When Shoshana Michel was seven years old, a door-to-door salesman for a local music studio knocked on her front door. Her parents signed her up for music lessons, starting with the accordion and adding piano lessons soon after. Although she started playing professionally at a fairly young age, Shoshana didn’t start composing seriously until 2015. Most of her five albums have won or have been nominated for a very impressive group of awards, including Album of the Year on Whisperings, SoloPiano.com, Enlightened Piano Radio and One World Music.
Shoshana released her fifth album and piano songbook, Impressions
, on February 14, 2020, and I really think it’s her best music yet. We talk about the album and her life so far in this interview. Enjoy!
KP: Hi Shoshana! February was a very busy month for you with a house concert with Rhonda Mackert in WA state and the release of your new album and songbook. How are you doing?
SM: Hi Kathy! I'm doing great! Yes, February was a very busy month for me, but it was a good kind of busy!
KP: Tell us about the idea and/or inspiration for the music on Impressions.
SM: I normally don't compose with anything in mind. However, with this album there were several pieces that were inspired by emotions that I was going through at the time. "Elegy" was composed after I read about someone's pet cockatoo that died. I was so saddened by this that I sat at down at the piano and started composing “Elegy." I hadn't meant to compose something so solemn, but that's what came out. I have birds of my own and I've had several die in the past so my grief in losing my own birds poured into this piece as well. Another piece, "In My Dreams,” was inspired by the dreams that I had about my mother who passed away 20 years ago. "Dancing in the Shadows" was composed in response to feeling left out when I was not invited to functions held by extended family. "Nocturne in E Flat" and "Loneliness" were inspired by classical music and "Prelude in E Minor” was inspired by a combination of classical and minimalistic music.
KP: A few of the pieces on Impressions, including my favorite, “Nocturne in Eb,” are of a more classical style than some of your previous music. Is your music background and training mostly classical?
Yes, my piano lessons and training were classical based.
Click on covers to go to Kathy's reviews.
KP: When did you start playing the piano?
SM: I started playing when I was seven years old.
KP: How long did you take lessons?
SM: I took lessons for about 12 years and then stopped. I started again as an adult.
KP: Is there a story behind “Nocturne in Eb”?
SM: Yes, my “Nocturne in Eb” was inspired by two of my favorite pieces, Chopin's “Berceuse” and Dustin O'Halloran's “Opus 23.” The “Berceuse” is incredibly gorgeous and I learned it on my own as an adult.
KP: I know the “Berceuse,” but I’ll have to check out O’Halloran!
“Dancing In the Shadows” has a sad but interesting story. What is it about?
SM: I was inspired to compose "Dancing in the Shadows" after a series of events that I was excluded from that left me feeling left out and alone. When I wrote this piece, in my mind’s eye I could see myself in an outer room where everything was essentially black and white and dimly lit, and I was wearing a white flowing dress. I could see a door open, and inside this door was a large banquet room, in vibrant color, filled with people sitting at tables, talking to each other and enjoying themselves. I could hear the music coming out of this room and I danced to the music, alone, in my flowing white dress, in the shadows. This is probably one of my most favorite pieces and one of the most meaningful to me from this album.
KP: It’s a gorgeous piece!
The cover artwork has a similar style to paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Where did you find it?
SM: I was looking for artwork from the Impressionistic period and after doing several Google searches, the Post-Impressionistic painting, In Tune, by artist Mark Briscoe, came up in the search.
It’s a great choice!
Click on album covers
to go to Kathy's reviews.
Your previous album, Reflection
(2019), was nominated as Best Solo Piano Album by One World Radio in England. Congratulations! Tell us a bit about that album.
SM: Thank you! The pieces in Reflection were written during a period when I was trying to find my way as a composer. One of the tracks, "Soothing the Tempest Within,” reflects my frustrations and insecurity as a composer while "In a Time Lapse" is about feeling that life was speeding around me.
KP: Dancing On the Wind was nominated for Whisperings Album of the Year in 2016. What was that album about?
SM: Dancing on the Wind was my first album as a composer. I really didn't have anything in mind when I composed those pieces or had any idea what I was doing. I just wrote down the music that came to me.
KP: That’s a very impressive start! Let’s go back and talk about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
SM: I as born in Los Angeles, California and moved to Torrance, California when I was twelve.
KP: Are any of your family members musicians?
SM: My brother is a musician and plays several different instruments.
KP: Were you encouraged to compose or improvise by your teacher(s)?
SM: No, I wasn't encouraged to compose or improvise at all from what I can remember. My training came from the basic piano method books then to compilation classical books and I wasn't encouraged to do anything beyond that.
KP: Same here. When did you start composing music?
SM: When I was eight, I composed two pieces that my piano teacher wrote down for me: "Circus Monkey" and "Big and Little.” I still have those pieces written on oversized manilla colored manuscript paper. Other than that, I didn't compose until 1991 when I wrote a piece for one of my piano students for her birthday. I stopped after that, though, and didn't compose again until 2015.
KP: You have said that once you started to compose, the music just kept coming. Is that still true?
SM: When I started to compose in 2015, yes, the music just flowed for two albums’ worth of music and then stopped. The frustration of that motivated my next album, Reflection. As with most composers, there are times that the music flows more than others.
KP: I think that’s true of any creative endeavor, and it’s painful!
How did you get the job/gig of playing ragtime piano at Knott’s Berry Farm?
SM: Knott's Berry Farm had placed a two-page ad in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times to advertise their upcoming Roaring 20's section. I saw the ad and wondered if they might need a ragtime pianist. I called the Entertainment Dept. at Knott's the next day, asked if they needed a pianist and they said that they did. I went there to audition, played a couple of songs from the 1920's, sight-read a piece from one of their shows and I got hired!
KP: You look really young in the photos. Were you still in high school?
SM: No, I started working at Knott's Berry Farm two months before my 19th birthday, so I was probably between 19 and 21 at the time the photo was taken.
KP: When was that and how long did you play there?
I started playing in the brand new Roaring 20's section in the summer of 1975 and played there for a few years. I later got hired to play piano for the melodramas at The Birdcage Theatre, which was located within Knott's Berry Farm but wasn't yet owned by Knott's. I played at The Birdcage Theatre for several years, too.
Shoshana at Knott's Berry Farm.
KP: Did you ever want to be anything but a musician?
SM: At one point I wanted to become an occupational therapy assistant and went as far as applying to a school, but didn't go any further than that.
KP: Do you play other instruments in addition to piano?
SM: Yes, I started on the accordion and I do take it out of its case from time to time and play around with it. I used to play 4-string plectrum banjo many years ago but don't play that at all anymore.
KP: When did you release your first album?
SM: I released my first album, Soul Whispers, in 2015.
KP: That album was arrangements rather than original compositions, right?
SM: Yes, they are my arrangements of songs of Eastern European origin.
KP: Did the process of doing Soul Whispers inspire you to start composing as well as arranging?
SM: In the mid-1980’s, I had a gig playing piano at lunchtime in the food court at a shopping mall and I would make and play my own arrangements of popular songs. It was the release of Soul Whispers and having it played on solo piano streaming sites that inspired and motivated me to start composing.
KP: Interesting! Who and what do you consider to be some of your musical influences?
SM: I particularly resonate with the Romantic and Impressionistic periods and their composers as well as minimalistic piano music.
KP: Who are your favorite composers?
SM: Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Aaron Copeland, Scott Joplin, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton to name a few.
I think you are the first composer I’ve interviewed who loves James P. Johnson’s music, too! I think some of his music is just as good or better than Joplin’s (also one of my favorites), and yet he is not nearly as well-known. That’s another discussion we need to have over a glass of wine sometime!
At Whisperings in 2017, Costa Mesa, CA.
What has been your most exciting musical moment to date?
SM: Gosh, I don't think that I can narrow it down to just one. Playing ragtime piano and playing in the shows both for Knott's (itself) and The Birdcage Theatre were dream jobs. I really loved playing there. Playing my own compositions for others is also very exciting for me as I really love sharing my music with others.
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
SM: Wish #1 - I wish that people would respect, accept and love one another.
Wish #2 - I wish that the world would be at peace.
Wish #3 - I wish that people would find happiness within themselves and then spread their happiness to others.
KP: And I wish for all three of those to come true!
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
I feel extremely blessed to be able to do what I love, which is creating music and sharing it with others. Music can be so healing and knowing that I've helped others with my music is an amazing feeling and a blessing that I never take for granted.
Click on book covers to go to Kathy's reviews.
Many thanks to Shoshana Michel for taking the time to chat! For more info about Shoshana and her music, be sure to visit her website
and her Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com!