we have always remained good friends and strong parenting partners.

Lance will always be an important part of the family and we continue to share in all our life experiences, including birthdays and holidays. I think it has been so important for our son and the people around us to see that you don’t have to be enemies just because you’re not married anymore.

KP: That’s really great! I was struck by how sad “Twins” is on that same album. If it isn’t too personal, what is the story behind that piece?

LD: It was a piece that I composed during the saddest time in my life. I was 4 1/2 months pregnant with twin boys and I got appendicitis and had to have surgery to have my appendix removed. The babies didn’t survive.

I named them Jason Matthew and Jacob Michael. They would be 28 years old this year. Everyone always said I would get over it eventually, and while it’s true that the really intense pain does finally subside, I don’t think you ever really get over something like that. Writing this piece helped me integrate it into my life and I hope that people can use this song to help them feel through their own painful situations.

KP: It’s ironic how such beautiful art can come out of life’s most difficult and painful experiences.

How old were you when you started composing?

LD: I’ve been composing music at some level as long as I have had memories of myself. I used to sit in our next-door neighbor’s swinging chair on their porch and sing songs that I made up. For some reason I thought no one could hear me if I sat over there. I wrote songs on a little toy xylophone my parents gave me one year. It was a pretty limited C-scale instrument, but I would just hit the floor with the little mallet it came with to represent notes that it didn’t have.

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KP: You had a very vivid musical imagination even that young! When did you start Vision Quest Entertainment?

LD: Vision Quest evolved from my desire to have a solo piano concert career. It was difficult to get my recordings heard by record labels at the time, so I decided to start my own!

The name actually came from the thought that I was on a “Quest” for my concert performance “Vision” -- long before I knew anything about Native American Vision Quests and even before I saw the biking movie with the same name!

KP: Vision Quest represents a really large and diverse group of artists! How do you choose?

LD: There are so many talented musicians in Colorado that it would be impossible for me to choose. Fortunately, it’s really the purchasers that choose. Vision Quest Entertainment is just the connector between purchasers and artists. A purchaser will call me and request a certain kind of music or a specific band and I match the purchaser with the artist. Vision Quest is expanding into concert promotion as well. I would love to produce more concerts combining the acoustic artists that I have always admired and new artists that I have yet to hear.

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

LD: It’s always moving to me when an audience member talks to me and shares a personal story because one of my pieces touched them. Recently, a gentleman with teenagers came to me to talk about his response to my piece “Lost,” which is about a time when my son, Andy, ran away from home and was gone for three weeks. It’s a powerful song and it was emotionally difficult to write, but it’s really become one of my most favorite pieces on my most recent CD, A Delicate Balance. Anyway, this gentleman said that he had broken his own mother’s heart when he ran away from home for three weeks when he was a teenager, too. He told me that he had never really seen his running away from his mother’s perspective until he heard me play “Lost” that night. That’s what I hope for with my compositions -- that they communicate with the audience in a way that brings connection and awareness to their lives.

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

LD: The most important thing to me is to communicate with my audience. I want to share experiences and insights and effectively translate the music I hear in my head to my listeners. Hopefully what I’m doing is letting people know they are not alone in their own experiences and assuring myself that I’m not alone in mine.

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

LD: Boy -- assuming that I can’t wish for more wishes, I think I would wish for financial independence, to be able to travel the world at will, and have more time to spend with my family.

KP: What’s up next for you?

LD: Well, it looks like performances in other parts of the world are where I’m heading for at the moment. I’m looking forward to a recent offer to do a concert with Suzanne Ciani in Island Palma de Mallorca this fall. I’ve also been invited to visit Will Ackerman at Imaginary Road in Vermont this fall. He is certainly someone that I’ve admired and respected for many years and I can’t wait to meet him and see the studio!

A Delicate Balance is eligible for Grammy nomination this year and I’m really excited about exploring everything that goes along with the Grammy “experience.”

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

LD: I know I talk about my son, Andy, a bunch when people ask about A Delicate Balance, but there are also pieces on that album about my husband, Pete Foster. Pete and I actually met on Match.com and we emailed each other quite a bit before we ever met. We emailed each other a lot even after we met and the piece called “Slow Dancing” is about a beautiful email Pete wrote to me early in our relationship. He talked about how we didn’t have to move the relationship forward any faster than we felt comfortable with and likened our romance to slow dancing.

Also, “Speaker/Listener” is about a communication technique Pete and I learned from our Spiritual coach. It’s a method that uses the “mirroring” technique where one person speaks their truth and the other person repeats back what they think they heard. It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s more challenging than you think it would be.

In the song, there’s a relatively simple motif that I imagined was the first person speaking, and then the next motif is trying to repeat the first one, but changes a little and maybe even adds something new. Sometimes that’s good when you’re communicating with someone, but the goal is to get as close to what the other person meant as possible. It’s a great tool for any relationship.
Many thanks to Lisa Downing for taking the time to chat! To learn more about Lisa and her music, be sure to visit her website and her Artist Page on MainlyPiano.com. Links to her albums are available on both sites.
Kathy Parsons
July 2010