Neil Patton is getting ready for his second concert appearance here later this month, performing with Tim Neumark. Hailing from Eugene, Oregon, Neil is truly a local musical treasure. I’ve always been very impressed by Neil’s music and musicianship, but this interview reveals just how passionate he is about music. Enjoy!
KP: Hey Neil! I can’t believe it’s been four years since you played here! We need to get you on a more-frequent schedule. I mean, you’re only sixty miles away! Actually, I saw David Nevue several times a year when I lived in CA - now I’m lucky to see him every year or two! Anyway, you’ll be here on August 23rd to play in concert with Tim Neumark. Have you played with him before?
NP: No I haven’t. We haven’t even met in person yet! Whisperings is such a great network, I feel like I already know dozens of musicians that live all across the U.S. Tim and I had hoped to do a show together at the NAMM convention in January, but when it didn’t work out, he invited me to join him for his show at your place. I jumped at the chance!
KP: I’m so glad!!! Do you have anything planned for when you play here or are you going to see what the spirit moves once you get to Florence?
I’m thinking about it. I’m wrapping up some physical therapy on my right arm and I’ve had to hold back from heavy practicing for a while. I’m looking forward to playing some tunes from my two piano CD’s, but I might throw in an audience-participation improv if the mood is right!
Click the album covers to read Kathy's reviews.
KP: Your most recent album was Hammer & Wire from 2012. Do you have a new album in the works?
NP: I do! I have eleven new tracks written or almost written. I’m approaching this one in a slightly new way from previous projects, which were largely improvised. For this one, some of the tracks will be written out and arranged on paper before I even enter the studio. This has allowed me to be more detailed and disciplined in the arranging process. I’m hoping it might speed up the recording process, as well.
In addition, I am working on new songs that will come together in a new vocal album, hopefully to be released sometime in the new year!
KP: Will that be your first vocal recording?
NP: My first CD was a rock vocal CD released back in the 90’s. I’m anxious to do another one, as my writing and singing have grown and changed quite a bit since then.
KP: I remember seeing that you and David Nevue were recording together at Joe Bongiorno’s Piano Haven Studio a couple of months ago. Are you at liberty to talk about that?
Sure! Back in May of 2013, David invited me to join him for his Open Sky
release concert. We did a little jam at the end with both of us at the piano, and it was a blast! (You can see it on YouTube.) The show was recorded, and we realized we should finish the “song” we began in that jam. Over the next few months we would meet and try new ideas with the basic structure of the piece. Eventually, he decided he wanted to include it on his next CD. We finished composing and rehearsing the song together, and headed to Sedona to have Joe record us performing it. Totally fun!
Pre-concert sound-check with David Nevue. Photo by Jaymie Starr Photography.
KP: You are also a very sought-after piano teacher in the Eugene, OR area. How many students do you have?
NP: Around 34 students.
KP: Do you teach piano only?
NP: I do teach very basic guitar, and can do some vocal coaching. However, my primary focus is helping people with the piano.
KP: Do you teach at the college level, too?
NP: I teach private lessons at New Hope Christian College in Eugene. In my lessons there, I have the opportunity to teach classical repertoire and technique side by side with pop and jazz styles. So one lesson might include a Chopin Nocturne followed by working on how to play keyboards in a band. Yet, I always find that I still have so much to learn!
KP: We all do! When you played in concert here in 2010, you performed with your wife, Cathy. Do you two perform together often?
NP: We do! She is a wonderful flutist. We often perform for parties and events together. We really enjoy sharing music with local retirement communities and homes, as well. Cathy often subs in the Eugene Symphony and the Oregon Mozart Players. We’re hoping to record a CD featuring our work together sometime soon!
KP: That will be fun! Okay, let’s find out more about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
NP: I was born and raised right here in Eugene.
KP: Wow! I thought everyone here in Oregon was born in California! LOL!!! Are any other members of your family musicians?
NP: My mom has been a singer all her life, both as a soloist and in various choirs. Her mother was a classically trained pianist, while her father could play any instrument you placed in his hands (even though he couldn’t read a note). My dad played the CD player. Music was always playing in our home from Bach to the Beatles to Brubeck to Vangelis to Van Halen. I have one brother who became quite a good guitarist and another who built his own bass guitar and played it for many years.
KP: How old were you when you started playing the piano? When did you start piano lessons, and how long did you take lessons?
NP: When I was five, my brother and I were sent next door for piano lessons. I hung in there, switching to another teacher in the 4th grade. In the 7th grade, I discovered I could play rock music using the skills I learned from the “dead guys,” and I was hooked! (And I was soon able to admit that the dead guys weren’t so bad, either.) I went on to major in music at the University of Oregon. So, I guess I studied privately from age five until I was 21.
Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teacher(s) or anyone else?
Neil's 8th grade school project.
NP: Absolutely. I had amazing teachers (Karen Gookin and Dorothy Munz) who worked improv and composition into my lessons from the beginning. I remember composing tone rows and writing short pieces inspired by pictures they cut out from calendars.
KP: I sure wish my teachers had gone that route. I can sight-read almost anything, but letting go and creating music in the moment scares me to death! Do you play other instruments?
NP: I can play basic acoustic rhythm guitar fairly well, which I often use leading worship at my church. I love to sing, too.
KP: How old were you when you started improvising?
NP: I’m pretty sure I was improvising from the beginning of my lessons at age five. I have a faint memory of improvising a short little piece in a master class where I was supposed to have prepared something, but forgot. I think I managed to fool the clinician and the audience (everyone except my own teacher).
KP: Haha! Teachers do get to know their students and what they are capable of! How old were you when you wrote your first song?
NP: I did countless little projects in my early lessons. The first one I really remember, though, was a suite of little pieces based on the planets of the solar system, complete with a really annoying “promenade”-type theme for the spaceship as it traveled between planets. I must have been in the 5th grade or something. I performed some of it for a local student composition festival. I have no idea where that music went.
The first vocal song I wrote was for a school project in the 8th grade. I put a little band together, borrowed a friend’s synthesizer and set it on top of the old school upright, and sang for all the parents. I learned a lot doing that project!
KP: Were you a music major in college?
Yes. I graduated from the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance in 1994. I had the honor of studying with Victor Steinhardt there. His philosophy of music had a profound impact on me. Some of my best memories of my times with him involve talking about why we do this whole music thing.
Photo by Jaymie Starr Photography
KP: Why do we do this whole music thing?
NP: Ha! Good question. My discussions with Victor sometimes focused on the competitive aspect of studying in a music school (my blessing and curse), as well as the competitions he was often called upon to judge (his blessing and curse). We lamented the reduction of music to a competition among people who otherwise could have been colleagues and fellow learners. The idea of losing points for each mistake, but never gaining points became more and more sad to me. One of my fellow students once told me, with deep conviction, that “you are only as good as your last performance.” I tried that on for size for a while, and had to reject it, as the standard of perfection can too often distract from playing with freedom and passion. (Of course I am always seeking to improve my technique and accuracy, but perfection for the sake of perfection can be a distraction and an unnecessary burden.)
In recent years, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of how music touches lives in ways nothing else can. Cathy and I often perform in local retirement homes. Not a glamorous gig, and it never pays well. We try to play classical music and some folk music, as our audience members have often complained that they are tired of cowboy music and oldies. The looks on their faces, the tears on their cheeks, remind us why we do this. The residents often approach us, telling us how they used to be professional musicians, and how they have longed to hear Mozart or Bach again. I get chills as we play Danny Boy and hear their voices gently singing along.
I believe we are given musical gifts to serve others. Not all music will touch every heart every time, but if music is not touching the heart, it has no point. There, I said it.
Wow! What an incredible answer to what seems like a simple question. I’m inspired all over again! Thank you! When did you record your first album?
NP: I feel like I have two first albums.
As I mentioned before, my first CD (and cassette!) was actually a rock vocal collection that I released in 1998, called Horizon. It was a sort of cross between Keith Green or Elton John and Rush and Kansas. I’m still quite proud of that one, but it was produced on a shoestring budget, recording in bedrooms, bathrooms and church halls. I wish I could re-record and re-mix much of it, now. I occasionally receive messages from folks who are still inspired by the messages and music on that album!
KP: What were some of the messages on Horizon?
NP: Many of the songs were inspired by the life and death of a friend of mine who fought lung cancer. I wrote the songs as therapy for myself as I grieved losing him and processed my own emotions. Where was God in this? (He was indeed there in the midst of it all!) How do I carry on? Jeff was the worship leader in my church who mentored me, and he (literally) passed the baton to me when he became too sick to come to rehearsals. (I still have that baton in my office!) I soon realized that these songs spoke to others, as well as myself, so I worked on sharing them with the world. A generous businessman in California stepped forward and helped to fund the project.
I recently received a call from an old friend who was beginning her own fight with breast cancer, and my old CD was now in permanent rotation in her truck. That leaves me speechless. I still perform some of those songs in my coffee-shop shows.
If I can release some other vocal projects first, I may eventually release a re-mixed and re-mastered edition of Horizon. We’ll see!
Again, Neil - wow! I need to hear this album! Tell us about your other “first” album.
NP: My first piano CD, Impromptu, was released in 2007. I had started raising a family, and we needed a new van. In brainstorming how we could pay for it, I got the idea of doing a simple piano CD, using some of the pieces I had already begun. I’m so glad I did!
KP: How has your music evolved since your first album?
NP: Impromptu was just that: impromptu! I recorded it on a whim, with much of it coming from edited improvisations I had recorded, sometimes years before. It has a wonderful spontaneous quality that I still love to listen to. Hammer & Wire (2012) was more composed and planned out. It was also recorded on a far superior instrument than Impromptu. I love to have a few “flashy” pieces with lots of storm and fury in them, but overall, it was more planned and constructed than Impromptu. This new CD I’m working on will be the most precisely arranged collection, yet. The trick is to maintain the level of fire and passion that I used to achieve by shooting from the hip, so to speak. I’m very excited about these pieces, but some of them seem to be coming from a different part of me this time.
KP: Sounds intriguing! What inspired you to start composing your own music?
NP: Again, it was my early piano assignments that started me out and freed me to express that way. However, it was finding something I felt passionate about in my life that gave me something to sing or play about. This is often related to my Christian faith, which touches everything in my life. As I mentioned before, much of my first vocal album was inspired by my friend’s fight with cancer. Composing, whether instrumentally or vocally, has been an avenue of release for my emotions and meditations on life. (I even wrote the bridal march for our wedding!)
Those are really personal experiences set to music. No wonder your music is so distinctive! When did you become a Whisperings Artist?
When I released Impromptu
, David Nevue and I were both playing Christmas music at the same time in different parts of the same mall in Eugene. I had heard about him and his online radio station through my mastering engineer (Michael Charles McDonald at Syntharts Studio in Eugene, who mastered some of David’s albums, as well). So, I approached David when we both had a break at the same time and handed him my CD with a mumbled request that he consider me for his station. Not long afterward, he added eight of the tunes from the album to the Whisperings rotation! We’re now pretty good friends, and I’m really enjoying having his son in my piano studio!
Click the songbook covers to read Kathy's reviews.
KP: I forgot about that! What a blessing he has to have such wonderful musical mentors! Do you perform very often?
NP: I try to. I’ve laid low this year due to my arm troubles, but I’m building up my endurance again. I try to play local coffee shops every three or four months, as well as shows with other artists as they come through town. I’m looking at venturing out beyond Eugene in the coming year, especially as I support the new album.
In addition, I work part-time at my church as a worship pastor. I lead worship there weekly, both on piano and guitar. Of course the goal in these situations is different, but I have many opportunities to serve others through music!
KP: Do you have sheet music for many of your pieces?
NP: Yes! I have complete transcriptions of all the tunes from my piano CD’s. (I’m glad I do, as I sometimes have to refer to them myself!)
KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?
NP: Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t listen to a ton of solo piano music beyond the music I’m studying or teaching. Early on, I was struck by the piano playing style of Keith Green. My parents bought me his books and I developed the percussive style I still have today by counting out his rhythms in middle school. Later, I was deeply impacted by the music of Kerry Livgren and Kansas, as well as other progressive rock groups such as Rush, Yes and Genesis. I love the music of groups like Toto who can still fuse jazz chops with pop and rock sensibilities. More recently I’ve grown to love the folk songwriting of Ellis Paul and Andrew Peterson. When I grow up I want to write lyrics like them! Peter Gabriel’s writing and performing have opened up for me a world of possibilities in modern music.
KP: Have you done any composing for films and/or TV?
NP: Not yet. I did some composing and arranging for a small musical theater production several years ago, and loved that interactive process. (My piece, Providence, from Impromptu, came from that production.)
KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?
Hard to choose, but my college senior recital comes to mind. I prepared a two-hour concert of my own rock and pop compositions. The first half was me singing at a piano, and then a rock band joined me after intermission. (My poor piano teacher from high school was cramming toilet paper in her ears once the drummer came in.) Everything was going wrong that day as the concert approached. The sound system wasn’t functioning until ten minutes before we opened the doors, so we had no real sound check. But we pulled it off! My academic advisor sat back and watched how I would handle the stress (he could have turned everything on himself), and told me he was pleased with my attitude and the results. My dad, who had wondered what I was really doing with this music degree, came to me afterward and, in a way, gave me his blessing. All told, it was a good night!
Neil's Senior Recital
KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?
NP: I want my music to convey real life, with all its hopes and joys, as well as its sorrows and trials. There are plenty of super-positive messages out there in the “New Age” genre, which is great! However, I’ve found that “happy" music doesn’t always make people happy. Letting a listener know that someone else has walked through their valley and felt their feelings, and yet has found hope in the midst of trial can provide a deeper joy. As a result, I’ve found a real connection to my audience. My Christian faith isn’t a “happy-clappy” one. If Jesus suffered in His life, then I can be sure I will, too. I want my music to communicate that there are stars beyond the clouds, and that (in the modified words of J.R.R. Tolkien) “all that is sad is coming untrue."
KP: Who are your favorite composers?
NP: I love playing Bach, Chopin and Debussy. Playing and listening to Mozart makes me laugh! I love Arvo Pärt’s music, as well. (I listen to his Te Deum and Magnificat before performances whenever I can.)
KP: Who are your favorite performers?
I love watching U2 and Peter Gabriel concerts (I collect them). Bono and Gabriel have an amazing ability to fill a room simply with their personalities. I remember being deeply moved by seeing a video of Vladimir Horowitz in concert. Such serenity and the ability to play “colors” in his sound. Breathtaking. (Also, his technique seemed awful and it makes my hands hurt whenever I watch him!) Phil Keaggy (an amazing guitarist) has such a joyful spontaneous way of performing that I try to emulate in my own shows.
KP: Watching Horowitz and Glenn Gould videos have convinced me that there are quite a few different and very effective hand positions on the piano! Horowitz played with really flat fingers and Gould played hunched over on a stool with the legs cut short, but man, could those fingers fly!
NP: Absolutely! Since I suffer from tendonitis after a bike injury I had in college, I’m über-careful as a teacher when it comes to technique. Any possible source of tension makes me sit up and take notice. Yet those two defied all the odds and played with amazing freedom and passion! (They’re just not the first videos I pull out to show young players!) Jordan Rudess (the virtuoso keyboardist for Dream Theater) has a unique approach to his hand position, as well, yet he is effortless in his playing.
KP: Have your kids gotten into music?
NP: They both take lessons with me, and have some natural ability. I have to be careful to separate my roles as “dad” and “teacher,” but I think we have found a good balance. I love that they’re both moved by music at an emotional level. My son loves building things, both real and in MineCraft, while my daughter is very artistic and is becoming quite a good sketch artist.
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
Oh, boy. Well, my first wish would be somewhat selfish: A really nice concert-level grand piano to compose, record and teach on in my own home.
Second: I want to leave a good legacy that points to something bigger than myself, for my family, my students, and my community. Did I model Jesus to them, and did I model loving others well? I hope the answer will be “yes."
Third: I would heal myself of lactose intolerance and drink a huge goblet of chocolate milk along with a huge pizza. Of course I’d then need a fourth wish for the weight loss...
KP: Ha ha! Probably so! What’s up next for you?
NP: Besides finishing work on my next two CD’s, I’m about to start my new teaching year. I have the show with Tim next weekend, and then a concert with Michele McLaughlin and Philip Wesley here in Eugene on September 16. Rebecca Oswald and I will be showcasing some of our music for local piano teachers in November. Some possible shows with David Nevue, Michael Dulin and Greg Maroney are taking shape for next year, and I may try a few shows, or even a mini-tour in Washington State, as well. I would love to get my music out to the world in a bigger way, and taking it on the road is the next step!
KP: Is there anything else you’d like to “talk” about?
I’m often asked “How do you compose?” or “How do you get new ideas?” It’s a huge question that I never feel comfortable answering. However, I can recommend this: Become a fan of music. Listen, listen, listen
! Find what you like. Find what you hate. Listen to the stuff you hate and figure out why you hate it. And then, write the music you want to hear!
If that means imitating someone else, do it! (Just don’t steal their ideas wholesale.) Decide whom you are composing for: yourself, your friends, or the world at large. This also impacts how you compose. But don’t write something you wouldn’t put in the car on a road trip. If you don’t want to listen to it, then it’s not good enough, yet. Take the time to get it right, and then share it with everyone!
Thanks for these great questions! They’ve brought back some fun memories.
Shameless plug: If anyone is interested in my musical services (lessons or live music, either alone or with Cathy), they can visit our business site at pattonmusic.com
KP: I’ll see you on the 23rd!
NP: I’ll be there! Can’t wait!
Many thanks to Neil Patton for sharing so much with us! For more information about Neil and his music, please visit his website
or his Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com.