Interview with pianist Deborah Offenhauser
It would be hard to find anyone as dynamic as pianist Deborah Offenhauser —she’s a performer and teacher who has done everything from Broadway shows to playing at resorts to accompanying famous groups like The Four Lads, The Moody Blues and the Coasters. And she does it all with great joie de vivre and humor. Here’s our interview with Deb, as her friends call her:
Tell me about your earliest beginnings. When did you first start playing the piano?
I started piano lessons around age 6. My first piano teacher gave lessons in our home to my older brothers. I was too young to take lessons then, or so the teacher thought. But I begged brother “Timmie” to teach me whatever he learned that week. Once when Mrs. Fisher came inside the house, she said, “Oh, that’s so sweet. Timmie is practicing his piano before his lesson.” But it was me instead, so she relented and gave me piano lessons. Meanwhile, my Dad noticed that friends of mine that took from another teacher were playing more musically, so he switched me to Mrs. Edith Buckhalter. She auditioned me at the tender age of 7, and at first refused to take me, because my fingers weren’t curved and I already had many bad habits. Fortunately, she relented, and so began my proper musical education.
Tell me about your early piano studies. Did you enjoy them?
Mrs. Buckhalter had one commandment: “Only the classics shalt thou play.” I enjoyed everything I was given….theory, scales, chord progressions, early Hanon studies, then Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. But Dad would sneak home ragtime and movie themes that HE wanted to hear, so actually, I had a rather eclectic education in that sense! My CD “Dizzy Fingers” is dedicated to my dad, because it has such fun music that he always liked to hear me play, like “12th Street Rag” and “In the Mood,” which I use in my Show Concerts.
Have you ever studied another instrument or sung?
Oh, boy, you just do NOT want to hear me sing! Even the cat runs away if I sing in the shower! However, I did enjoy playing the violin during my school years. Later, in college, I turned that into “fiddle” playing, and also taught myself the 5-string banjo, guitar and mandolin.
You’re certainly enjoying a wide-ranging career. How did your musical tastes become so eclectic?
As I mentioned, I had a definite grounding in the classics, attending symphonies at a young age, and because of also playing violin, I was in youth symphonies. But simple little things, like your dad offering to do your turn at washing dishes in exchange for playing George Shearing and Peter Nero transcriptions helped broaden my tastes. Then, of course, you find out somewhere in your early teens about those novel creatures called “boys.” They weren’t impressed with my Chopin waltzes, but DID enjoy my ragtime, Carol King, and other rock band music. Ya gotta please your audience!
Tell me about your first album, “Nashville Bound.”
My boyfriend from years ago was a guitar aficionado, and one of his idols was “Little” Jimmy Dempsey, who was a Nashville sessions player, and was the guitarist in film scores such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” & “Harper Valley P.T.A.” When Jimmy heard some of my music (a jazz trio recording), he called on the phone and said, in his wonderful Kentucky accent, “Darlin’, if you ever want to make a country record, I’ll produce it for you.” Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse! So off I went to record 10 classic country hits in the Everly Brothers studio, complete with a Nashville backing band. I got some connections to radio stations in America and in 14 European countries, and this was in the days when there were individually owned stations, and no internet or satellite radio existed.
You’re also a teacher. What do you like best about teaching?
Passing on knowledge about a subject dear to my heart (expressing Soul through music) brings great joy to me. I love to see shiny young faces that are eager to learn how to make music by reading notes, clapping rhythms, improvising and composing. It takes great patience and great love, for both the child and the music.
What do you find most challenging about it?
The challenging part is mostly in tailoring the music lessons to the child’s needs. It’s not enough to keep showing a concept the same way if the student is just not getting it. You have to listen for a new way to express the concept, while knowing that each child CAN understand and apply what you’re showing them. However, my greatest challenge is when I have a music student that just doesn’t want to be there—period. It’s infrequent, but it can be a painful experience on both sides of the piano bench! I always look for the good in each student, and try to bring that out, even if music isn’t the predominant vehicle. Sometimes I am a therapist, counselor and advisor, as students of all ages may need a listening ear that particular half hour of time.
I understand that you teach your students from pieces you’ve composed yourself? Tell me about that.
While I employ wonderful methodology books by several publishers, I find that utilizing my own compositions on occasion can enhance the musical experience. If a particular student is struggling with a rhythm consistently, the student can really master the concept if you’ve composed something just for them. Often I utilize elements from that child’s life (their dog’s name; what grade they’re in) and create a piece that motivates them to practice something much harder than they would have otherwise. But many times an idea just comes to me, and I go from there, hence pieces like “Party Monster,” which has lyrics dealing with “goo and slime” and other monster-like niceties!
What other teaching methods do you use? Do you teach various styles, including playing by ear?
The teaching methodology books I use for children have an accompanying CD, so the children learn their pieces, and then must play along correctly with the CD’s slower, and then “performance” tempo versions. This helps
piano students learn to play as an ensemble, as some of the CD tracks might have an accompanying string quartet, or a jazz band, along with hearing their piano part being played. Because practicing piano can be a lonely vigil, having these accompanying tracks makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves. My “Viva Mexico” collection, geared for 1st and 2nd year students, has a piano accompaniment that makes the “single note” student parts just sparkle. As far as teaching various styles, my main focus is learning “the basics,” which includes the theory behind what the students are playing, along with learning to read notes and rhythms correctly. But, children do learn in their first lessons to play by ear, to transpose, and even to compose!
How about playing in hotels and resorts…do you ever run into people who don’t listen, talk loudly when you’re playing, or blow smoke in your face? If so, does it bother you, and how do you handle it?
“Hey!! People never listen, always talk loudly and blow smoke in your face in hotels and resorts! They rarely come to hear ME play!” I always have to laugh with a question like this, because as a child, I was always trotted out at bridge club parties to “play something.” Because the piano was in another room, I was partially hidden, which made me more comfortable. But I requested that all of the adults “have to talk while I’m playing” or I wouldn’t play for them. I guess my performance anxiety at that young age was comforted by this ploy. That thinking as an adult has made me totally comfortable playing in resorts and hotels, which I’ve done across the country. In high school, I got a job one summer playing Friday nights for 3 hours at a country club. I was ecstatic, because I was being paid $5 an hour, and babysitting only paid 75 cents an hour at that time. Wow…..playing piano for big money? Count me IN!! I was allowed to bring my piano lamp and play from the music (everything my dad had ever bought for me to play for HIM while washing dishes). But one evening came a big electric storm and BOOM—the lights went out in the middle of a piece! Fortunately, I remembered what key I was playing in and put a cadence in so I could stop playing. I didn’t know what to do next, but I realized I needed to memorize some music! Later, I knew I needed to be able to improvise and took a year of jazz lessons in my 20’s. That really opened up doors in my thinking and career.
Early in my playing career, I started out by getting bar gigs (I grew up in a blue collar GM town in Michigan….lots of factories and lots of bars). Smoke was part of the territory, and it didn’t take me long to get out of that atmosphere. I remember thanking God for the opportunity to perform my music, but if my experience was to be in bars with smoke, and having to fend off tipsy patrons, thank you, I’ll just do something else with my life. I was shortly thereafter lifted from the smoky bar scene, and landed a wonderful job playing in a brand new Hyatt hotel with a gorgeous open air atrium. No smoke, better pay, and I worked during the daytime!
The scariest thing that happened was when I was playing with a trio for New Year’s Eve at the Naples Ritz Carlton in Florida. A lady who had obviously had several drinks already leaned over to request something and ended up slamming the piano lid right down on my hands while I was playing! Of course, my only option was to fake a smile and go “ouch,” while the lady continued her requests, blithely unaware of what she’d done. I decided I could be really angry with her and nurse my hands throughout the evening with continuing pain OR I could toss it off my plate and continue playing, knowing that I could “pray and play and come out OK.” Which is what happened. No after effects. Only a story to tell years later. Of course, there are funny things that happen along the way, like when clients come up to request something. You play it for them in the next 5 minutes or so. They return 15 minutes later and ask why you haven’t played their request. Or, along the way, a different client comes up to request the very song you just played 10 minutes earlier. These were all great lessons in public relations!
Another interesting story is when I was playing classical music at the Ritz for tea time. A handsome gentleman in a suit walked up very slowly to the piano and extended his hand, so I guess he expected me to shake it, which I did (while continuing to play left-handed whatever Mozart piece I was doing). I added in a quick cadence and chatted with him, thinking he was from the local population, and was on an outing for the day. After my shift, the wait staff was all in a buzz—had I seen Muhammed Ali? Hoot, hoot! I hadn’t recognized him while I was focusing on Mozart! I’m grateful to say that I was told that he had sat and listened to my music for over an hour, and returned to do the same the next day.
It must have been fun to play behind groups like The Four Lads, The Moody Blues and the Coasters. Any special stories about that?
It’s always fun and always a learning experience to back big name artists. As I type, I’m in the middle of a month long tour backing a wonderful vocalist, formerly with The Lettermen. When he’s not on cruise ships, he does the occasional “land tour.” For this tour, I get to hear his wonderful stories of traveling around the world with The Lettermen, plus cruise ship adventure stories. And, there are always technical things to learn along the way, like combining live musicians with “click tracks” and so forth. While backing The Moody Blues (I was part of a 60 piece orchestra), I had fun pretending that the 12,000 people in the arena were cheering for ME. What a grin! Another story concerns a wonderful vocal group (to remain unnamed!) that showed up without any music or charts. They said, “Oh, you know our music.” Well, we mostly did, or could fake it, but there were a few songs we just weren’t sure of. The group also didn’t know what keys they sang in, so the rehearsal was quite something. They hadn’t even typed up a set list for the band, so I finally located some copy paper and extra pencils for the band. We jotted down the songs and the keys. It ended up being a fun night, but that also included a 30 minute delay, because the headliners had decided to drive to their hotel after the sound check and rehearsal and return to the performance venue during rush hour, not allowing for the heavy traffic. Sigh…
How about playing for Broadway shows—have you ever found the repetition boring?
Playing for Broadway Shows…..yes, it definitely CAN lure you into the boredom side of things. But, one must always look on every performance as a unique expression for that particular audience. I always look for something new in the music, whether it’s in my part or the rest of the orchestra’s. Sometimes a particular song gives you goosebumps, because everyone from the stage into the pit is really “in sync” and feeling their parts. It’s almost a religious experience when that happens!
How do you approach an arrangement for a song…let’s say a well-known one from the Great American Songbook that just about everyone knows…what do you do to help give it a new spin or make it stand out?
With well-covered melodies, it’s nice to treat them with unusual keys, which, for a pianist, forces you to think differently, because your hands have to move “outside the box” into less familiar territory. Often, while transposing a song or piece, I’ll make mistakes that I then decide I like rather well. So, I can incorporate them into my arrangement and build on them. Changing the harmonies here and there brighten up a melody. Same with the rhythm being tweaked a bit, and of course, the melody straying a little here, a little there. I love taking familiar hymns and jazzing them up a bit. I’ve done that when I’ve been playing in public, and have church friends coming to listen to me. It’s my way to checking to see if they’re actually paying attention to my piano playing!
On a more serious note, I have to say I really enjoyed taking “Londonderry Air” (from my “Sweetest Sounds” CD) and treating it differently from the hymn version I grew up with. The average person thinks I’m playing a version of “O Danny Boy,” but for me, I am singing the hymn while I play, and being really uplifted. You never know who’s going to be inspired by your music. My piece used on the ABC Hit TV Show “Desperate Housewives” (“Billy Boy,” also from my “Sweetest Sounds” CD) was written for, guess what, a guy named Bill from Chicago. To me, it’ll always be a love song, but for TV, it can have many other uses. My “Butterflies” tune (on my “Butterflies” CD) was written with nature in mind, lilting and uplifting the thought. The Weather Channel ended up using it for their spring time weather forecast one day. What fun!
What have been your most and least enjoyable gigs?
Let me start with….. The least favorite now are the ones where I have to sit in the full desert sun dressed in black, hauling my equipment in 100+ degree heat, playing “Here Comes The Bride.” I’ve found that many brides are NOT rational creatures when planning outdoor weddings! But all of my professional level gigs are enjoyable, because usually I’m getting at least 2 out of my 3 requirements for doing gigs: “Good Hang, Good Music, Good Bread.”
My most meaningful, and important gig is as organist for my weekly Sunday morning church service. No matter how late I am playing the night before, I know I have to be “firing on all burners” for Sunday morning, because I have to prepare 10 minutes of classical organ preludes, 3 minutes of a classical offertory, 5 minutes of a classical postlude, plus rehearse a solo with the vocalist that morning. The pay doesn’t compare to what I earn doing pop music at big venues, but “the hang” is THE BEST and the music is always meant to inspire and heal those that attend the service. As with any occupation with those motivations in mind, I seem to be the one most blessed, for which I am very thankful.
What are you plans for the future?
My future plans include getting into a showcase in Nashville with a big agency, so that my Show Concert, already booked here in my region of the country, can get into other Performing Arts Centers across the country. I also have on my Bucket List getting onto a cruise ship with my act. But, meanwhile, I will continue to compose sacred vocal solos for the church, teach piano, and compose more educational books, like the one I’m currently revising for teaching “Older Beginner” piano students. Always something new to do, and I’m just glad Life is eternal, because I’m going to need every minute of it to express all of the wonderful things coming into my experience each day! Could I ask for a few clones, though, to help me out? So much to do…