Canadian Musician's 2023 Keyboards Special
Canadian Musician magazine is showing the piano player of the country some love with its 2023 Keyboards Special. They rounded up blues legend Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne, ‘Canada’s Prince of Piano’ Martin Mayer, sought-after jazz piano instructor Adrean Farrugia, and Juno Award-winner Laila Biali to show that Canadians know their keys.
Martin's interview is highlighted below, and the full 2023 Keyboard Special can be viewed in PDF below.
CANADIAN MUSICIAN: Tell me about how you got into playing piano and why you fell in love with the instrument.
MARTIN MAYER: I think it was grade four or five, elementary school, I was in choir class. And I remember multiple times during those classes, just being really enamored with the accompanist and how she played and the sound that she was able to coax out of the piano, and the choir room. So, I remember going to her after one of the classes and then saying, ‘Hey, you know, I’d love to learn the song that we’ve been singing, but I want to learn it on piano, so can I get the sheet music from you for it?’ And that was my first introduction into the world of copyright. She told me she couldn’t give it to me because it’s copyrighted sheet music. And so that was kind of a bummer. But then later that week, she comes up to me with this manila folder. And she said, ‘You didn’t get this from me.’ So, I open it up, and the music was in there. And I remember going home and saying to my parents that I really, really wanted to learn how to play piano and they said, ‘Okay, well, let’s give it a try and see what happens.’ And I jumped in; I think it was maybe two or three months later, we sort of spent some time looking for a piano teacher and some recommendations. And it was just off to the races from there. I was so gung-ho with it. And [my teacher] saw that I had such potential that she basically put me through four grades of Royal Conservatory in my first year. So that was my first foray into the piano.
CM: What is your most prized or most coveted instrument?
MAYER: I would say right now, my most prized instrument is my Roland AX-1 bright red keytar, that is personally signed and dedicated to me by John Tesh, who’s the guy that actually got me into this style of music. I had seen his PBS show, back in the 1990s, and I have not heard music like that before. I was classically trained, and I was listening to stuff by you know, John Williams, Elton John, David Foster, and those types of artists. But I’d never heard that sort of marriage of modern piano with the traditional orchestra, so that keytar is hung up in my studio and it’s really cool that the guy who inspired me 30 years ago was not only kind enough to sign it for me, but now I can actually call a friend.
CM: To you, what makes a great piano player?
MAYER: I would say emotion. Two things: emotion and playing the music. Don’t play the notes, don’t play what’s on the page, take what’s on the page as the base, like what a great recipe is. Any chef will tell you a great recipe is a base. I mean, you just take your knowledge, and you take your expression, and you expand on that to make it yours. So, I would say my biggest thing is, the more you evoke emotion, the more you play the music as opposed to playing the notes, that is the biggest thing.
CM: Tell me about your training.
MAYER: So, with Royal Conservatory of Music, in my first year, I did those four levels. I got up to Royal Conservatory grade nine and did grade three history and harmony. And at that point, I realized that even though I was classically trained, I was never going to be a classical musician. It was just not in my DNA. This was in Edmonton at the time, though I’m based in Vancouver now. I studied music in Edmonton even though I was born in Prague, then I went to MacEwan University and studied jazz piano in a program that was founded by Tommy Banks, who is and was one of the premier Canadian pianists. It was while I was there, that it sort of looked up and said, ‘I have to do something to get people’s attention in this industry.’ So that’s when I took out a $35,000, loan and decided to produce a debut concert. And that’s where the rest of the career trajectory came from. I was in university studying all this stuff. And amidst all of that, taking this big risk, but I mean, going into piano was a risk by itself. I had no idea whether I was going to be good, I had no idea whether I was going to like it. God knows there were times where I was like, ‘I don’t want to practice, I want to be outside.’ It’s those teenage years you look back on and go, ‘I don’t consider myself classical pianist even though I am classically trained.’ And so, the benefit of that is that when I want to play pieces that are more challenging, I have the technique and the technique training in order to under- take that.
CM: Do you have a typical practice routine these days?
MAYER: The strange thing is that it’s been four years since my last tour. And that is the longest time I’ve been in between projects. When I think about practicing and warm up, obviously, I run scales and those types of things to make sure that everything is moving, and, you’re not going full head- on into something without warming up, because that’s just a killer on the hands.
If you don’t listen to the body, it can be very detrimental. So, my warmup, I would say, would consist of the usual scales and scale progressions and all that sort of stuff, and then going into songs that I’m either currently playing and seeing if there’s something I can do in terms of adjusting my interpretations or finding some different expressions here and there or going back into something that I might not have played in years, or finding a new piece of music that is challenging. One thing that is also fun to do sometimes, is just to go back to some of those very early days of classical pieces in Royal Conservatory because with that, you almost have to stick to what is there and you can still interpret it. But even something as simple as [Beethoven’s] “Moonlight Sonata” is such a beautiful piece, but you have to have a certain depth, a certain patience; you can’t rush through it, you have to actually sit and play with intention. I think that type of warm up and practice to me, is more beneficial than just sitting and doing scales for four hours.
CM: What tips would you give to aspiring players starting out on the piano?
MAYER: I can just see parents would hate me for this... I say that jokingly, of course, but the passion and the interest have to come from the player. No questions asked. If you have a parent saying, ‘Well, yeah, I think you’d be really cool with this,’ that’s one thing. If you have a parent that tried piano when they were younger, and it didn’t work for them, and that’s the reason that they want you to do it, it’s not going to work. I’ve seen so many people that have gone into trying play piano, trying to learn piano, and you can just see it, you can just feel it. And the problem with that is that feeling of ‘I really don’t want to be do- ing this,’ then translates and goes into the music. And that’s hard. Because when I say feel the music, express the music, it has to come from the place of passion. Play the music, don’t play the notes.
So obviously, the first thing is, make sure it’s something that you want to do 100 percent, and take your time and do it properly. I always recom- mend Royal Conservatory of Music. Yes, there are videos online that can show you. But for the love of God, or whomever you might believe in, do not fall prey to those courses where they say, ‘You think you need years to learn how to play piano? I can teach you piano in 10 hours.’ That just doesn’t work. That’s like suggesting a brain surgeon can be trained in 10 hours. So, passion for it is key, and for it to be your own passion. Encouragement is one thing, but doing it for somebody else won’t work during Royal Conservatory, and that’s the training and doing it in the sort of old school approach. When you think of driving cars, you learn how to drive on a stick shift, because if you learn how to drive on a stick shift, you can drive an automatic, and if you’re classically trained, you can either continue being a classical pianist or you can then have the foundation to go and play pop and jazz and whatnot. It’s more challenging to say, ‘I’m going to learn pop and jazz,’ and then all of a sudden go, ‘Well I want to learn classi- cal music.’ That’s a bit backwards step that doesn’t always work. That’s not to say that it couldn’t for somebody, but it doesn’t always.