Back to Back Issues Page
Interview and lesson
October 07, 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


This issue of eNotes contains:

1) Interview with pianist/singer/songwriter, Susan Werner

2) Upcoming Classes

3) Audio Piano Lesson

Interview with Susan Werner

I interviewed Susan one week ago and then attended her SOLD OUT concert at The Center for the Arts in Natick, MA. After the concert, I met her in person. She had the audience captivated with her engaging and comedic style, fluid, rich voice, incredible piano and guitar chops AND witty and soulful lyrics. She has 6 CD's and her latest one, called Classics, takes classic pop songs and interprets them in a chamber music setting.
Here is a link to a montage of her performances. When you get to the link, be sure to watch the video at the top, Jazz Quartet at the Museum of Heritage.

Susan Werner video

So here is the interview I did with Susan. Enjoy.

Debbie: Hello Susan. I feel like I know you. Iíve been on your website so much.

Susan: Well, I am happy to chat with you!

Debbie: How did you learn how to play the piano?

Susan: I started playing on my grandmotherís player piano in the basement at the age of 5 or 6. I started taking lessons when I was 11 or 12.

Debbie: Did you major in piano in college?

Susan: No, not at all. I studied voice and opera. I took some piano lessons in high school but I really do play by ear. Reading is fairly torturous. I can do it but itís kind of like paying your taxes. You have to do it. But I donít read quickly. I donít have a stenographerís skill for that. I wish I did though. My piano repertoire would be much broader, especially if I could read the left hand. If I could read the left hand, it would have many more different approaches available to it. I learn a lot by watching Dr. John videos on YouTube, or James Booker. Seeing someone playing the keyboard helps me. I guess I am a visual learner. Something about seeing the hands on the keyboard helps me pick it right up.

Debbie: Do you know chords?

Susan: Yes, absolutely.

Debbie: But in terms of embellishing and improvising, you do that by ear as opposed to playing with modes and using theory?

Susan: Well, I did study theory and I have that available to me but intuition and the ear goes a lot further than education, I think and a willingness to make mistakes right, left and center.

Debbie: How do you approach your songwriting?

Susan: Usually Iíll have a sentence or a phrase that has some music in it. It somehow has a melody and rhythm attached to it. Iíll keep that in the back of a notebook. Iíll keep a whole list in a notebook that I travel with. Then, when I go back to my office in Chicago, I shut the door, turn the phone off and pick out a phrase that appeals to me. Iíll pick out a phrase that has some feeling to it because inspiration shows up rarely. If you write down those moments and are then willing to put in the perspiration when you get back to the office, you could be a songwriter. It really is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. I do believe that. Thatís where a lot of people get stuck. They think it should come easily. It does not come easily but it is more rewarding than a lot of other kinds of ways that you can sweat. When you sweat, you have something different to show for it Ė look, itís a song!

Debbie: Do you get those moments when someone says something in the course of the day and you think, thereís a song in that?

Susan: Yes. Then I write it down and save it. And hereís another thing, if it shows up two or three times in what someone is saying or something you think yourself, if it just continues to show up, itís a song! If itís just one idea that floats through your head but nothing in your life confirms it, no one in your life says anything that reflects that, it probably isnít a great song. But if you latch onto something that keeps showing up in conversations or how people are living their lives these days, if life makes a case for the song,that means that the song doesnít just speak for you but it speaks for many people. And those are the best songs. Expressing yourself is one thing, but expressing the feelings and hopes of many others, those are the great songs.

Debbie: I was just telling one of my friends about your song ďI Canít Be NewĒ. Thatís just so true, the sentiments in that song.

Susan: That came from my road manager. It is something someone else said to me. He said, ďI wish youíd write a song called ďI Canít Be NewĒ. Right away I thought thatís a great idea. Then, a week later, friends of mine divorced. He found a new girlfriend and I thought, ďoh my God, itís universal!Ē.

Debbie: What artists do you enjoy performing with and why?

Susan: Well, I like to perform with people like Vance Gilbert who give a great live show and really know how to connect with an audience. There are some musicians who are very talented in terms of writing songs and making a record but when you put them in front of people, they donít have anything new to add to the song. I like doing shows with people who like doing shows, who like people. If you are a wallflower, thatís lovely but itís less fun doing a show with someone like that.

Debbie: Do you perform much with other people or mostly solo?

Susan: I have a band. I travel a lot with Trina Hamlin, an unbelievable harmonica player. I travel with a cellist sometimes, Julia Biber. She really adds to this Classics theme. We have these arrangements reduced down to piano and cello. Between the two of us, it is chamber music and it is very rewarding to do.

Debbie: I canít wait to hear it. Did it take a long time?

Susan: It didnít take a long time once we decided to do it. Iím very proud of it.

Debbie: Now did you write all the arrangements?

Susan: I sketched them out on a computer program and then we sent them over to Brad Hatfield who does the arrangements for the Boston Pops. He scored it. He put it together in notes that the musicians in the studio could read. And what was important about that was that he could allow for space for bowing, what bow strokes to make. I donít even know what these things are. Itís a different language for strings and he helped that make sense to the string quartet. I will claim some credit for half of the arrangements though!

Debbie: So what gave you the idea to do this project, setting classic pop songs to chamber music settings?

Susan: Our intention was to simplify the arrangements and unplug the instruments and ideally to reveal the brilliant economy of these compositions and to give the lyrics more room to really move you. Sort of clear out the underbrush and let the song speak very directly and to trust that the song has great power, just the song, just the words, just the chords. By writing up chamber music arrangements, I hoped to reveal something new about these songs that you might have thought you knew well.

Debbie: So you are really dealing with the core of the song, the melody and harmony.

Susan: Yes, revealing the musicianship of the song and the intent of the lyrics, allowing the lyrics to float to the surface. I mean itís what an art song does and I do have this Masters degree in classical voice. But what do you do with that? You flip hamburgers really. So now it has shown up many years later with a place to apply that in a new context. Itís an antique skill to sing Mozart or Schubert but when applied to this context, it brings something new to pop music.

Debbie: There is that negative image of classical music.

Susan: People think that there is nothing that they could relate to emotionally with classical music, that it is just an intellectual exercise, but these songs all have a real emotional core. They had to have impact. With the song ďMercy, Mercy MeĒ, people gasp at how powerful and sad that song really is. It is a deeply sorrowful and visionary song. If you are bopping along to the song on the radio, you might miss that there is an environmental message here. You might miss it altogether.

Debbie: I think I did miss that message too. How did you hook up with the symphony players?

Susan: These were all players who Brad Hatfield played with regularly in the Boston Pops. He just called up these first rate players. The French horn player plays with the Boston Symphony. It was a thrill to sit in the studio and watch these players just sit down and nail it. The level of skill and concentration and focus was absolutely thrilling!

Debbie: Thanks so much for your time, Susan. I canít wait to hear you at the show.

Susan: Oh, thank you. Iíll see you at the show and will give you all my CDís!

Debbie: Awesome, thanks. See you then.

Upcoming Classes

Instant Piano for Hopelessly Busy People
Thursday, October 8, 6:30-9:30PM

Duxbury Adult Education

Shower Singing in Public
Tuesday, October 13 6:30 - 9:30PM
Minuteman Regional Vocational High School

Shower Singing in Public
Saturday, October 24, 10AM-12:30PM

Instant Piano for Hopelessly Busy People
Saturday, October 24, 1-4PM

Boston Center for Adult Education

Instant Piano for Hopelessly Busy People
Thursday, October 29, 6:30-9:30PM
Assabet Valley Regional Vocational High School

Piano Lesson

This lesson is on the technique called Stride. Susan uses this technique when she plays the song "I'll Take Chicago Any Day". It uses the left hand and works real well with old broadway and jazz standards.

Stride Piano Lesson
That's it for this week. If you have any questions or suggestions for interviews or future lessons, please feel free to email me.

take care,
Debbie Gruber, B.M., M.M.

Back to Back Issues Page