I am a Piano Barbarian

I have intentionally avoided blog entries about dueling pianos. I thought I might be doing a lot less of it, but I’m growing more and more fond of the joke I made up about it that I tell audiences of my original music:

“I used to be a dueling piano player, which is a bit like saying you’re a born-again virgin”

So I still do my share of dueling piano gigs, mostly because it takes me quite a while to gain footing in new endeavors. I’m still learning a lot about (home) recording, how to promote myself, making connections, being forthcoming, arranging my songs, getting fans, all those fun things.

And it took me a long time to feel comfortable in dueling pianos. I’m a bit of an introvert by nature, I gravitate towards more obscure songs and jokes, I’m a bit too self-aware and referential, I tend to fold under more experienced players (especially those with type-A personalities, or a general need to always be the center of attention), and I don’t have a very loud voice…oh, and I’m very self-deprecating, in case you couldn’t tell.

I also tend to get the audience to drink a lot, I have all my songs and bits completely memorized, I have a great ear, I can play all the instruments, I’m not afraid to get off the bench and do ridiculous things to get a reaction out of an audience, I very often talk to the audience on breaks instead of hiding in the player’s room, I can scream (that’s good, right?), and I’ve written a call-down that chases unwanted stage guests back into the audience every time (that song may have cost me a gig or two). I’ve also carefully crafted my persona on stage, and it works very well for me. I still have much to learn, but the faux pas are far behind me

Well now I’ve gone and done it, it seems (or at least, I would like to think  – any press is good press, no?). I have started listening to a podcast about dueling pianos called Piano Barbarians. Its run by two hacks who call themselves Steve Savage and Paul Seiz. Who are they fooling with names like that?

So these two high-and-mighty Gods of Dueling Pianos (so-called “Barbarians”) sit around a campfire and sing Kumbayah with other duelers (ahem…”wild life”, or “most exotic entertainers”) and talk about their exotic adventures in dueling piano bars which I’ve never graced with my musical  and comical prowess. They name drop, they giggle immaturely at female bodily functions, they drop some more names of young duelers who have dominated in the last decade, and every once in a while they may even drop the name of someone who did this gig in the 90s or even the 80s, without a single mention of how much they cowered in fear in the presence of these ancient founders and gurus of sing-a-long.

I had my servants send a very polite message to these clowns. I gave them highest praises for their achievements, contributed to the on-going debate about using ipads during the show (don’t do it), and gave some polite suggestions for their campfire chats (smores?).  I also extolled the virtues of being a relatable , vulnerable piano player when gracing the stage.

So I awoke many mornings later from my bed of virgins, seated myself on my ivory throne made from piano keys I’ve broken during the bit where I perform piano with my endowments, and listened to their latest podcast. They had finally gotten around to interviewing a legitimate dueling piano player, Travis VonCartier. In days of old, Travis and I roamed the desert plateaus of Phoenix Arizona, rocking the House of Shout, and I must admit I was excited by the potential to get a small shout out. I am a very humble person, after all, and would never tootest mine own horn….

but LO! What is this? Paul Seiz-Of-The-Boat cries fowl! In his latest attempt to trivialize this nation’s most patriotic, artistic and selfless profession, he jumps on his pulpit with a shout-out of his own before Travis could even speaketh his piece! (yes I know Travis wasn’t there for that part).

Paul was upset that he had ‘used valuable ink’ to print up the message I so graciously sent to him in regards to using the ipad. But being upset wasn’t enough! No, he was bored. BORED I tell you! Bored that I had continued his Savage friend’s ipad discussion in the privacy of personal email.

He was also bored by the lack of virtual fisticuffs in response to his podcast. So like any man with an overcompensating, un-cleverly misspelled euphemism for a last name, he wanted to start something out of nothing. Hidden among the treasure trove of knowledge that was laid out in my message was this gem:

“I think the audience relates to vulnerability and they respond positively to successful attempts of never-before-played songs.”

Paul’s first response went something like this:

“I generally find I get positive reactions from the audience when everything goes successfully. I think we can all agree on that”



Mr. Sighs then tried to make up for his speech impediment involving the word “vulnerability” by crudely imitating a green piano player who thinks that they can hop up on stage and always be successful with their attempts at faking a song and that the audience will always love them for doing so.

Hidden among Paul’s recitation of and reaction to this excerpt was the infamous phrase never-before-heard on Fox News: “This is completely out of context”

…..Alright, I gotta stop. Let down the facade, jokes over. In all reality, I’m not all that pissed at these guys. I’m happy for the plug of my website, I’m excited to stop writing this stupid blog and listen to their podcast while I finally get around to eating breakfast, and I truly do hope I get the chance to talk with these guys or even perform with them. They seem cool (cool enough to take a joke or five), and I’m always envious of other people’s accomplishments, gigs and notoriety. All the mean words were meant in good fun. But first, what I honestly do think about this issue:

As Paul said, faking songs is usually frowned upon by EDs (entertainment directors). Almost everything I did in my first few years of performing was frowned upon by every ED I had. And I *was* that green piano player who would get up on stage and fake a song and expect people to be impressed, or at least give pity applause. Did you notice the emphasis on *was*?

Well, I wish the “was” portion was completely true. I still take risks on stage, and I don’t always succeed. But I’ve learned when its appropriate to take these risks. As I said in the email, faking songs works much better in solo shows than dueling shows. Dueling is a game of crowd control, and when you lose that control, you can work your ass off the rest of the night and never get it back. I’m trying to keep this blog short, but the overall answer is that I only fake things when I know I can do it successfully – that usually means its a slow night, a solo show, I don’t run a risk of losing the crowd, my partners don’t know the song, and/or its a song I know people will like. …and if it doesn’t go over, I transition immediately into something that I know will. I’ve been fortunate to have the same partners for the past two years in Piano Fondue, and we know each other and our audience very well. With them I have learned a lot, but most pertinent to me was when to fake things, how to fake them, how to sell it, how to get out of it, and above all when NOT to do it (which is quite often!!!).

Like Paul, I try to avoid apologizing to an audience (I never do it for an audition committee – that’s fuckin nuts). As Paul said, it can get the audience to start listening for your mistakes and weaknesses. Some audience members think that way, while others start to root for the underdog. These are the people who respond well to vulnerability, and when they dominate the crowd (or are able to), then I might play a faked song for them. It’s another subtle game of crowd control that I’m constantly getting better at playing.

That, and sometimes I lie on stage about having never played a song before, knowing that I’m going to play it well.

I’m all together too honest (and likely to put my foot in my mouth) so I’m not sure I’m ready to come on the podcast, but I’m still happy to be listening. Paul wants to be startin something, and he’s started a great podcast with fellow dueler Steve.

Just don’t interview Mike Clement – he knows too much.

Piano Barbarians Episode 10 – Travis Von Cartier

One response to “I am a Piano Barbarian

  1. Dear Adam “Half” Nelson

    Your increduouslessness astounds me! How dare you insult the fine art form of the podcast, which since it’s invention in 2004 has been universally heralded by periodicals such as Keyboard Magazine and Blender as “not really catching on yet.” That’s national recognition, you swine! It’s typical of you elitist Chicagoan poppycocks to rain your smarmy opinions from your lofty perch, but you are obviously out of touch with the american people, ESPECIALLY if you claim to have learned Coin-Operated Boy by the Dresden Dolls. Joe six-pack would much rather hear “My Generation”, “Bad to The Bone”, and “Baby You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”. Can you authentically reproduce Roger Daltry’s debilitating stutter? Probably not, as you’re too busy analyzing the counterpuntal subtleties of Sweet Home Chicago.

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