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Interview with Pam Asberry, October 2019
Interview with Pam Asberry, image 1
Pam Asberry and I had been in touch for many years (probably at least 15) before meeting and rooming together at the Whisperings Solo Piano weekend near Seattle, WA in March 2018. Several people commented about walking down the hall of the hotel and hearing us laughing well into the night, so that says quite a bit about that weekend! Pam’s fourth solo piano album, All Through the Night, will be released on 10/18/19, so this seemed like a good time to do an interview. Pam hadn’t done any composing until fairly recently, so her story is very inspiring. Enjoy! 

KP: Hey, Pam! How are things in Georgia?

PA: Things are great! It’s been unseasonably hot here with highs in the 90’s all through the month of September, but the temperature is finally starting to cool off a bit. Such a relief!

KP: In just a few days, your fourth album, All Through the Night, will be released! For someone who composed her first piece in 2017, that’s pretty amazing! Is new music still flowing pretty freely?
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Click on album covers to go to Kathy's
reviews. Links to the songbook reviews
are on the album review pages, too.

PA: Oh, yes! Since I got back from my recording session in August, I have been exploring writing for other instruments in addition to solo piano. I have finished a clarinet solo with piano accompaniment, began collaborating on a new piece for two pianos, four hands, and spent some time working on a suite for toy piano. I am enjoying the challenge of getting out of my “comfort zone” and will continue to spread my wings. I love composing and arranging more than I have ever loved anything. I believe as long as I keep showing up and doing the work, the music will continue to flow.

KP: There are a whole lot of us who hope so! What was the idea or inspiration behind All Through the Night?

PA: In August 2018 I recorded two albums, a collection of holiday arrangements and my second album of original solo piano pieces. As I prepared for that recording session, I discovered that I enjoy arranging almost as much as composing (although one of my friends refers to arranging as “re-composing,” and to a large extent I believe that is true!).  But working with an existing melody versus creating music completely from scratch seems to call upon different aspects of my creativity and it keeps my brain fresh to be able to vacillate between the two. So over the past year, as I was working on new original pieces, I tried to think of what I might arrange besides Christmas music. Finally, the idea of doing a lullaby album popped into my head. I decided to start with “Brahms’ Lullaby”; I figured if I could come up with a fresh take on that piece, I could do anything. Once that was finished and I was satisfied with the results, it was full speed ahead!
KP: That was pretty much my thought when I was reviewing the album, too! Are you going to attempt “Canon in D” next? (a little piano teacher to piano teacher humor there!) How did you choose the pieces that you arranged?

PA: Although this is a lullaby album, I wanted to include music that would appeal to listeners of all ages. So in addition to some of the traditional lullabies, I included a few original pieces, like “Bedtime Story,” which I wrote just for this album, along with arrangements of some favorite classical pieces in keeping with the theme, like “Evening Prayer” from the great opera Hansel & Gretel and “The Sandman” by Brahms, which I have taught in its original form. 

KP: How did you manage to take “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Brahms’ Lullaby” and give them a different feel when they’ve been done so many billions of times?

PA: Thank you! To be honest, I have no idea! I get into some kind of a creative “zone” when I am writing music. I am completely unaware of the passage of time and much of anything else. Most pieces begin with a period of improvisation, recording ideas into my iPhone; then, using a black Dixon Ticonderoga pencil and a pad of staff paper, I craft each piece in sections as time permits – sometimes in fifteen-minute snatches here and there, sometimes over a period of several hours (a rare luxury!). I work until I “know” the piece is finished. If I get stuck on one piece, I set it aside and start something new; somehow, all the puzzles eventually get solved! But I have little memory of the creative process. It’s almost as if the music comes from somewhere outside of me, and I am merely a conduit! It’s the strangest thing!

KP: I know quite a few composers who say the same thing - they feel they are channeling the music from somewhere else. 

How did you discover “Abiyoyo” and the story behind it? It’s a really interesting piece, but the story is kind of gruesome! (It’s about a monster who eats naughty children!)

PA: I spent lots of time online researching lullabies from various cultures and was very happy to find “Abiyoyo,” a lullaby based on a South African folk tale. Yes, it’s a gruesome story, but the song has such a beautiful melody! It was a lot of fun to arrange, starting in a major key, creating some tension with the haunting sound of the relative minor key, and then settling back into the major key for a happy ending.

KP: The four original pieces on the album are really nice, too, although “Lullaby for Mackenzie” is exceptionally heartfelt. Do you want to talk about that piece?

PA: I wrote “Lullaby for Mackenzie” for my April 2019 release The Presence of Wonder, but it seemed appropriate to reprise it on the lullaby album. Back in 1994, my unborn baby was diagnosed with Trisomy 13, meaning she had three copies of chromosome 13 in each cell of her body instead of the normal two copies. This disrupts normal development and causes associated anomalies: heart defects, brain and spinal cord abnormalities, very small or underdeveloped eyes, cleft lip and cleft palate, and weak muscle tone. Although I was encouraged to terminate the pregnancy – because even if it were to run its course, and the baby were to survive birth, she wasn’t likely to live more than a few days – I elected to carry on. She was born on May 4th, came home with us, and lived for six days that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Of course I think about her every day and wonder about the young woman she would have grown up to be. “Lullaby for Mackenzie” is my tribute to her, and I hope that it will bring some small measure of comfort to others who have lost a child too soon.
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First CD release, 2017.
KP: I’m sure it will! 

You and I share a strong affinity for being by the ocean. “Sleepy Tide” depicts the ocean at its most peaceful. What were you envisioning as you composed it?

PA: “Sleepy Tide” was actually written for my very first album, Seashells in My Pocket. Again, it seemed like it belonged on the lullaby album as well! As I wrote the music, I imagined lying on a soft, sandy beach with my feet resting at the edge of the water and the tide gently lapping over my toes. When I close my eyes and listen to this music, I can almost hear the sound of the surf and smell the salt in the air!

KP: Will there be a songbook to go with this album?

PA: Yes! I do my own transcriptions and the sheet music book is at the printer now.

KP: Oh goodie! I can’t wait to play some of these pieces!

You have said that when you went to Piano Haven in Sedona, AZ, you also recorded a second album due to be released early next year. Do you want to talk about it yet?

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PA: I actually recorded TWO more albums (and a couple of singles!) while I was in Sedona in August. The first is a project called Twelvemonth. There is a song for every month of the calendar year; I will release them as singles beginning this December and then release the full collection in November 2020. The second, Moods, Impressions & Souvenirs, was inspired by the work of an obscure Czech composer named Fibich, who was a contemporary of the great Czech nationalists Dvorak and Smetana. However, Fibich wrote more in the style of the German Romantics, which wasn’t nearly as popular at the time; this, combined with some scandalous personal decisions he made towards the end of his short life, caused him to fall from favor. In recent years, though, there has been a revival of interest in his work, which I feel is richly deserved. He wrote a collection of 171 pieces under the title “Moods, Impressions & Souvenirs.” The twelve pieces on my album are inspired by my own travel, memories and feelings, and are composed in a variety of styles.   

KP: When will that one be released?

PA: Sometime in April, 2020.

KP: Congratulations for your “Best Holiday Album of the Year” award from Enlightened Piano Radio a month or so ago for Thankful Heart, Joyful Mind! With the holidays coming up fast, let’s talk about that album a bit. How did you choose the carols for that album?

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Pam with Ovidio De Ferrari and Kathy in Bellevue, WA, March 2018.
PA: Yes, I was very surprised (and delighted!) to hear my name announced as the winner! Christmas is hands down my favorite holiday and I have always loved the music of the season. Consequently, I have accumulated quite a collection of albums and sheet music over the years that I have listened to and played through since I was a little girl. I opted to mine that rich musical heritage to choose the pieces for this album in order to bring some of my favorite lesser-known pieces to new listeners while also sharing a few more familiar melodies in fresh ways. “White Christmas” is my mom’s favorite Christmas song so I dedicated my arrangement of that one to her.

KP: I really like that the album is a mix of familiar (but not too familiar) and more obscure carols. Did you know all of the songs before you started or did you discover some “new” ones along the way?

PA: I was very familiar with all the songs except the last one, “Come, Let Us Anew,” which is a beautiful old hymn welcoming the New Year. Thanks, Google! 

KP: Earlier this year, you released your third album, The Presence of Wonder. It is all original piano solos inspired by a lot of different life events. Tell us a bit about that album.
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Pam giving Rhonda Mackert 'bunny ears' at Whisperings 2018.

PA: Yes, I dug deep into my life experiences to create the music for The Presence of Wonder. I’ve already talked about “Lullaby for Mackenzie.” Other pieces reflect various beliefs I hold about human existence and responses to events that have taken place in the world. The final piece, “Now,” is a meditation on the importance of living fully in the present moment. Even though I finished writing that music more than a year ago, it still conjures powerful emotions when I play it.. 

KP: Your debut album (2017), Seashells In My Pocket, earned you the Enlightened Piano Radio “Best New Artist” award last year. That must have been extremely gratifying for your first compositions and first album! Tell us a little about that album.

PA: Yes, it was amazing! My favorite way to travel is on a cruise ship and there is no place I would rather be than at the beach. So when I started thinking about writing music for an album, memories from the many beautiful islands and tropical cities I have visited provided rich sources of inspiration. Each piece from Seashells in My Pocket is like a seashell plucked from the sand and tucked into one’s pocket as a souvenir from a magical day at the beach. To receive such an award for my first efforts as a composer was truly a great honor!

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With Philip Wesley at Whisperings 2018.
KP: You have been a pianist for almost all of your life, but never felt you had it in you to compose. What changed for you a couple of years ago?

PA: I always WANTED to compose, but I didn’t think I was capable of it. I would sit down at the piano and TRY to write music, but nothing ever came of it. I became convinced that I didn’t have it in me to create music; also, I am an excellent sight reader so playing other people’s music is almost effortless! However, I have been a fan of the New Age genre forever; I saw George Winston in concert in the 1980’s, spent hours playing David Lanz’s music for solace during my pregnancy with Mackenzie, and eventually met David Nevue (thanks to you, Kathy!) and have attended many Whisperings concerts in the fifteen or so years since. Most of the artists I met found it incredible that I was such an experienced player but didn’t improvise or write music. But I was resigned to my fate until about three years ago, when I went on the Enlightened Piano Radio Awards Cruise as a fan. Several of my solo piano artist friends – in particular Joseph Akins, Cathy Oakes and Cory Lavine – were nominated for awards and I went just to support them (any excuse to go on a cruise, right?). The last night of the trip, Cathy Oakes told me she had dreamed that I would release an album of my own within the year. I laughed at her at the time, but that seed of thought started to grow, and six months later, on my youngest son’s 21at birthday, I finished my first-ever composition, “Monterey Morning.” And four months after that I was in Sedona, Arizona at Piano Haven Studios recording Seashells in My Pocket. Looking back now, it’s all quite surreal!

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With David and Julie Nevue in 2017.
KP: Do you encourage your students to compose? If so, have you always done so?

PA: In the past, I never particularly encouraged my students to compose, but I didn’t DISCOURAGE them either. I have always tried to support my students in whatever musical direction they wish to go. I actually had a high school senior win the Georgia Music Teachers Association composition competition several years ago. He got to perform at the state conference and everything!  But it wasn’t because of anything I taught him. My role in that was pure cheerleader! Now though, because of what I am doing, I have a lot more students interested in composing. Last year, one of my students won an arts competition at his elementary school with an original composition and two of my students played pieces they wrote in the spring recital, and there are several others with works in progress. It is exciting, for sure!

KP: Wow! That’s really impressive! 

You have done a lot of performing in your career. How is it different to perform your own music as opposed to someone else’s?

PA: It is vastly different. In the classical music arena, we are bound by the rules of interpretation as they apply to the various style periods. Of course, there is freedom of expression within those boundaries, but in my experience creativity isn’t particularly encouraged. It can be a very harsh, very competitive, very judgmental world.

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Performing at Whisperings 2019 in Atlanta, GA.
KP: Do you prefer one over the other?

PA: Although I have done a lot of performing, I never really felt totally comfortable doing so until I started playing my OWN music. After all, since I wrote it, no one can say I’m doing it “wrong.”  I absolutely LOVE doing live performances now, sharing the stories behind the music and playing it from my heart. I will say, though, that my classical training has served me well! 

KP: Indeed! Let’s back up a bit and talk about your early life. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

PA: I was born in southern Missouri and lived in St. Louis County until the end of sixth grade. Then my dad took a new job in southern Indiana and my parents bought a house across the Wabash River in southern Illinois. 

KP: How old were you when you started playing the piano?

PA: My maternal grandmother bought me my first piano for my seventh birthday. I started lessons soon after that.

KP: How long did you take lessons?

PA: I told my parents after that first lesson that I wanted to be a piano teacher when I grew up. I’m sure no one took me seriously at the time, but obviously I really meant it! I continued lessons until I graduated from college and have had a few drop-in lessons with various teachers over the years since. 

KP: Did you participate in music competitions while you were in school?

PA: No. I grew up in a very small town and there were no competitions available to me as a piano student. I did have many opportunities to perform though. I was the pianist at our little country church, I accompanied most of the school choral ensembles and instrumentalists, and I played in my teacher’s annual recital. Those are all very happy memories!

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Age 7.
KP: Do you play any other instruments?

PA: I started playing the clarinet when I was in fourth grade; I actually went to college on a clarinet scholarship. I was first chair in the University Wind Ensemble my senior year, much to the dismay of the clarinet majors. But I didn’t have time to play in grad school – I finished my master’s degree in fifteen months! – and haven’t played seriously since then, although I have had a handful of clarinet students over the years. I never loved the clarinet the way I love the piano, although I cherish all the friends I made playing the instrument in various groups along the way.

KP: Where did you earn your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music?

PA: I earned both at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I studied with Mary Jane Grizzell, who earned her degrees at Eastman School of Music. She was an excellent musician and a warm and caring teacher. By the time I was a senior, I had a key to her studio so I could practice on the grand piano in there weekends. We stayed in touch until her death in 2011.

KP: I’m sure there was a very special bond between you! When did you start teaching piano?

PA: I started teaching way back in 1979. I was a sophomore in college, studying piano performance and pedagogy, and one of my fellow students, who was older and married to a college professor, left town for a semester when her husband went on sabbatical. She was already an established teacher with a studio of fifteen and her students needed a teacher to fill in while she was away. Lucky for me, I got the job. It was a great opportunity to practice all the things I was learning in my classes! Since then, I have had studios of my own in Peoria, Illinois and Raleigh, North Carolina. Now I am living in a northeastern suburb of Atlanta; last year I had 58 students on my weekly schedule! This year, though, I made the decision to cut back to four days a week to allow more time for composition and promotion.

KP: How many students do you have now?

PA: 40.

KP: Are any of your family members musicians?

PA: Both my parents took piano lessons as children; my dad also played the saxophone and the guitar. And two of my children played the piano and the violin. But it seems I’m the only one who was crazy enough to stick with it!

KP: HaHa! Who and/or what do you consider to be some of your musical influences?

PA: Oh, my gosh! I will take a stab at this one although I should probably just say “too numerous to mention” and leave it at that!  I grew up listening to everything in my parents’ vinyl collection; it was eclectic, to say the least. There was Beethoven and Stravinsky, big band and jazz, soundtracks from the great musicals, and gospel quartets along with the likes of Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Jim Nabors and Frank Sinatra. High school favorites were John Denver, Dan Fogelberg, Elton John, YES, and Led Zeppelin. As a young adult, I was a big fan of the Windham Hill label; favorite artists were Philip Aaberg, Liz Story and Nightnoise.  More recent loves include Coldplay, MUSE, Radiohead, Mumford and Sons, Nickel Creek, Chris Thile and Sam Bush. And of course the thread of classical music is woven through everything. Favorite composers are Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, but if I could listen to the music of just ONE composer for the rest of my life, it would probably be Mozart (although I’m glad I don’t have to!)
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With David Lanz

KP: That’s a very eclectic list! What has been your most exciting musical moment to date?

PA: Again, it is hard to narrow that down! Composing has certainly opened many doors for me. It was a great honor to perform as an Enlightened Piano Radio Awards nominee in 2018 at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and then last month at the the Place des Arts in Montreal. It was also thrilling to fly home from Sedona in August knowing I had THREE new albums under my belt. A couple of weeks ago I opened for Jim Chappell and Philip Wesley at a concert in Atlanta and I NAILED my performance, which felt great. I guess it might be fair to say that my most exciting musical moment to date is the latest!

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

PA: I’m too practically-minded to indulge in wishful thinking; rather, I believe in setting goals and doing the work to make them happen. Some of these “goals” are so “pie-in-the-sky,” though, that they probably sound more like pipe dreams!  But what’s the use of thinking small? Three current goals are seeing one of my albums hit #1 on the Billboard chart, performing in each of the fifty states, and paying off debt and earning a comfortable living composing and performing.
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With George Skaroulis in Atlanta, 2019

KP: You go, girl! Let's add Oregon next year! What’s up next for you?

PA: Over the next twelve months, I will release all the new music as explained previously and do what I can to get my music in front of a wider audience by playing more concerts and building my following on the streaming services. And of course I will decide upon themes for future albums and get everything ready for another recording session next summer. I also enjoy writing and am toying with the notion of writing a memoir. In my free time, ha!

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

PA: I just want to remind everyone that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” The moment I stopped telling myself I didn’t have it in me to be a composer, poof! I wrote that first piece of music. My whole life is different now, and I am very grateful to each and every person who had a role in that, however big or small. There’s no stopping me now!

Many thanks to Pam Asberry for taking the time to chat! For more information about Pam and her music, be sure to visit her website and her Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
October 2019