Our conversation with Billy Joel's keyboardist David Rosenthal included more information than we could print in our interview in the October 2014 issue. Here’s the rest of what he had to say about working with Billy Joel, Broadway musicals, and advice about music education and training for aspiring keyboard players.
On the Broadway Musical Movin' Out
When you worked on the show Movin’ Out you talked about how you trained the piano players: the guys would come in and play what you described as barroom versions of the songs. What were some of the things you had to correct in their playing?
One of the things that makes Billy’s piano playing so unique is his voice leading; his inner voices and the inversions that he chooses. The way that his inner voices move is not an accident. He hears all that stuff and hecrafts it into his songs. When you strip that away, even if you play the correct chords, it loses a lot of the character. A lot of the guys would get the basic gist of the chords—some of them right and some of them close—but sometimes the motion of the inner voices would be missing, and that’s what gives it the character. So that was one thing, and then a lot of guys would miss the details on some of the signature riffs. They were close and everybody in the audience would certainly recognize what song they were playing, but it wasn’t quite right. So I went through and corrected those things. I was kind of nitpicky because it had to be just so. This wasn’t like a knockoff show; it was a show featuring Billy’s music, it was representing him and it needed to be right.
Billy’s music has quite a lot of synth parts. Did you handle those too?
Yes, I wrote the synth book for the show, so I created all the patches and wrote the charts for the synth players.
Who were the main guys playing Billy’s parts?
We had a main piano man. On the Broadway show it was Michael Cavanaugh, and because there are eight shows a week, we also had a secondary guy, Wade Preston; he did two of the shows per week. And then if one of them was sick or needed some time off, they would shift accordingly. Over the years, additional Broadway guys were needed for more support, and then there was a touring production. Eventually there was a non-union production, and then there was a London production, so I had to keep training more and more piano guys.
But Michael Cavanaugh was the main guy. He had the lead role of the show. He was also responsible for helping create what it was going to be and setting the template of what the other singers and piano players had to then replicate.
What did Billy think when he saw the show?
The show had to have his approval so we did [a workshop with him] before it went to Broadway. The first time he came to a workshop—an informal presentation of the whole thing—it was [also] for the investors and a lot of different people who needed to be there to help get the thing off the ground. Billy watched the performance and he loved it. When it was finished, all eyes were on him and he had kind of forgotten that the future of the whole thing was sort of hinging on his approval. Everybody clapped and then the whole room got silent and everyone was looking at him. And he went, “What? Oh yeah, it’s great.” It was a funny moment.
On Musical Talent and Education
What can you tell us about having perfect pitch?
I would say perfect pitch would be hearing the note “absolutely” by its letter name. When I hear a note or a chord its like it says its name to me.Relative pitch would be hearing the note by its relationship to the notes which surround it. You hear the motion and the intervals, and then you can figure out the notes. When I was learning intervals, I would hear the notes first and then figure out what the interval was.For example I’d hear a C and then an A, so therefore the interval was a sixth. But I eventually learned how to hear the motion as well, which brought my hearing to an even finer-tuned place because I can hear both ways now. But initially out of the box I would go, “Oh yeah, it’s a C Major 7th” or whatever it is. I just hear it by name.
I’m sure when you got to Berklee it was helpful.
Yeah,that’s where I learned to hear the other way – by relative motion. They teach ear training and everything is done by interval and relative pitch using the Solfège System. So it was a big help that way too.
How did your Berklee education help your career?
Berklee helped hone my reading skills for sure, and that’s where I developed my playing chops and increased my technical knowledge. But what they don’t teach you at Berklee and at most music schools, and I think that they should, is how to function in a professional environment; that it’s not about how many notes you can play and it’s not about any specific thing. It’s about how you can deliver the part that you need to play for that song. The song is the most important thing and it’s not about putting everything you know into one song. It’s just about doing what’s right for the song, and that’s all that matters and that’s all that most artists are looking for. So I think some people come away from school feeling like they need to impress the artist that they’re working for—impress them with their skills—when in fact, you impress the most if you just do what needs to be done, nothing more and nothing less.
Did you learn a lot about programming at Berklee or was it mostly on-the-job training?
It was both. I learned the theory of programming and I learned on a modular synth at Berklee. So it was there that I learned all the concepts of signal flow and about how synths work.. But none of the synths I use today even existed back then, though the concepts were the same. The signal flow is the same and the way that they work is the same; it’s just, some of the terminology has changed over the years from the different manufacturers. The on-the-job training happens when you have to quickly learn a piece of gear that you’ve never seen before.That’s when having a strong theoretical background really comes in handy.
I remember reading that you got a teacher who had an Arp in front of the class and you had to turn around so you couldn’t see what he played.
Yes, he had an Arp Odyssey and then an ARP 2600 and then a 2500. He would set up a patch on the synth and the class wasn’t allowed to see the control panel.Then he would play the sound and we had to draw a block diagram of how the patch was created only by listening to it.It was phenomenal ear training. With that knowledge, I learned how to pull any sound I hear off a record and replicate it, and also learned how to create any sound I hear in my head.
That’s amazing. How hard was that to learn?
At first it was tricky, but it all made sense to me.I was really eager to learn.I was so into synthesizers because I was so into Tomita when I was a teenager. I absolutely had to learn how this guy created those sounds. I had already been to a music camp at a state college when I was 15 and they had an electronic music lab there. That was the first time I was exposed to a synthesizer. At that time I knew about bands like Yes, ELP and Uriah Heep and some other bands that used synths. Ken Hensley was one of my early influences. I learned B3 playing from him and I learned the way he used the Moog. And he also played guitar, which is why I learned how to play guitar as well. In all my high school bands I always played keyboards and guitar so that we could also cover songs that had two guitars. I actually started to get pretty decent at guitar, or so I thought until I met Steve Vai. When I met Steve at Berklee I was like, I’m putting my guitar away!
Is that how you got involved with Passion and Warfare?
Steve and I had a band at Berklee called Morning Thunder. We played in a band together when we were 18 before either of us had any success and after that we kept in touch. We still keep in touch, in fact we’re great friends. I played on Passion and Warfare because I was out visiting him and he said, “Hey, why don’t you play on my record?” And I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” In that same session, over a few days, he wasalso doing overdubs for Whitesnake’s Slip of the Tongue album. So he said, “Hey, while you’re here…,” then he switched the master tapes and I played on Slip of the Tongue. I also did Steve’s Story of Light, his newest album. I played piano on the title track, and that was a really neat thing because we did the sessions while he was in his studio in L.A. and I was in my studio in New Jersey.
Via what kind of hookup?
We did it over Skype. He sent me the Pro Tools session and I had a live talkback mic in my room, which I ran into the Pro Tools session, then fed the master outputs of the Pro Tools computer into the line inputs on my Mac Book Pro over Skype. So he was able to hear the whole thing and we could also see and talk to each other. Skype is mono, but he trusted that the sound was right with what I was doing and we focused mostly on the creation of the parts. He has a very specific vision of what he wants to hear. It came out really cool. At the end of the recording session, I sent him the finished Pro Tools session.
What sort of advice would you give to kids who want a music career?
Find a good teacher. And if you’re not getting enough out of your teacher, find somebody else. Every student grows at a different rate and the synergy between the teacher and a student is so important. Just because a teacher might be a good teacher and knowledgeable and the student might be interested and want to learn doesn’t mean there will be a synergy. I was fortunate that my first teacher taught me from square one for five years. But after five years I was already able to solo in every key, could read every piece of sheet music—I kind of knew my way around.At that pointhe went to my parents and said, “I can’t teach him anymore. You need somebody else.” I thought that was really cool of him to say. So that’s when I started to get more and more serious teachers.
Nowadays it’s not so necessary to read notation for major gigs. Not that it’s unnecessary.
It may not always be necessary, but in my opinion it’s always important because if you understand notation and you understand how to read, your ears will be better and you’ll learn music faster. Even if nobody ever puts a chart in front of you, you’ll still be a better musician if you have that skill. Now, that’s not to say that musicians who don’t read are lesser musicians; I would never say that. I work with a lot of guys who don’t read and they’re amazingly talented and brilliant players. I’m not putting anybody down who doesn’t read. But for students coming up, they should learn how to read.
What about the student that doesn’t get the sheet music but has that natural skill?
Natural skill and playing by ear is a great starting point, but its still good to develop your reading at the same time as everything else. When you develop unevenly, it becomes very hard to go backwards and work on reading skills after your playing has already advanced. That’s what causes a lot of frustration in people. My recommendation to young students and new students of any instrument is, learn reading right from the beginning so that your reading chops develop at the same rate as your ears and your playing and your overall understanding of music. It all kind of grows together.
But if all a musician can do is read notation, often there is a lack of ability to converse musically and develop their own voice. There’s something about being able to express yourself musically, like really expressing yourself in a language vs. reading everything from a script.
There are many different ways to express yourself as a musician. My philosophy is and was, learn everything you can. Be a sponge, because you cannot predict how your professional career is going to pan out. You never know what opportunities you’re going to get or what skills you might need to draw on for any given opportunity. And when that opportunity comes, if it’s a chance to move forward, you want to grab it. So learn as many skills as you can when you’re young so you’re prepared for whatever may come along in the future. If you want to make a living as a musician, you can’t have the blinders on. Yes, we all want to do X, Y, or Z. But do you want to make a living as a musician? Well, you may or may not be lucky enough to get to do the type of music that you love the most. So you’ve got to develop a well-rounded set of skills so that you don’t have to go get a day job if you can’t find a gig doing exactly what it is that you want to do. If you want to support yourself as a musician, you need tobe versatile.
One of your quotes that I loved was, “Business is people.” More than being a person who can play the parts, you need to be a person others can live with on a bus.
That’s right. And that’s critical because you spend more time doing that than you actually do playing music. So the camaraderie and connecting with your bandmates and the other people within the organization is paramount. That’s not a music-school thing, and that’s not something you can necessarily teach.
What other advice would you offer in terms of building one’s musical career?
Learn how your gear works. Understand not just how to fiddle with the knobs to make it sound good, but also why it sounds good. Ten or 20 years from now, you will be playing on equipment that doesn’t exist today. Everything that I use today was unfathomable when I was first learning synthesizer programmingBut the theoretical knowledge of signal flow, understanding audio routing with consoles, studio equipment, synthesizers, all that stuff—it’s all going on inside all of the gear that we use today. It’s happening now in software, but it’s all the same stuff. I’m able to get the most out of software today because I learned what it is inside—not in terms of ones and zeros but in terms of the concepts of signal flow.
I play Rhodes and Clavinet a lot. Do you have any instrument-specific advice?
When you play a string patch, play it like strings and play it like a string orchestrator. Don’t play piano on a string patch. And same with the Clavinet. You have to change your touch accordingly.Play a Rhodes sample like it’s a Rhodes. Play a brass patch bright and punchy like brass players would do. And if you’re playing a woodwind patch, make sure there’s space in your phrases where somebody would have to breathe. It’s a simple thing, but it makes it sound that much more realistic. You can’t play an endless phrase on a flute for example. All those little details that you think about create more realism to your patch and give it more life.
That’s great advice because we as keyboard players are often expected to be the string section or the horn section and the keyboard player at the same time. So you’ve got one hand playing horn patches and the other hand playing something else. But since we can do things that a horn player would never do, we sometimes get into programming stuff that we could never actually play live.
Yeah, the way to create realism in string and horn lines is to think linearly. Keyboard players tend to think vertically --- this chord moves to that chord. But when you’re creating string parts, don’t think of a chord, think of multiple lines and they’re all moving linearly and the chords are being created as a result of the linear motion. That’s when it sounds like astring section. That stuff is really important. When you’re playing a brass patch, voicings in fourths are great. You have to play like a horn arranger would write and then all of a sudden it sounds that much more realistic.
Okay, last subject: Do you still have your Oberheim OB-Xa?
Absolutely! It’s in a case. I have my Memorymoog. And I still have the first synth I ever had, a Roland SH-1000.
Do you ever bring those out, not to tour, but just to mess around with?
Not really. I’m kind of keeping them because I don’t want to get rid of them but I don’t really have a whole lot of use for them. They’re collector’s pieces now. They’re not really practical.