Thank you for joining us today for this Fort Collins Symphony guest artist interview with guest pianist Bryan Wallick. Mr. Wallick joined the FCS for Energized, Unsure & Triumphant, live and live-streamed on November 6, 2021.
Our Assistant Conductor Jeremy D. Cuebas sat down with Bryan to talk about the music he’ll be performing on this concert, the potential nightmares of having a page-turner, why he wants to study jazz, and how synesthesia allows some people to see colors when they hear music.
Listen to this interview on the Open Notes Podcast:
How did you spend your pandemic time at home?
Bryan Wallick: I’ve got 3 kids, so I’m quite busy with the family at home, and in many ways it was great to be home and spend a lot of time with the kids. I was one of the lucky few who had essential status here at the university, so I was allowed to come into school and practice. It was a nice opportunity because one of the new pianos in Griffin Concert Hall was new and it hadn’t really been played in that much, and it needed to be played in so I worked with the technician for quite a few months. SO I actually went and played on the big piano in Griffin Hall most days during the pandemic.
What’s your relationship to the Mendelssohn and Perkinson peices you are playing with the symphony? Have you performed them before?
BW: I have. The Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson we played here at the university last semester. It was a piece that was able to be performed without winds because it’s for strings and percussion. And at that point we weren’t allowed to have the winds on the stage. So it was a piece that worked, and we were trying to find works of underutilized composers, and so it’s a fun and excited and very interesting piece that is quite challenging in many ways.
Rhythmically it goes all over the place, so the strings are going to have to count a lot, I have to work out counting, and the conductor has to work out he’s going to beat everything to make it fit. But it’s an exciting piece that should be a great opener to the concert.
The Mendelssohn is a great show piece that shows the piano off very spectacularly and has lots of beautiful melodies but technical arpeggios all over the place. It’s a fun piece and it’ll be a nice contrast to have both these works together. You’ll see very different sides of music on the first half.
JDC: Yeah, the Mendelssohn is a standard piano concerto, at least in sound, and the Perkinson is very contemporary, but very rhythmically driven, almost rock-and-roll at times. I just love it.
BW: Yeah, a lot of rhythmic energy. And it’s very accessible. Harmonically it’s still relatively not that adventurous beyond most peoples’ ears, so it should be interesting to most people.
What are the challenges of being both a performer and teacher?
BW: Well there are some challenges scheduling wise. At the moment I’m in a very busy two-month window with a lot of concerts with different pieces. A lot of times you can have a lot of concerts but it’s the same pieces over and over again, so it’s not a problem. But I’m playing, like, five different programs over these six weeks. So trying to maintain everything and keep it up is a bit challenging while still trying to teach 15 students and be involved in the university and have 3 kids at home and drive them after school every day. SO in that way it can be challenging and I just have to be organized with my schedule. Every week I re-look at what I need to practice, what I need to change, what’s not quite there, what’s ready.
More than the challenges, it’s actually helpful to have teaching as part of your professional make-up because I learn a lot from it, even as a performer. After I’ve just been shouting at my students to do this, and do this, and do this, I sit there as I’m practicing and realize I’m not doing that. So it really enforces a lot of the things that I mean to do when I’m practicing, and since I’ve just been exadgerating and demonstrating things, it helps me to do that in my own work as well. So I think they mutually help each other.
What are your pre-/post-concert rituals?
BW: So my doctoral paper was on how concert pianists practice and part of that is “what is their routine before a concert?” It’s very important psychologically that you try to not disturb whatever your method is for getting on stage and being in the right mindset to make beautiful music.
I’ve got 2 things to say about it: 1, you want to have some sort of regular pattern, but 2, it mustn’t be so regimented that it can’t change, because every time it often might have to change. When you’re traveling or situations come up, or if you have to do this or you have to eat that and be there at this time, it just can’t happen. So being able to realize that you can play a concert no matter what the circumstance, that’s the most important thing. But if you have your way, I generally like to get to the hall at least an hour before and get to warm up for at least a half-hour.
Food-wise, it’s a big debate. A lot of people eat different things before concerts. I don’t like to eat too much because I feel the body starts digesting food instead of using the brain. I usually try to have a banana since it’s a natural beta-blocker.
JDC: I used to sing in a choir and bananas are really good for your throat apparently too. So the choir director sent one of the G.A.s into a Walmart and said “come back with 200 bananas.”
BW: Yeah, bananas are great. I also try to not have caffeine before a concert. You can get nervous and jittery and then you can get some vibrato on the piano, which we don’t really want.
That’s basically it. I try to have a routine, but it’s flexible if it needs to be.
Do you have any funny stories from concerts gone wrong?
BW: A lot of people have page turning stories that are funny. In this concert I will play the first piece (Grass) with an iPad just because it’s very rhythmically complicated and trying to memorize it will definitely go wrong. I’ve seen a lot of page-turner things go very wrong. You know, the music goes flying and then people save it while you’re still busy playing.
Also, page-turners themselves can be terrible: you get the ones that sing while you’re playing, you get the ones that get in your way, or the ones that put their elbow there while they’re turning the page. It’s amazing how badly you can turn a page. And to now play with an iPad, it’s great that we’ve alleviated all those problems, like smelly perfumes, that can distract you. It’s amazing.
JDC: These are the things the audience members never knew were a problem.
BW: So luckily I’ve never had any of these tragic circumstances happen with a page-turner. At the end of the day, it’s not brain surgery, so it’s not the end of the day if something goes wrong, we can just stop and fix it. So far, I don’t have any ridiculous stories of somebody throwing tomatoes at me during a concert.
Sometimes pianos roll off stage. A lot of times, when they roll pianos on stage, if the stage crew is not careful and they’re not paying attention…well, there are a number of stories where the crew has rolled a piano off the stage and it goes flying into the front row of the audience.
But so far none of those things have happened to me.
What do you do for fun?
BW: I would say my biggest hobby is tennis. I love to play tennis and I’ve followed the tour a lot. I’ve been pretty into it for about 15 years. Since I’ve moved here I haven’t been able to play that much, but my older sone is playing a lot more seriously now. He’s on the varsity team at Fort Collins High School. So he’s getting more serious into it, so I’m hoping that by next summer I can play quite seriously with him.
JDC: When you play together, who usually wins?
BW: He’s starting to be able to take sets off me now, so I have a feeling that I’m not gonna catch him for long. He’s hitting a lot, he’s very consistent. And I’m a bigger hitter than he is but I’m all over the place at the moment since I’m not regularly hitting. It’s great and I wish I could play more, but I’ve got a lot of notes to practice.
What is your favorite part of living in Colorado?
BW: One of the things I’ve loved about living here is skiing up in the mountains. So we just got a pass yesterday and we’ve got the kids up and one son is snowboarding, the other is skiing, and my daughter is skiing. So, we’re taking advantage of the terrain and the mountains being. I don’t go down the crazy blacks, I just go slow with my kids down the blues and try not to crash into any trees. It’s a beautiful sport if you don’t kill yourself doing something stupid.
Have you found any favorite restaurants in Fort Collins?
BW: It’s hard to go to restaurants with my six-year-old. He’s a bit of a terrorist, so he’s a pain to take to restaurants, especially fancy ones, so we haven’t been to that many. We went to the Melting Pot, and we really enjoyed that. But with the kids, it’s much easier to get take-away. And I love Indian Food. So I’d love to explore more of the restaurant scene in Fort Collins, but with the kids and the chaos it’s just sometimes easier to waive that at the moment.
JDC: Well the pandemic didn’t make it any easier.
BW: That didn’t help either, no.
What non-piano music do you like?
BW: You know, I love the symphonic literature. I learned a lot about piano playing by really getting into the symphonic literature when I was in my mid-twenties. I decided I had to go listen to everything that’s non-piano. It just gives your ear a palate or imagination to aim for because everything in piano playing is to try to make the piano not sound like a piano. SO having an imagination of sound outside of what the piano can do really helps us push the boundaries of what you can do with sound on the piano. And I like to go through cycles. I’ll listen to all the Beethoven Symphonies at one point, then all the Mahler symphonies.
I also love jazz. If there were 5 extra hours in the day, I would love to study jazz and be able to do that. So I love Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea. I like to listen to that piano playing because it’s a different experience. A lot of times when I listen to piano music I’m thinking “Can I play this piece? What would I say with this piece? What do I like? What do I don’t like?” When I listen to jazz, I know I’m not going to play it. I’m just listening to enjoy it and love it. So to have that experience with music is sometimes refreshing, because a lot of times most of the listening that I do, either to myself or my students, is from a controlling standpoint of “What would I change? How can I make this better? How can I fix this? How can I change this?” I’m always working on it, and sometimes you just forget to sit back and listen to it and enjoy it and let the music be. So jazz is a step removed from the classical world that’s easier to do that from.
Could you tell us about your synesthesia?
BW: Sure. Synesthesia is a union of the senses. So anesthesia is “without sensation,” synesthesia is “with sensation.” In my particular case when I hear pitches I see colors. So when I hear D, I see yellow. When I hear E, I see green. F is grey, and G is red. I’ve got a color for all the 12 different pitches there.
I was given a grant from the Scottsdale Center to try and realize what I see in my mind when I hear these sounds. So I drew some slides that moved between colors. It probably wasn’t actually that interesting. But what I would love to do at some point is to get some kind of a lighting coordinator to get real light in a hall. It’s a very peripheral experience, and the way I did it brought too much attention to the colors. They were at the forefront of what was happening, and it’s more of a peripheral experience. So if I could, I would have colors in the hall that are in the background, not the focus of what’s happening. I think that would be more of the experience that I have with experiencing colors with the music that I play.
JDC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our audience before we close out?
BW: Just that it’s great to be playing real concerts again. I hope they can come out to the concert. You can never replicate online what you can get in a real concert situation, and I think it should be a safe place to come, so please come out to the concert if you can. And I look forward to playing.
JDC: Yes, the concert is November 6th at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins. Live and Live-streamed at 7:30 Mountain Time.
On Thursday night, November 4th at 7:00 we have our Open Rehearsal. That’s free and open to the public and you’ll get to see Bryan and the orchestra rehearse together. So that’s a great, free opportunity to come see the music and get to see how the orchestra rehearses.
Thank you so much, Bryan. We’ll see you in a couple of days!
BW: Looking forward to it.
Join us for Energized, Unsure & Triumphant featuring guest pianist Bryan Wallick, live and live-streamed on Saturday, November 6th at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Time. Click here for tickets and more information.