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Interview with Rocky Fretz, April 2010
Interview with Rocky Fretz, image 1
I recently reviewed Rocky Fretz’s latest release, The Path Ahead... And Steps Then Taken, a fantastic album that was produced by the legendary Will Ackerman and that was named Independent Music Awards’ Best New Age Album for 2009. In the course of reviewing the album, I did some research into Rocky’s history and found that he has been a professional pianist for many years and that the new album is actually his eighth. While communicating with him, I also discovered that he is overflowing with ideas about music education as well as showcasing the talents of older artists. Getting to know Rocky a bit has been great fun for me, and I think you’ll enjoy this dynamic and thought-provoking interview.

KP: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Rocky Fretz: I was born in Kennett, a small town in South East Missouri. My dad was in the Air Force so we moved around quite a bit while I was a kid. I spent the first grade in the Philippines and then at another half dozen or more schools until the middle of the tenth grade when we settled not twenty miles from where I was born, in a smaller town, Holcomb, MO.

KP: Are any other members of your family musicians?

RF: No. My mom could sing harmony and sang a little in church. I also remember a story about my Mom's dad being a pretty good dancer, but that's about it.

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

RF: I was about 7 when I first started liking the piano, having watched an older cousin who lived across the street practice her piano lessons. I think it was my eighth Christmas that I got my first piano - a really huge upright that Dad 'antiqued' red! It was very cool. I tried piano lessons on several occasions but that didn't work out so well. I would learn half the book in each lesson instead of one lesson at a time. I really wanted to learn, just not so slowly. Around junior high, I played a lot, but mostly making up songs and trying to learn as I went along. There were a couple of kids who helped me out by showing me a few “tricks,” and I learned what I could on my own and mostly by ear.

KP: It’s shocking to me as a teacher that your teachers discouraged you from advancing as quickly as you were able to. Why hold a student back when he or she is ready to fly? Thank goodness you didn’t just give up!

Interview with Rocky Fretz, image 2
RF: Well, in those early teachers’ defense, they were just doing what they were taught to do. I think those standard teaching methods, and teaching materials in general, were considered the best.

As for staying involved and interested, I would have to credit a couple of choir teachers and the school chorus programs, in which I had the pleasure to perform and learn, with providing an environment conducive to musical growth and education. There was always a piano in the choir room. I spent many days using their piano to practice and to try to get a little attention, I suppose :) !

KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teachers or anyone else?

RF: No. Of the three or four teachers I had as an early learner, none of them believed that one should be encouraged to compose or improvise as a student. In addition to my belief that composition and improvisation should begin as soon as possible, I believe playing the piano and reading music are two totally different things that need not be combined from the beginning. As a matter of fact, my new music school will be utilizing this principle in its beginner series.

KP: Tell us more about this school.

RF: I am excited about this project. I am currently creating the team of educators and building an online music school. I can't say too much about the innovations and new efforts to transform the way we learn to play the piano that will be incorporated into the new program, but I can tell you that the encouragement to compose one's own music begins at the beginning of the course.

The biggest difference between our approach to learning to play a musical instrument and those that precede us would probably be the separation of the two goals that are now combined in most piano study - playing the piano and reading music notation.

I believe that the reason many young or beginning students don't stick with their piano studies is that the program for which they paid mostly focuses on reading music notation shortly after a few pages about playing the piano - the actual lifting of a finger or tilting of a hand or even how to sit at a piano take an immediate back seat to reading music.

Our program spends as much as six months or whatever is needed to equip a pianist with the actual tools needed to get one's fingers moving on a keyboard.

Ear training replaces much of the standard notation. Learning timing and composition are also used to keep the student at the instrument.

It is my contention that the longer we can keep the interest in learning as high as possible, the better the chance that the student will remain at the piano and stick with the program - even after beginning the process of reading music notation.

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The need to learn how to communicate music (the reason for the written music page) can come much later in the process. By the time it does, the student will immediately recognize the concepts on the written page as they have actually played the patterns and movements associated with the musical concept in their playing before the written music concepts are even introduced.

I know - it's wild - but it works. Our new teaching model utilizes cutting edge technology, well-written instructional materials, a new media player with new functions embedded to use as the surrogate teacher between lessons. The instructor and the entire program is video-based while being supported by one on one monthly video conference meetings.

I'll be happy to share the program in its entirety with you as soon as we are ready to release it publicly sometime before the first of 2011.

KP: This sounds really intriguing! Do you play other instruments?

RF: A little percussion, but mostly piano.

KP: How old were you when you started improvising?

RF: From the start - 8, I guess.

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

RF: 8 or 9. I remember rewriting a few of the early pieces, too. I was all about composition from the start.

KP: Were you a music major in college?

RF: Well, kind of. I attended Arkansas State University in their music program for a couple of years in my 20’s. I had an accident that resulted in the loss of sight in my left eye which qualified me for some tuition money. I used it to learn as much as I could until my music reading skills, or lack thereof, made it impossible to continue. Now that I have learned much of the work, I intend to finish my music degree over the next few years.

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Rocky & Will Ackerman
KP: The Path Ahead is your eighth release, and I love it. What were the previous seven releases like?

RF: I am so glad you enjoy it, Kathy. Thank you again. All of my previous CDs were self-produced and done with very limited budgets. I am still proud of them and a couple of them still sell very well, but the quality of the work is simply abysmal compared to the new CD, which was produced by Will Ackerman, engineered by Corin Nelsen and recorded at Imaginary Road Studios on a lovely Steinway.

Previously, I recorded a couple of Christmas CDs, two or three original piano works, a cover music CD, and one of original arrangements of hymns and sacred songs.

KP: How did you come to work with Will Ackerman on Path? Is this the first of your recordings that he has produced?

RF: I was considering doing the record and asked myself, "If I use another producer, who would it be?" I immediately thought of Will. He has produced so many great records and artists, so I emailed him and asked him to consider producing me. He replied and I sent some of my work to him to review. Although he didn't care for much of it, he did like the new stuff and encouraged me to continue to work on it and send him songs as they developed. I did so and he finally said yes :)! It was my first record with Will and hopefully not my last!

KP: Have you performed with Will?

RF: Just once so far. We played a concert together in Pawleys Island, SC to introduce the new CD. It was awesome! We are discussing more concerts now.

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KP: You always seem to have a very big grin on your face in concert photos. Is performing a true joy for you?

RF: Yes. Aside from spending time with Kimberly, my wife of 25 years, performing is my joy. I am most at home in this world either beside Kim or sitting at a piano.

KP: Do you perform in concerts very often?

RF: Yes, but not as much as I'd like. I started playing in bands and as a solo artist very young and did so until 1985 when, while living in Charleston, SC, I met Kimberly and saw a newspaper ad for "year round employment as a musician." That ad led me to an audition for The Carolina Opry Show where I secured the position of feature pianist, vocal director and associate producer of the first two albums. I spent seventeen years with the show, which resulted in over 4,000 performances. I have played about 1,000 times on my own as a solo artist, as a duo with my favorite bassist, Patrick O'Leary, and in many, many ensemble combination before and since retiring my full-time position at the Carolina Opry in 2003.

KP: The Path Ahead... was originally released last year, but I wasn’t familiar with it until recently. Did winning the 2009 Independent Music Award as Best New Age Album get the momentum rolling again or did you do a second release of it?

RF: The release date was set late last year in order to get the CD in the running for a Grammy nomination. In hindsight, I would have released the record after the first of the year and promoted it all year ahead of the 2010 awards. I probably rushed that one, but because we did, I won the Independent Music Award, so that worked out well! :)

KP: Your playing is amazingly versatile. Have you always had an eclectic taste for music?

RF: Thank you, Kathy. Yes, I get bored easily with the same kind of music all the time. Because of the variety show gig, I played many, many different styles accompanying lots of different vocalists. That really helped in exposing me to different genres and styles.

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

RF: Not at this time, but I hope to this year.

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

RF: I never really had any big influences other than the many classic rock bands I saw as a teenager and in my 20’s. Bands like Kansas, Styx, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ELO. There is a little bit of jazz influence from Stanley Clark and Chick Corea. The music that I was constantly writing took up most of my listening and music time. As an adult player, I would list George Winston, Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges, and many of the old Windham Hill gang.

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KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?

RF: Fear. Fear of sounding like someone else. I actually don't remember not having this nagging fear that if I listened too much to other players I would sound too much like them to be thought of as original. I have always wanted to play only my own work and be able to make a decent living doing so. Right now, I still have to pepper my shows with cover tunes for as much as half of the set. I do try to make them my own though. My covers include the theme from Phantom of the Opera, “Memory,” “Summertime,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Tara Theme,” and maybe a dozen more like those.

KP: You’ll have to play “Summertime” for me some time. I love that song, and love to hear different artists’ take on it. Have you done any composing for films and/or TV?

RF: I would love to play "Summertime" for you. I have an original arrangement of it with a 6/8 feel. Maybe I can get a copy to you from one of my concerts soon.

As far as film or TV tracks, just a little, but I would love to do more. I have seen my songs placed in a Fear Factor episode or two, a Megan Mullaly show and maybe three or four others.

KP: Have you done much session work as a back-up musician?

RF: Some, but not a lot. I am on my way up to VT to play a track on Will Ackerman's new CD next week, and am looking forward to that a great deal. I am so honored to have been asked! A long time ago, I was an associate producer and played piano and keys on a Carolina Opry album.

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

RF: It's a toss-up between the experience of working with Will Ackerman and Corin Nelsen in Imaginary Road Studios on the new CD and the live performance Will and I did together last September. I guess I'll have to lean to the side of the live show with Will. There is absolutely no greater joy than seeing people enjoy one's work.

There is one other really memorable music experience when I was young, though. As a teenager, I was honored to play piano and B3 Hammond organ on a record for a singer/songwriter named Danny Birmingham. The sessions were at Memphis Sound Studios and the producer/engineer was the amazing Roland Janes. That, at 16-years-old, was amazing!

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

RF: Inspiration. As an artist over 50 who has yet to "make it," my message, mission and music are all about never giving up on our dreams. I believe there are a lot of musicians out there my age or older who think that a life that includes a successful music career is reserved for the young. I don't.

KP: What a fantastic viewpoint! I also know that there are many “mature” artists who would love to be heard!

RF: Thanks again Kathy. I hope the message rings loudly.

KP: Who are your favorite composers?

RF: I love Will Ackerman and Michael Hedges (RIP) for acoustic guitar compositions, and I enjoy an occasional Chopin piece, but really don't have any favorites. Weird, huh?

KP: Not really - especially if you avoid listening to too many. Who are your favorite performers?

RF: Again, any artists who put everything they have into their performances are my favorites.

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

1. No more war
2. Always be with Kimberly
3. 10,000 more wishes :)

KP: What’s up next for you?

RF: Everything musical these days is about booking more shows and getting the music school and StillAStar (a talent showcase for artists over 40) off the ground. We plan to shoot many, many video clinics over the next few months and are looking forward to expanding my concert calendar. StillAStar is in its early development stages, so I don't have a lot to say about it other than I feel it is time to let those of us who are a little older than the average star have a venue in which to show their talent!

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

RF: Just a word of sincere thanks for your help and support of independent music, Kathy. MainlyPiano.com is awesome! Be well and have fun!
Many thanks to Rocky Fretz for taking the time for this interview. For more information about him and his music, please visit his website, iTunes, and Amazon as well as his Artist Page on MainlyPiano.
Kathy Parsons
April 2010