They’re not laughing now…

posted in: Blog | 3

It’s amazing how the piano attracts certain people. Whether the pure beauty of the sound, the desire to play, or something more primal, there’s something powerful and inspiring going on here…

To learn how the piano has changed lives, and provide you some creative inspiration, here’s my story in all it’s gory detail. You’ll learn, it’s ultimately a story about YOU…

It starts with this photo of an old advertisement to help emphasize a major turning point in my life and career:

 

they-laughed

The advertisement implies you just sit down at the piano and start blowing people’s socks off! Well, my story (and I’m sure most artists) is quite different. In fact, when I applied for admission to music school, I DID get laughed at – and the people laughing were Music Professors! Let me provide a little back-story…

Let it be known, I love the piano…

I’ve ALWAYS loved the piano. My earliest memory was a toy piano at Nana’s house – you know, the kind Schroeder (from Snoopy) plays. I was maybe 2 or 3, but I was amazed I could create sound using my little fingers. Pure awesomeness. This begs the question of nature vs. nurture – was the desire already there, or did it come later? Hmmm…

It was several years later, in third grade when I heard a schoolmate play piano. He was playing “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. In that instant, I knew – I KNEW, I had to learn piano…

During those days mom was a homemaker, and dad was a printer, so asking for a piano was a silly request. But I did. I asked and asked. Eventually, my parents DID buy me a piano. A bright-BLUE one… With keys falling apart. Completely out of tune. A real clunker. Cost: $50. And I loved it. Mom & Dad, you’re awesome! (By the way, if a kid asks for a piano – please, find a way to get one!)

…But, I had no “piano-playing” gene

I wasn’t blessed with “the force” or have a teacher named Yoda. But, I loved piano. So, for aspiring creatives, start where you are, I guaranty you’re no worse than I was. The most important ingredient: desire.

At 9 years old, I started piano lessons. My first teacher ‘Ruth Driscoll’ was a nonagenarian (that means she was pretty old – although not as old as Yoda) who lived in a nearby nursing home. My parents swapped Sunday meals for my piano lessons. Ms. Driscoll was kind and sweet. To this day, I still have my original music books with her barely-legible notes in pencil (FYI – my first piano books were “Schaum” and “Thompson”). I admit I never had to be told to practice – for me, it always felt like “play”. I was on my way…

My youth… escaping with piano

Sadly, Ms. Driscoll passed away about a year later, and I found myself with a new teacher (Epp Sonin). Beginner students were put in “group piano” class where I was the worst – by far. So, if you think talent is “born”, definitely not in my case. Curiously, as time went on, I found myself catching up to (and passing) the other students – eventually “graduating” to private lessons. I was only 11 when I began modifying the melodies in my books – making them “my own”. I remember Mrs. Sonin remarking “you’re improvising! this is great!”. With that early encouragement, I began writing my own compositions. A year later (a period I now lovingly call “Gary 12”), I wrote my first ‘official’ composition “Big Chief” (I’ve heard it said, your passions at age 12 tell a lot about you – this is certainly true in my case). I’m so grateful to Mrs. Sonin – for believing in me, and encouraging me…

Teenage years were transformational – you’ve been through it, so I’ll spare the embarassing details. Times got tough and we couldn’t continue piano lessons. Didn’t matter, I still played all the time. The piano became my escape. Time would disappear as I’d sit for hours writing and improvising. No matter how troubled, sad or depressed, I always felt better after some time at my piano. Lesson learned: the piano could heal.

A “life defining” moment (part 1)

Fairytales end…and you graduate high school. Taking advice from the school guidance counselor (was I NUTS?!), I was to pursue an Engineering degree at the University of Connecticut. During my freshman year (age 18) I got Bacterial Meningitis – went into a coma, was read the “last rites” and almost died. I was in the hospital for almost a month. There was the very real possibility of amputation of several fingers on my right hand (you’d be reading a different story, for sure). Scary stuff. It was one of those “defining moments”. Priorities and life trajectory change. When I finally got out of the hospital I spent several hours sitting in front of my piano, and realized I needed to make a change. Why hadn’t I seen the connection sooner?

Sometimes God just gives you a kick in the ass.

Later that year, I applied for transfer to the School of Music.

And this leads to the crux of the story…about those music professors who laughed at me…

To get “accepted” to the music program, you had to audition (think “Flashdance”) in front of the music department faculty. The piece I chose was “Bridge over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel (original version in Eb). After what I had been through (and knowing a little about me), this was a logical choice. Great song.

However, it’s not “Bach, Beethoven or Mozart” – which is what the music professors wanted to hear.

As I feverishly built the emotion and dynamics of the piece heading into the chorus…. “Like A BRIDGE Over Troubled Water…

All of a sudden:

AHEM!…. Mr. Girouard…” interrupted one of the professors (giggle, giggle)…“We only accept classical music for entrance into the School of Music..” (tee-hee, ha-ha…YEOW HEEE HEE HA-HA). A story repeated over tea and crumpets to this day, I’m sure.

I was humiliated. I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I was close to crying. But, NO…..I….wouldn’t….let….them….win….

A “life defining” moment (part 2)

I think most people would have walked out and quit – grab some tissues and leave it at that.

Not me. There was a divine plan at work here and I wasn’t about to give it up for anything!

I got some classical books from the library, learned the required “classical” repertoire and returned a month later to ace my entrance audition.

I received my music degree – even made Deans list. At my Senior recital, not only did I play the advanced classical repertoire, but I premiered several original compositions as well. The house was packed with supportive friends, classmates and a few early fans – and I received a standing ovation the likes (I’d like to think) the School of Music had never seen! I’m sure those music professors weren’t laughing now…

The “Naked Piano” is born…

I didn’t want to play ‘traditional’ classical music, I wanted to CREATE. The more I wrote and played, the more friends and family (and others) kept asking for copies of the compositions. So, I decided to get serious about recording. As I was thinking about album titles, “Naked Piano” came to me almost as if in a dream. I know, I know –  the word “naked” raises some eyebrows, so let me explain the origins.

  • First, solo piano IS very ‘revealing’. No other musicians to hide behind. Make a mistake, and it’s right there for everyone to hear. It feels like you’re naked…
  • Second, original art (of all kinds) is very personal – exposing your inner thoughts, beliefs, feelings.
  • Third, the “naked piano” is a recording process – with limited edits and effects. The goal has always been to highlight a magnificent instrument in it’s most pure and natural form.

So “Naked Piano” has become the brand name of my lifelong passion…

Six Albums Later…and still working hard!

Six “Naked Piano” albums later (including multiple “Album of the Year” awards and nominations), and I still love the piano as much as I did when I was a boy. I still get excited when I see my piano sitting in my music room – waiting for me…

I continue to put in a lot of hours and effort – learning, practicing, creating, performing. My muse never rests.

It hasn’t all been easy, however. Living on this planet for 4+ decades, one gets their share of adversity. It’s convenient to romanticize my story and make it seem like everything magically fell into place. Far from it. Believe me when I write this: I’ve put in the work and sacrificed a lot to get here…

Has it been worth it? You bet!

More important than everything I’ve written in this post, it’s YOU that makes it all matter. That’s why I wrote this story! When I hear my music has made a positive difference – the “Naked Piano” has helped ease stress and adversity – well, that’s really powerful stuff. It’s why I continue to play and write and work as hard as I do.

I keep an “inspiration jar” – which contains notes and letters of encouragement sent me over the years. When I’m down, I reach in that jar and read one of your messages – and it reminds me why I’m here. “The Naked Piano” is a journey – and I want you, the listener to come along. Let piano music heal and inspire you the way it has done for me.

I look forward to many more sometimes hard, sometimes ugly, always worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. I truly hope you are part of that journey and my music can continue to provide calm and inspiration in a crazy world.

Thank you for being a listener and for making it all matter. I’m so grateful. 

– Gary

3 Responses

  1. Trevor N
    | Reply

    Thank you for this awesome autobiographical article! I can totally relate to what it was like being a musician in my early years being in band and jamming out but then when I graduated high school I didn’t know what to do. By reading this I feel inspired to put myself out there again and share my talent as a fellow pianist. Thank you again!

  2. Judith Alexandeer
    | Reply

    I’m the kind of person that makes hurried notes for myself on some little thing I’ve seen or heard, for possible later follow-up.
    Typically, by the time I review those cryptic little jotted notes, I’ve forgotten what it was all about and just scratch them out. Such was almost the case when I came across an old note that said simply “Invictus, Gary Girouard.” Remembering my Latin schooling, I was curious to find out who this “unconquerable” individual was, and came across The Naked Piano. Do I listen to a lot of music? Yes, all day long, and mostly classical piano, although I’m by no measure a very good pianist myself. But, having listened intently to Invictus, which lead to a sampling of other of your albums, I’m enthralled, fascinated, and captivated by the serene beauty, sensitivity, and skill of your unique brand of music. Reading your bio, I realize how some of your challenging childhood experiences may have helped contribute to the deeply emotional and, yes, beautifully spiritual, “story line” that moves me in all your pieces. I am extremely grateful that I found music that I can listen to day long and never tire of, and, through grace, have discovered this genre of music from a talented, playful, insightful, and inspired musician. Bravo! Play on!!!

    • pianoxcape
      | Reply

      Thank you Judith – for your kind message and for sharing how you came across my music. So thankful our paths have crossed.
      Best,
      – G

Leave a Reply