Piano to the People!

Scott Houston, host of PBS TV’s eight-time Emmy-winning show Scott the Piano Guy, has been called “the Pied Piper of piano.”

Scott Houston on Why Everyone Can Play

By Andy LaVerne

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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.

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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.
Which digital pianos do you prefer?

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 show?

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 McCoy.

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.

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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 the piano.

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 styles.

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.