Scott Houston on Why
Everyone Can Play
By Andy LaVerne
Scott Houston, host of PBS TV’s eight-time Emmy-winning show Scott the Piano Guy, has been called “the Pied Piper of piano.” Many
of his audience members own pianos, but due to obligations and schedules, might not get around to playing them much. Scott set out to
change that, with a show based on making piano fun by learning to play using just a lead sheet in place of traditional note-for-note notation.
The show consists of four segments. In “How to Play,” Scott teaches a tune while referencing a projected lead sheet. In “Tips from the
Pros,” Scott interviews a guest artist about their rendition of the tune. Guests demonstrate signature licks in “I Gotta Play That,” then conclude
with a “Just for Fun” performance. Always at the bottom of the screen is a bird’s-eye view of the player’s hands on the piano keyboard.
Recently, I was a guest on the show, and recorded 15 segments that will be peppered into episodes over the next few seasons. After the taping,
I got a chance to chat with Scott, who’s as friendly and engaging off camera as he is on.
How did Scott the Piano Guy get started?
I had taught a non-credit community college workshop, targeted
at non-musicians. I used to joke that my class was listed between
Underwater Basket Weaving and Beginning Watercolor. The guy
who’s now my partner on the show, Ken Mills, was originally a
student who had a good time. He thought it was crazy that I was
doing it in front of 30 or 40 or 50 people a night when, if we could
somehow get it on TV, we could reach a much broader audience.
He’d been happy with and somewhat impressed by the idea that
you’re bringing someone off the sidelines and getting them back in
the game from a musical standpoint. That’s how it all started. We
chose public television as the right fit because it was educational,
cultural, musical, and kind of offbeat.
What’s your musical background?
I was a drummer when I was growing up. I took some piano lessons
when I was a little kid. Both my parents are musicians, so I had to take
piano lessons—I couldn’t not take piano lessons! I actually wanted to
play drums very much, and both my parents were mortified. They
were like, “Oh my God, we want a musician in the house.” So, the
deal was, as my dad said, “For every drum lesson you take, you have
to take a piano lesson.” So, for a couple of years, I went kicking and
screaming to the piano lesson. I was a smokin’-hot jazz drummer for
my age, and I was into all percussion. I started to learn some tunes
on vibraphone, and had some piano skills, but wasn’t really a pianist.
Somewhere around my freshman year at college, I went to Shell Lake
Jazz Camp in northern Wisconsin. It’s kind of like one of Jamey
Aebersold’s camps. I was way ahead of where all the other drummers
were, so I got to sit in in the piano class for a week. John Radd taught
me and a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears youngsters that if you want
to know how it really is done, you need to put away the sheet music:
“This is called a lead sheet; there are chord symbols, there’s a melody
line, and you play the chords in your left hand and the melody in the
right, and we’ll take off from there. But you gotta learn how to read
some chord symbols.” Of course it wasn’t quite that blatant, but from
that moment on, that was the eye-opener. No one had ever showed
me how to read a lead sheet. It’s so much simpler. And I had zero
interest in pursuing classical piano.
Had you ever had any classical piano training?
Just in those lessons I took as a kid. I could read music pretty well
for mallet stuff . I wasn’t just a dumb drummer reading drum charts.
I wasn’t a great sight reader, but I went through my piano lesson like
anybody else, and I went through the motions of a traditional classical
approach for probably two or three years. That’s what kind of opened
the doors for me, and I started playing more and more piano and less
and less drums.
How did you start the workshops?
I said, “Well, I’ve got to do something to pay the rent,” and I started
doing this workshop. The genesis of it was, whenever you play piano,
people come up and say one of two things. They either say, “Man, I
wish I’d kept taking lessons when I was a kid,” or “Man, I wish I could
sit down and play a tune.” What they never say is, “Man, I wish I could
go take lessons once a week for the next two years so I could get to a
point where I could play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ correctly.” They just
wanna learn a tune. They’re someone who has a piano they’ve been
dusting for 20 years, and it makes them feel guilty to walk by it. My
audience wants to come home, crack open a beer, and just play a tune.
It became crystal clear to me that those people were totally untouched
by traditional music education. It was kind of an epiphany. The minute
it’s not a classically notated piece, it shift s to this other world where if
you want to do it musically correctly, you have to read it from a lead
sheet, and you have to turn it into your own piece of music. That’s our
whole world, and why we do what we do, and why the show is based like
it is—all the educational stuff I do is based on that.
If someone asks you which keyboard to get, what do you recommend?
In my opinion, right or wrong, I suggest that people get as many notes
as they can with weighted action. As opposed to “Hey, should I go out
and buy a little portable keyboard from Wal-Mart?” You could, but in
a week it’s gonna go in your closet. In our style of piano teaching, from
day one, if you play a C chord, the first thing we talk about is how if you
can play it in once place, you can play it all over the keyboard. So right
away, it’s advantageous to have a full keyboard. Also, you don’t want to
get accustomed to a spring-loaded organ type of thing, and then all of a
sudden find yourself at a piano and it blows you away.
As to acoustic versus digital, I love the feel and vibrations of a big
acoustic grand, and it’s more fun to play. But what ruins that for me
is something that’s not really in tune. I’ll take the in-tune [of a digital
piano] over the feel-good of an acoustic any day of the week. I don’t
think I would have said that eight or nine years ago, but digital pianos
have gotten that much better.
Which digital pianos do you prefer?
|Andy LaVerne playing on PBS’Scott the Piano Guy. All segments of the show include the keyboard view at the bottom, so viewers can see and duplicate what the guest plays.|
Roland makes phenomenal ones. I actually played them before Roland
became an underwriter for the show. They’ve got that Ivory Feel stuff
on them, too; they’re excellent instruments. I don’t have a problem at all
with digital; I actually play one at home. I don’t have an acoustic piano
at home right now. I’ve got a big, beautiful Roland KR-117M that they’re
loaning me while they underwrite the show. If you were at my house, I’d
blindfold you and let you play that for a few minutes. I think you’d be
surprised; it’s great. And sonically it’s so much more interesting because
it’s a grand-style cabinet, and the speaker system is full surround. Th e
good bass sounds are coming from the right spot on the keyboard. The
hammer action is graded, so the keys on top play a little bit lighter than
the ones at the bottom. It’s a hell of a piano.
What are a couple of favorite things you’ve learned on your own
You hear these Gospel players working from chord to chord to chord
to chord, all the way up and down the scale, and their technique was
basically to keep going from the major one to the minor two to the
major one to the minor two, while changing inversions. So going up
from C, you’d play: C major triad, D minor triad, C major triad in the
first inversion (C major over E), then D minor triad in the first inversion
(D minor over F), and keep going up using all the inversions of those
ttriads. When you reach the seventh (B), you use B diminished. That
was a good nugget.
I had a funny one the other day with Lori Mechem, who’s director
of the Nashville Jazz Workshop. I’ve probably had three or four players
on the show over the past five years give away the “Count Basie ending.”
Turns out that I’ve always done it wrong, and Lori showed me the real
What was the difference?
Most people think the Basie ending is C on top, with a D minor third
under it, going up chromatically to D major then E minor thirds. Lori,
who’s done a lot of Basie transcriptions (she recorded a CD of Basie’s
big band music reduced to a small group), hipped me to the authentic
ending. With a C on top, you play an A note a minor tenth below, and
then between those two notes, play F, then Eb, then E.
You always look like you’re really getting a kick out of your guests
when they strut their stuff .
Working-stiff players—the ones who are out doing dueling piano gigs
their whole lives—they’ve got some real road-tested licks. It’s like, “Hey,
you want the Jerry Lee Lewis lick? This is it; I’ve got the bloody fingers
to prove it.” Those are just fun to hear. It’s the novelty of feeling you can
sit down on a piano bench next to a good player, and just have him or
her say, “Check this out.” I never get tired of that.
Where do you see the piano and keyboard industry heading?
I really believe the future of the keyboard industry relies on everyone
getting clear on the idea that if you don’t create piano players, you can’t
sell pianos—end of story. It’s as simple as that. We have to get people
excited about playing again—pianos and keyboards. It doesn’t have
to take years of tedious study and practice to make music. You can sit
down, have fun, and play! I hope I’m a champion of that.
The Piano Guy’s
Top 5 Beginner Tips
1. Practice Hanon exercises and scales
in different rhythms (for example,
Latin, swing, and straight eighths).
Practice the way you want to play.
2. For improvisation, stick to one hand
position of a few notes in a
pentatonic scale (for example, G, A,
C, and D in your right hand), and play
them over blues changes, letting you
focus on the melody you’re creating
instead of worrying whether you’ll
play a “wrong” note.
3. Understand that the notes in whatever
chord you’re playing are, at that
moment, “safe” to play anywhere on
4. When playing a melodic line, make
sure to get comfortable “sliding” up
to notes now and then, instead of
just hitting the note right on the
head. This can make piano melodies
sound more hip for non-classical
5. Play more ballads, simply because
they’re slower and thus easier. Get
the “target practice” nailed down for
switching from chord to chord. This
will give you more confidence that
you actually sound good.