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My Piano Experience (Extended Bio)

My piano studies began at age seven with Iris Fuller in Mechanicsburg, PA. I didn't know, at such a young age, how important a person's first instructor could be to his/her musical development; and it wasn't until I began teaching professionally that I realized how fortunate I was to have had Mrs. Fuller lay out my musical foundation. As a member of the National Keyboard Arts Associates, she used a groundbreaking method by Richard Chronister and David Kraehenbuehl (two of the leading piano pedagogues of the last half of the 20th century), which I'm sure contributed greatly to my note reading, aural and creative skills early on. Also, during my time with Mrs. Fuller, I had the opportunity to perform in numerous recitals and adjudicated piano festivals, which built my confidence through positive comments from audience members and consistently high ratings by judges. When I was 12, she encouraged me to move on to study with a teacher specializing in more advanced classical repertoire.

And so I began lessons with Ronald Leopold, also of Mechanicsburg, and started to delve deeply into the works of the great classical composers. I was "tested" every year of study through participation in the National Piano Playing Auditions, which were adjudicated performance events sponsored by the National Guild of Piano Teachers. I was always quite proud of the marks and comments I received, which were of the highest level. By the time I was 17, my classical repertoire included Bach “Preludes and Fugues,” Beethoven “Sonatas,” Beethoven's “32 Variations,” Gershwin's “Preludes for Piano," Copland's “Four Piano Blues”, Chopin's “Fantasie-Impromptu,” Brahms' “Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2,” Schubert's "Impromptu Op. 90, No.2,” Debussy's “Pour Le Piano,” Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue,” Kennan's “Three Preludes,” additional pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, as well as major works by Handel, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, Czerny, Moszkowski, and even a few ragtime pieces by Scott Joplin.

It was also around the time when I began lessons with Mr. Leopold that I started to explore the creative world of improvisation on my own. I remember sitting at the piano for extended periods of time, churning out spontaneous compositions, one after another. Although I lacked a full understanding of what I was doing in terms of music theory, I was fearless in my explorations. In middle school, when I became interested in popular music, I began playing my favorite songs "by ear," again without any kind of instruction. I also used to find "sheet music" (as it was called at the time) for a lot of the songs to which I was listening and took it to my lessons to supplement my classical studies. Although I had learned quite a bit of music theory with Mrs. Fuller and continued to do so with Mr. Leopold, I went beyond that instruction to teach myself about harmony through the pop/rock songs I was learning. After a couple years, my musical understanding increased to the point of wanting to learn the more advanced harmonic/melodic vocabulary of jazz.

As early as I can remember (probably from the time I was born), my father was constantly playing recordings of great jazz artists such as Frank Sinatra, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Getz, Bill Evans and Wynton Marsalis. During my teen years, I took full advantage of his vast record collection, exploring it in its entirety. With such a solid listening background, I just needed a teacher to help me learn the complex skills of jazz piano. My Dad found for me the best local jazz pianist in the Harrisburg area -- Steve Rudolph. Although he wasn't really a "teacher" at the time, he agreed to take me under his wing when I was 16. I learned a lot from Steve, mostly through osmosis, and was introduced to the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz Youth All-Stars through him. That was (and still is) a group of some of the area's best high school jazz musicians. With that band, I got to play some high-profile concerts and other gigs around the area. Those were my first professional performance experiences.

During high school, I also formed my own bands – both rock and jazz. I still remember my first professional jazz gig under my own name when I was a high school senior...a trio performance at a large summer fair in the parking lot of the old Bon-Ton in Camp Hill – great fun! Following are some other musical highlights of my senior year: I was selected for the National Music Clinic jazz ensemble; I was a featured soloist for every song in my high school jazz ensemble; I was a member of the Dickinson College jazz ensemble (which was in need of a pianist at the time); an advanced second-level music theory course was created in my high school exclusively for myself and a fellow classmate, which allowed me to compose works for orchestra, brass ensemble (one of which was performed at a high school concert) and voice/piano, as well as a collection of jazz tunes; my rock band won the high school talent show for the second year in a row (yay!); I got my first experience playing a lengthy piano book in a pit orchestra for a musical; I worked as a research assistant for the Chair of the Music Department at Messiah University; I received the CPFJ Friends of Jazz Scholarship; I auditioned at several music schools and was accepted at all of them.

Unfortunately, my first year of college was not a brilliant one. The first school I attended was Shenandoah University, where I was a performance major in jazz studies. I lasted just one semester there, as my piano professor convinced me that I should be studying at a more prestigious school (seriously!). So I transferred to what was (and still is) known as one of the best jazz schools in the world – the Berklee College of Music. Unfortunately, I found out very quickly that it was not a good fit for me, mostly because it was/is a performance school, and I was slowly realizing that I wanted to major in music education. So I made my departure just a few weeks after my arrival. Thus ended my first year of college education, at which point I decided to turn to another school where I was previously accepted – Temple University.

I spent my first three semesters at Temple as a music education major. During that time, I learned a lot about teaching general music. I am particularly grateful to have been able to study Edwin Gordon's “Music Learning Theory," which I still consult in my memory for its valuable insights about how music is best learned and experienced. Also during my time as a music-ed major, I was extremely fortunate to have been able to study with a great classical piano pedagogue and concert pianist named Alexander Fiorillo, who was one of just a few pianists who got to study with the legendary Vladimir Horowitz – one of the most widely known and celebrated concert pianists of the 20th century. I learned a great deal from Mr. Fiorillo, who was extremely strict and had incredibly high standards. Needless to say, my technical and artistic skills improved greatly under his tutelage. His influence was so important to me that I took a train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia every week during summer months so my studies with him would not be interrupted. Unfortunately, I had to stop my lessons with him when I switched my major to jazz studies (performance concentration).

It was in my sophomore year that, although I still loved the concept of teaching, I decided classroom instruction was not for me. After gaining some real-world public school teaching experience as part of one of my classes, I learned that I couldn't deal with the constant struggle of trying to maintain the undivided attention of a large group of children; I realized that my instruction would have to be one-on-one. So, I switched gears and made my goal to perform and teach at the college level. Despite Mr. Fiorillo's efforts to convince me to become a classical piano major, I decided to return to jazz. Again, I was very fortunate to have found yet another outstanding teacher/mentor for my jazz instruction -- Don Glanden, who is currently the Chair of the Graduate Jazz Program at the University of the Arts.

Everything about the Temple music department, and the entire university, worked out perfectly for me. I was even awarded a full music scholarship for my senior year after having earned partial scholarships in previous years. Some of the best highlights of my college career came from the performance experiences I had. In addition to being featured in Temple ensembles at festivals, concerts and events throughout Philadelphia, I was able to do some professional freelance work. Not only that, in my junior and senior years, my own trio was regularly hired by the university to perform for special events both on and off campus, and was also contracted by outside sources for private events...not a bad way to make money as a college student! Also, during two of my summers away from the city, I worked as a keyboardist for bands in live shows at Dorney Park (an amusement park in Allentown) -- a gig which provided valuable performance experience playing a wide variety of music.

I graduated "summa cum laude" from Temple and immediately received a job offer. Just after my final semester, I was recommended for a position as pianist/keyboardist for the Les DeMerle Band, based in Amelia Island, FL. I drove down for a weekend-long performance/audition and was hired on the spot. Les was the long-time drummer for the famous Harry James Orchestra, as well as a highly respected freelance musician in NYC for many years. As a member of his band, I played nightly in the lounge of the five-star Ritz Carlton resort hotel on Fernandina Beach. Truly a "variety band," we played all kinds of styles -- jazz, pop/rock, broadway, latin, country, oldies, etc. In addition to our regular gig, we would also play big corporate events for companies like Coca-Cola. It was a very glamorous setting, for sure! However, my residency only lasted about six months, as I quickly grew tired of the job and quit to resume my pursuit of a career teaching at the college level.

After spending a year preparing for graduate school and playing gigs in the Central PA area, I returned to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts and continue my studies with Don Glanden, earning a large grant and assistantship in the process. It was a time of great personal and musical growth, one of the highlights being my thesis paper – an 85-page chord voicing study with over 1,500 mathematically derived examples from my own version of the modern quartal harmonic approach, which ended up revolutionizing my jazz playing. I also devised a system for improvising based on the tenets of the Minimalism movement in classical music and added a large number of pieces to my compositional portfolio. Upon graduating, I earned the Jacobs Music Steinway Award, as well as the Jeffrey Alan Eschleman Memorial Award, and was fully expecting to find a college teaching job and/or start making a living performing in Philly. However, even though I had been gigging regularly in the city during grad school, I wasn't finding many opportunities after graduation. Meanwhile, I was continually being hired back in the Central PA area, where there was an unusually vibrant jazz scene. So it didn't take long for me to decide to move back there.

For a period of about six months after I left Philly, I was playing an average of 5 gigs a week – not bad for a musician in Central PA! Then the bottom dropped out of the gig scene for me, which was right around the time when I learned about the newly reformatted Menchey Music Education Centers and officially began my career teaching private lessons. Although it wasn't exactly what I was looking for at the time, becoming a private piano instructor was the best thing that could have happened for me. As I found out later from various friends and colleagues, teaching at the college level involves a lot of paperwork, reports, meetings and ladder-climbing activities that do not interest me in the least. Plus, I'm sure I would not have been satisfied with being limited to teaching one particular style of music at one particular skill level. Teaching privately involves a great variety of student levels and musical content, which I very much enjoy. Something I learned about myself early on is that I love working with children as well as adults, and find great purpose and meaning in teaching beginners, as I truly believe that a student's first instructor is often his/her most important one.

Initially, I taught at both the York and Lancaster locations of Menchey Music. Then, after a couple years of noticing how much more active and successful the York location was, I decided to teach there exclusively, and continued to do so for nearly 22 years. Although it took me a while to build up my studio, I maintained an average of approximately 65 students per week for more than two decades. All the while, I continued to perform, primarily as a freelance jazz pianist, throughout Central PA and beyond. In the beginning, the ratio was “mostly performing and some teaching.” Then it was split about 50/50 for a while. Then, for a long time, it was "mostly teaching and some performing." Gradually, I decreased the performing to a very small amount as I became thoroughly satisfied (and quite busy) just with teaching and rather tired of gigging all over the place. But for about 15 years, between the ages of 25 and 40, I was performing an average of 10 times per month, mostly in central and southeastern PA, on top of a full teaching schedule.

During that time, I played over 100 clubs/restaurants/bars/hotels, at least 15 different music festivals, many concerts at universities, theaters, churches and other venues, in addition to countless private events. I got to perform with a number of nationally and internationally renowned artists, including Richie Cole, Marvin Stamm, Terrell Stafford, Mickey Roker, Tim Warfield, Jimmy Bruno, Steve LaSpina, Chris Vadala, Rogerio Bocato, J.D. Walter, Michael Formanek, Bill Goodwin, Duane Eubanks, John Blake Jr., John Swana, Bunky Green and Philip Dizack. I was also hired by and/or played alongside many of the area's best jazz musicians, including approximately 30 bassists, 25 drummers, 15 saxophonists, 10 trumpet players, 10 vocalists and half-a-dozen other instrumentalists. I appeared as pianist/keyboardist on six recordings (Chris Loser's “Makers of Fine," Ryan Kauffman's "Three Little Words," Peter Paulsen's "Change of Scenery," Dave Wilson's "My Time," Marlyn Warner's “My Music" and various artists' "Jazz Piano at UArts"), as well as being featured as a composer on Peter Paulsen's "Tri-Cycle.” I also played weekly for worship services at Providence Presbyterian Church in York, where I was music director for three years around age 35. That job involved selecting and arranging a combination of traditional and contemporary music for congregational singing, as well as solo/ensemble offertories and solo preludes/postludes to fit a different liturgy each week. Although I enjoyed the work immensely, I had to step away from that position for various reasons at a certain point and did not return to worship music until nine years later, when I became the pianist at Canadochly Evangelical and Reformed Church. A year later, I moved on to Locust Grove United Church of Christ, and five months after that, became the music director at St. Timothy Evangelical Lutheran Church in Camp Hill.

In addition to a limited performance schedule, I still very much enjoy teaching, now entirely as an independent instructor. After the “year of COVID,” I dedicated myself even further to improve, enhance and expand my teaching techniques. I am proud of my students' personal and public accomplishments, but am always striving to serve them better. Over the years, many of my students have performed in recitals, school concerts and talent shows, honors ensembles (such as district jazz band), venues with their own bands, worship services, school choruses as accompanists, music camps, local competitions, as well as on the professional stage. Others have simply enjoyed playing for themselves!

My own personal practice, for the most part, has involved deepening and expanding my approach to free improvisation, informed by all of my performance experience and personal study from the past 30 years. Although I plan to return to more classical study in the future, I am currently satisfied with all the work I did on that in my early-mid 30s. At that time, I was recognizing just how much important classical repertoire I had not yet studied. So over the course of 4-5 years, I played through all of the Sonatas by Mozart and Haydn, Inventions and Sinfonias by Bach, Suites by Handel, French Suites by Bach and Lyric Pieces by Grieg, as well as volumes of works by Scarlatti, Couperin, Faure, Mendelssohn, Copland, Bernstein, Satie, Schubert and Bartok, and selected works by Scriabin, Brahms, MacDowell, Barber, Kabalevsky, Adams, Glass, Starer, Poulenc, Ravel, Pinkham, Rohrem, Dello Joio, Ginastera, Kodaly, Milhaud, Persichetti, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tcherepnin and Villa-Lobos. In the future, I plan to tackle the piano works of one of my favorite composers, Gyorgy Ligeti. However, most of my practice time is currently being spent on my second instrument, the trumpet. Please see my next post if you are interested in learning about my experience on that instrument...


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