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eNotes, #005
November 30, 2007



In this issue of eNotes you will find the interview with John O'Neil. I'm sure you will enjoy reading this. He was a lot of fun to talk with.

Also, the class at Marshfield, "Holiday Piano Songs" was a great success. Students went home with a great text book and CD called "The Season" and got a hand at trying out many rhythmic and harmonic techniques to play seasonal favorites. Plus having their own grand or upright piano to play on didn't hurt!

The other class, "Piano for Singers" was held at my house this past Tuesday, November 27th. This was a SOLD OUT class. We had a lot of fun going through the "Playing With Style" book learning how to play in the accompaniment style. This way of playing means you don't have to include a melody which frees you up to do a lot more improvising. There will be follow-up class held in Jan/Feb so keep a look out.

Lots of classes have been scheduled beginning in January. A separate eNotes will be sent in a couple of weeks giving you the complete schedule of classes for the Winter. There will be lots to choose from!

One more thing before we get to this awesome interview, I will be on WRKO AM680 sometime in December but the date isn't nailed down yet. I will let you know as soon as I know.

And now for the long-awaited interview with pianist/singer extraordinaire, John O'Neil.

One of New England's finest cabaret actors (Niagara Falls Gazette), John performs regularly across the country and has been recognized by the Boston Globe as one of New England's best known cabaret artists. John's show "Back to Enniskillen" was nominated for a 2003 IRNE AWARD (Independent Reviewers of New England) and his show: 'So Kaye: The Songs of Danny Kaye was nominated for a 1999 IRNE AWARD. Reviewers have called John's newest show Not That You Asked "a perfect mix of standup comedy, song and personal anecdote" and "hands down the best cabaret of the year." Not That You Asked was also nominated for a 2005 IRNE award for BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE.

Interview with John OíNeil 11/16/07

Debbie: For those people who are reading this interview and donít know who you are, why donít you tell us.

John: Well, itís always tough to say, particularly when you wear a lot of hats but I would say that I am a piano bar performer, cabaret entertainer, voice teacher, a vocal coach and a man of all seasons. Depending upon what people are asking for, I can put that hat on.

Debbie: How long have you been performing?

John: Professionally for about 20 years but historically for about 43! The first time I sat down and took a piano lesson, I was performing right then.

Debbie: You always liked performing?

John: I did! My first appearance on stage was when I was five years old. My neighbor decided she was going to mount a musical extravaganza so she set up folding chairs, cast me as Peter Pan and there was no turning back.

Debbie: So you teach singing. I imagine you do a lot of work with students on how to express a lyric and how to get into the emotion of the song.

John: That would fall under the coaching aspect of my teaching which is very different. I approach each piece as a theater piece. One of the things that surprises my students the most is that before we even start singing, I have them recite the lyrics as a monologue first. I believe, and I donít know if there is any scientific evidence for this, that we store our words and our melody in the different part of the brain than we do our speaking words. I think that when we sing, it goes to a more primal part of our brain and sort of works on our emotions, our base primal emotions, immediately. In order to understand the intent of the lyric, you have to use the cognitive side of the brain and then try to find out what the conflict is, what the storyline is, what the resolution is, and itís really difficult to do all of that when you are approaching that melodically.

Debbie: You mean, when you working on the technical aspects?

John: Yes, right.

Debbie: How do you help students get over their performance anxiety? The student has everything worked out in the lesson, then they get up there to sing at an open mic and they freak out.

John: I generally tell people that, for the everyday person, stage fright is a pretty normal occurrence. We are exposing ourselves and we are kind of inviting people to judge us, whether or not they do. So there is a certain amount of nerves involved. I tell people that it requires scar tissue. You just need to get up there a lot. You develop confidence. You develop an understanding of what happens up there on stage. You are ďat riskĒ because it is an at risk situation. Normal things like profuse sweating and shaking will, in time, pass. You will also see that people are really not bothered by mistakes. I wouldnít go so far as to say that they are forgiving but they are just not bothered by them. What we forget when weíre performing is that we are doing what most people just dream about. Most people that youíre looking at wouldnít have the nerve to do what you are doing. So if there is a lyric here, a little melody there, a little confusion, you know, we love the risk that people take pretty much like any other activity. Anyone who is trying, you canít help but cheer for. Debbie: So look at the audience as people who are admiring you.

John: Absolutely. Many people have dreamed of being up there, even if it is in a piano bar with 6 people listening. At one point or another, everyone has stood there in the bathroom with a roll of toilet paper being their favorite star. So when youíre up there, you are fulfilling a dream and people can identify with that dream and want you to succeed. No one is looking for failure. For those people who do suffer profound anxiety, there are relaxation techniques, visual imageries. I have even suggested to some people that they try medication. Luckily they have anxiety medications that can help you. But, for the most part, itís a matter of doing it a half a dozen times. You develop a sense. Itís not to say that you donít get butterflies because the butterflies and excitement are important to deliver a great performance.

Debbie: Do you still get them?

John: Absolutely, depending upon the stakes. And, more importantly, I even make mistakes a lot too! But you keep smiling.

Debbie: So you advise not taking it too seriously?

John: Well, not taking the fear of failure seriously. I want to say that I take every performance, whether or not it is for 6 or 600, just as seriously. Every time I go out, I understand that I have a responsibility not just to the audience but also to myself. Iíve made a commitment that every single time I walk out on stage, youíre going to get everything that I have, even if it is 6 people. Weíre going to have the best time 6 people ever had.

Debbie: Thatís a great attitude. So who are your favorite composers?

John: I would have to say Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, primarily because I am a word guy. If I can wrap my lips around something clever and insightful or witty or outrageous, then I am all the happier. I do love all the standards too. For the best written song of all time, I would probably go for ďMy RomanceĒ by Rodgers and Hart. I really am at home when I get something pithy, outrageous and wild to sayÖ. And the faster the better!

Debbie: In your Open Mic nights at Franks Steakhouse that you do every Saturday night, how many people sing in a night? This is to inspire my students to come out there.

John: Anyone who wants to. There may be 3 singers or there may be 13 singers. They should think about bringing music. I will say though that if itís a jazz standard or Broadway standard, people can generally play the song in any key. Anything that is less than 20 years old, youíll probably want to bring the music. Anything that is unique is something you would want to bring. Ideally, it would be nice to have it in your key. If not, those of us who do this are pretty well-versed in transposing.

Debbie: What time does this happen?

John: We go on at 8:30 PM and we provide a lighter entertainment until we open up the Open Mic at 10 PM Ė midnight.

Debbie: Okay, thatís it. Thanks a lot for talking to me.

John: Youíre very welcome! And I hope weíll see you at Franks Steakhouse in Cambridge!

Debbie: Yes, I definitely want to come down there. Hopefully some students reading this will go as well!

So don't forget to practice, get out there and listen to some great music and till we meet again,


Debbie Gruber

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