Artist/Educator Interview - Mr. Scott Houston
e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noted artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members or the copyright holder for The Piano Education Page. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler. The current interview is below; other PEP Artist/Educator interviews can be found on our Artist/Educator Archive Interviews page.
Did you grow up in a musical family or develop your interest in music in some other way?
My father was (is) a low reed player (bari sax and bass clarinet) and my mother, although trained in opera, sang in a big band where my Mom and Dad first met. So yes, I was exposed to a lot of music and musicians while growing up. Probably equally as influencing, my Mom and Dad started an educational music publishing company when I was about 6 and that was our family’s livelihood until Dad sold the company to CPP/Belwin when I was in college.
Who was the most influential person in your thinking about piano and piano teaching?
A guy by the name of John Radd, who first taught me about playing the way professional gigging players do, with Lead Sheets. He was an instructor at a summer jazz camp I attended in Shell Lake, WI a couple of summers between my Junior and Senior years in high school. Unfortunately he passed away before I was ever able to tell him in person … He was a wonderful sweetheart of a guy, and a great tasteful piano player as well. He was so generous in sharing his knowledge with a bunch of kids – no ego whatsoever.
Even more interesting is the fact that when he first taught me (as well as the other “campers” in the class), I was, first and foremost, a drummer. I was only in the piano class because I was pretty far ahead of where they were starting the drummers so I thought I’d sit in on the piano class for a week until the drum class caught up to my level. In hindsight, it was a somewhat serendipitous choice that truly changed my life! After hearing what John Radd had to tell us about how real working piano players approach their craft, I started immediately playing more and more piano and less and less drums. Within about a year and a half, it was 100% piano and 0% drums.
What did you find hardest, as a young student, about learning to play piano?
As naive as this may sound, I honestly don’t remember anything in particular sticking out difficulty-wise, but that’s not to say it was easy in any way. It’s just that it was pretty equally challenging. But, it was also such fun! Because I was a bit older, and was exclusively playing non-classical styles and genres that I was extremely interested in, it was a time of great “exploration”, finally getting closer to sounding like I wanted to sound. i.e. sounding authentic in a style and like the good players I liked to listen to.
The biggest “bummer” for me at that point (and probably still) is that my singing voice is such that I have never been comfortable accompanying myself singing, which I would LOVE to do publicly.
Some day I’ll quit whining and really try to woodshed to get my singing skills developed.
Do you sing as you're playing the piano privately? Does it help you enjoy or even master the work at hand more quickly?
I do. I'm sure it drives my dog to distraction, but... In all
where I really find singing, or humming, or whistling to be a big benefit is
in making my playing less "rigid" and more "human" or authentic to a
What do you enjoy most about playing and/or teaching the piano?
Two very different questions:
Playing: I love playing for the simple goal of enjoying myself. Not performing, no one listening but me, many times with headphones on for full immersion in the moment, sitting down and playing a tune that I know well enough not to struggle with the melody or the changes, and simply letting it “come out” in real-time, never to come out exactly the same way again. That, to me, is the essence of being a music-maker vs. a note “reproducer.” I’m not into playing a tune striving for “perfection” (whatever that would be), but rather playing a tune striving for some new nuance or shading that makes that particular performance unique from anything I’ll play before or after.
Teaching: That one is easy. Giving people the knowledge they need (and deserve) to get to a point of being able to experience what I just described above that I love about playing.
What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano and how can teachers rectify that in their own students?
Not having knowledge of how to authentically approach playing tunes from lead sheets. Instead, they will try to play a non-classical tune from a standard piece of fully notated sheet music, which is a sure-fire recipe for non-satisfaction, due the tune sounding contrived or hokey and not like the professional players that they are trying to emulate.
The solution is to learn and play classical tunes using traditional notation, as they should be, and to learn and play non-classical tunes using lead sheets, as they should be. No one would deny that using lead sheets to teach classical tunes would be a totally wrong-headed approach. Similarly, I feel strongly that the inverse is true as well. Using traditional grand staff notation to try and learn a non-classical tune is just musically wrong.
Teachers can rectify that by simply adding some lead sheet based instruction to their current “basket” of pedagogy and by making sure they are using the correct type of notation depending on what they are currently working on – traditional notation for classical pieces and lead sheets for non-classical tunes.
Of course, that requires a teacher to have some knowledge of how to play from lead sheets themselves. I’m happy knowing that slowly but surely, I see inroads being made in that area through training programs like my teacher certification course and teacher workshops that I give as well as others like Bradley Sowash.
Do you have a favorite genre and/or method for teaching piano?
My favorite genres are probably latin (bossa nova) and blues.
My favorite method is using lead sheets to work through tunes that my students are dying to learn how to play. Needless to say I use my Play Piano in a Flash books and fakebooks extensively as they are laser-focused on playing from lead sheets.
Is it possible to master piano playing in a short period of time (days or weeks) or is it a continuing process involving learning and work?
The key word you use in that question is "master."
It is not possible to master piano playing in a short period of time - or for that matter, ever. I don't know anyone who feels they have achieved absolute mastery - or if it is even possible. So yes, it will always be a continuing process in my opinion.
What general advice would you give to students of the piano?
Give some serious thought to what your goals are as a piano student. What styles of music are you interested in playing? What tunes do you want to learn? Do you want to play in public, and if so, in what type of environment?
Only when you know the answers to questions like those can you decide on a course of action that will get you to your goals. Depending on the answers, your style of study and teacher will probably vary greatly.
I have fairly strong negative feelings about a “one-size-fits-all” approach to piano teaching. Because there are so few teachers really experienced in teaching anything but traditional classical piano, many students (particularly adults) kind of get shoe-horned into a traditional approach when in fact they have no desire to play repertoire from the classical world.
What suggestions would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?
Learning to play tunes from a lead sheets is a vital skill that will open a giant door through which you can not only vastly improve your own playing, but also can expand the scope of your teaching to help you produce well-rounded students equally comfortable playing a classically notated piece or a tune from a lead sheet.
Are there any "tips" you might have for teachers of classical piano who might be considering introducing lead sheets in part of their teaching of non-classical genres?
Yes. Do it! Make the jump! Make sure you work on tunes that both you and your students both know well. It's tough at first, but you must break away from the notion that progress is reading new material. Instead, progress is playing already known tunes more musically and stylistically authentic.
Have faith that if you are a decent classical piano player you have MORE than enough skill to play in this style. It's just that you don't yet have the hundreds of hours of experience that you probably have in teaching classical genres.
The only way to get that experience is to dive in and start. You'll be glad you did once you realize how fun it will be for both you AND your students.
you consider lead sheet training a replacement for classical training
or complementary to it?
Absolutely, positively, undeniably, 100% - yes.
I’d hate to have to make a living as a player. It’s the sad reality that it is almost impossible to make a decent living purely as a player these days. If you can find something music related that you enjoy that will pay the bills, it sure takes the pressure off of, and thus allows you to still really enjoy, your passion for playing.
What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?
I’m sure if you asked 100 people you’d get 100 different answers, so here’s my simple answer:
I define musical success as having fun while playing your instrument. Period.
Do you have a favorite pianist and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?
Andre Previn, due to his mastery of the whole universe of western music, both classical and jazz. He’s my hero, due to the great example that he has set his whole life of understanding that both Classical music and Jazz music is worthy of your study and efforts. Neither is better or worse, they are just two different glorious exercises.
What is it that you do differently, or with different emphasis, from some other teachers?
I strongly emphasize teaching how to play non-classical tunes using lead sheets as opposed to standard notation. Classical repertoire should be studied with grand staff notation, and non-classical repertoire should be taught using lead sheets. Both are equally important and both should be taught authentically using the correct type of notation for the job at hand.
You are the creator and host of The Piano Guy program on PBS. What led you to develop this program?
I had given a workshop called “Play Piano in a Flash” close to 400 times over a 5 year period at universities and community colleges nationwide. The enrollments were excellent and the reviews were glowing. When I began, I earnestly thought that the attendees would be already “attached” in some way to music education. Either that they were players of another instrument wanting to improve their piano skills, or vocalists who wanted to accompany themselves singing, or accomplished classical pianists wanting to learn more about non-classical styles and how to authentically play them on a piano. I was dead wrong.
I found out that there was an enormous universe of people who had either failed (their words, not mine) at previous attempts at piano lessons, or who had yet to try, but had always considered it a lifelong dream. These people were for the most part, totally and completely invisible to and untouched by what we consider “traditional” piano education, that being taking weekly lessons from a local piano teacher.
I realized that the dream of playing piano was almost universal when before, I felt it was somewhat of a minority who were interested. Also, that dream wasn’t to play professionally or become a concert pianist. Rather, it was simply to be able to sit down and have some fun playing a few favorite tunes purely for the player’s own enjoyment.
Rather than spread the word about playing from lead sheets to classes 150 people at a time, I realized we could spread it to a much greater audience through television.
130 episodes (and counting) and 10 seasons later, I’m proud to be still spreading that positive message nationwide!
Please tell us, if you will, a little about the focus and aims of the program.
It is squarely focused on non-professional musicians. Our aim is to give people a fun, light-hearted look into the world of playing non-classical music on a piano.
Very much like a woodworking or any other how-to show, no one expects to be actually cutting boards and nailing together cabinets in real time with the host of the show. Instead there is some intrigue and entertainment value in watching a professional go through the process of their craft.
For some, it is purely fun for them to watch. For others who already play a little it gives them some “nuggets” to take to the piano and work on themselves. However, for many many others, it is the nudge they need to go out and start fulfilling their lifelong dream of learning to play piano.
There is nothing that makes me happier than knowing that the show has caused (literally) tens of thousands of people to start their quest towards playing piano by going to local piano retailers, finding local teachers, buying instructional books, etc. to get started on their dream.
We’re bringing people off of the sidelines and back into the game, and for that I feel extremely proud!
The Piano Guy often examines the playing of a particular popular or well-known song, often with different individuals playing the song and offering illustrations. What led you to this structure for the program?
We want to give the viewer a glimpse into how a professional approaches playing tunes. It has always seemed to outsiders to be such a secret mystery as to how professional players go about their craft – which to me is crazy.
Piano players are more than willing to show off some cheap tricks, or stylistic licks they use to play certain tunes. However, because everything is based on chord symbols and melody lines, it is imperative that one understand the lead sheet to a tune before the discussion can take place. That’s why we do the “The Basics” segment first with me doing the simplest left-hand-chord and right-hand-melody version possible while displaying the lead sheet, then follow up with the guest segment where we move forward from there.
What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in both listening to and playing good music?
The term “good music” you use is rife with unspoken meaning. I’m sure that term means MANY different things depending on to whom you speak. Sidestepping that possible land mine … ;-)
I think (and in fact feel I’ve somewhat proven through the success of my TV show and educational products) that the biggest way we can interest and have success with more people of all ages is to focus on music that interests THEM, not necessarily interests US.
Do I have strong feelings about what music I consider “good” or “bad” as it applies to my personal musical taste? Absolutely. But if I were doing my job right, you’d never be able to discern it from the show or from a lesson I might be giving. Who am I to pass judgment on someone else’s likes or dislikes?
I feel strongly that as long as someone likes it, and it encourages them to want to learn to play it, it’s good. I may hate it, but who cares? This isn’t about me as a teacher. It’s about the student as a potential new music maker.
As a piano educator, I think it is vital to become more student centered by working on the styles that any particular student wants to learn. If they like country music, work on country tunes. If they like gospel music, work on gospel tunes. If they don’t like a particular style of music, don’t force feed them – even if that means classical repertoire.
If we create happy, lifelong, music makers FIRST, then we’ve “set the hook” for years and years of happy musical exploration where, I’ve found, you can then lead a student to varied styles possibly more in-line with your personal feelings about what is “good or bad.”
Contrary to what a few people think about my efforts in some way siphoning off students from private teachers, in fact it is just the opposite. The reality is that once someone quickly gets a taste of the “nectar” that is being able to make music at a piano and sound reasonably good doing it, they then become an engaged, self-motivated student. At that point, they will look for a private teacher to give them more and more to feed their new healthy addiction!
Do you have any tips for teachers on how best to market their playing and teaching to others?
Assuming this in fact describes you, make sure to let potential students know that your aim is to get them where they want to go, not where you want them to go. Make clear up front that only after a clear understanding of their goals will you then decide on a course of action to get them there.
Do you interact frequently with other piano and music teachers?
I do in the form of workshops that I give for teachers as I travel the US and at sessions I present at conferences like MTNA.
What can university music faculty do to help teachers prepare students for college music training? What should private teachers do?
Although I don’t really have a response to this exact question, I do have strong feelings about what college music training and pedagogy programs should do to better prepare students for real-world life after college:
Require that anyone graduating with a degree in piano (performance or pedagogy) have more than a cursory knowledge of how to perform authentically and interpret non-classical styles. Of course, to accomplish that goal, the graduates would by default then know about lead sheets and their critical role in all music non-classical.
It should be required knowledge for anyone with a degree in piano.
What about your experiences teaching and playing would you most like to pass on to other students and teachers of piano?
I’d like for all to never lose sight of the goal – making beautiful music that comes from your soul. As hokey or corny as that sounds, I find it necessary to stay focused on why it is I am sitting at my piano. No one ever comes up after I’ve played and compliments me on my reading, or my fingering, or my counting, or my hand position. Although those things can all have a minor impact on my playing, what they compliment me on is how I sound. That’s the essence of music – how it sounds. It’s an aural exercise – not a note reading exercise.
Can reading notation well lead you toward better playing? Absolutely. But, it is a means to an end, not the end itself. The goal isn’t to be a good reader, it’s to be a good player.
I just feel it is important to never get that equation out of balance, and to never lose sight of the goal – making beautiful music.
If you would like to learn more about Mr. Houston's program and learning materials, visit his web site at http://www.scotthouston.com. You can e-mail questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His television program, The Piano Guy, can be seen nationwide on PBS. Check your local listings for times in your area.
Last updated: 08/29/11