Meet the Artist: Martin Mayer, Pianist & Composer


The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Established in 2012 by writer and blogger Frances Wilson (‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’), Meet the Artist is a series of interviews in which musicians, conductors and composers discuss aspects of their creative lives, including inspirations, influences, repertoire, performance, recording, significant teachers and more. The interviews offer revealing insights into the musician’s working life and a fascinating glimpse “beyond the notes”.

Here is Frances' interview with Martin!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was in choir class grade four elementary school. And I remember multiple times during those classes, just being really enamoured with the accompanist and how she played and the sound that she was able to coax out of the piano. I remember going to her after one of the classes and then saying, ‘You know, I’d love to learn the song that we’ve been singing, but I want to learn it on piano, so could I possibly get the sheet music from you for it?’ 

She very quickly, and kindly, introduced me to the world of copyright, saying that she couldn’t give it to me because it’s copyrighted sheet music. Then later that week, she comes up to me with this manila folder and says, ‘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. They said, ‘Okay, well, let’s give it a try and see what happens.’ We spent time looking for a piano teacher based on recommendations, and I jumped right in. You could easily say that I was ‘off to the races’ because I was so gung-ho, my piano teacher saw my potential and put me through four grades of Royal Conservatory in my first year. 

It’s wild to think that this was 30 years ago now, and I am deeply grateful to both of them –Mrs. Brenda St. Arnaud, the choir accompanist, and the late Mrs. Betty Phelan, my amazing piano teacher.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I would say for pianists that would be Richard Clayderman, Elton John, David Foster, Yanni, Bob James and John Tesh. I was listening to all of their music while I was studying piano, because even though I was being classically-trained, I knew I wouldn’t be a classical pianist in concert. Their music – new age, adult contemporary, jazz fusion, classical-crossover – whatever you want to call it, it spoke to me.

And then when Yanni and John Tesh mounted these massive PBS specials at the Acropolis and Red Rocks, respectively, the mix of the piano and orchestra lit the fire for me to say ‘that’s my style – that’s the voice of how I want to play the piano and how I want to write and present my music.’

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Living in Canada, piano music isn’t exactly the most popular here. So the biggest challenge has always been to try and get booked here, despite being able to sell out massive concert halls and theatres in China. There I can’t walk around without the baseball call and the sunglasses because people recognize me, and here, I can waiting backstage and the stage manager says 'so when is the main talent arriving’ for a show I’m heading hahaha!

The other challenge is the ever-changing landscape of how we record and distribute music. Everything is digital now – sure, people still want CDs, but mostly at concerts so they can them signed. And streaming doesn’t pay nearly as well as CDs do, but yet it demands the same element of high-quality music, recording, mastering and presentation as if you had a $100,000 budget for an album that will get paid $0.0037 per stream on Spotify. So the challenge is how do you bridge that, and touring always helped, but then the pandemic changed that landscape.

So, you could easily say, the greatest challenges of my career so far has been my career hahaha!

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I debuted my ‘career’ at 19 when I took a $35,000 loan – which I had no idea how to repay – to hire a band, orchestra, rent a venue, get a video and audio recording crew to produce my debut concert. I knew I had to do something to get the attention of people in the industry, and playing gigs in a dance band wasn’t going to do it. The show was a great success, standing-room-only, and the live recording went on to be nominated for ‘Outstanding Instrumental Album’ at the Prairie Music Awards in Canada.

What’s more, that same recording captured the attention of a Chinese performance arts agency, which heard samples of in on my website. They invited me on a 16-city concert tour of China and that inaugural tour changed everything in my life! In fact, I was just there on a recent 20-city tour in the fall of 2019!

But I would say I’m most proud of the recent song that I re-recorded from my second album ‘This Is Who I Am.’ The song is called ‘Heart of an Angel’ was written on a darkened theatre stage on that first tour when I was missing my mom. Behind a 9’ grand piano, the melody just flew out of my hands and heart. I wrote it out and recorded it right when I got back. Recently, I’ve been working on putting together an album of my best solo piano pieces, and wanted to include it.

Back when I was listening to John Tesh’s concert at Red Rocks, my mom became a huge fan of his violinist – the incredible Charlie Bisharat. She said to me ‘one day, you’ll have to play with him.’ And when I thought about how to make this new version of the song more special, I reached out to Charlie to ask if he’d play violin on it. It turned out incredible, and it is so bittersweet because my mom passed 7 years ago and wouldn’t be able to hear it now. But just knowing that I was able to put her favourite Grammy-winning violinist on her tune will keep her memory burning a bit brighter for me!

What do you do offstage that provides inspiration on stage?

Learning my show inside out. Everything. The music, the video graphics, the lights, the timing, the script. I’m a bit of a control freak so I need to know that everything is working just right hahaha! If I’m confident about how things are, then I can perform with ease. All the lights could go out and I would still know how to play and move the show along and engage with the audience. I also eat very light on tour before each performance, and no dinner until afterwards. I need my brain to be extra focused and sharp for a 2.5 hour multimedia music & visual experience that I guide the audience through.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Oh, that’s a tough one. Everyone measures success differently. I would say for me, the definition of success is taking a risk, without knowing if it will have any rewards, and putting the best you can of yourself that way.

That first concert could have tanked, and I would have gone back to playing dance gigs on weekends. But by putting myself out there, that concert and the fact that I said with that production that ‘I’m not afraid to try big things and to take the chance’ – that, that led to some incredible opportunities that even today still define my life. So I would consider that successful.

If you share your music, and people want to listen to it, that’s successful. If you make someone smile by playing for them on a day when they lost a loved one, that’s success. In whatever way you can reach and touch people with music and make a difference, even if it’s just one person, that’s success.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?

Learn music because you want to, and only because you want to! It has to be your passion because only then can you truly communicate that passion through the notes, the strings, the hammer, the bows in whichever instrument you choose. Music is best when it’s authentic and comes from the heart. So it has to come from you passion, and when it is your passion, you’re not playing notes on the page – you’re playing the music! And that makes a world of difference.

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

I touched on this a bit earlier concerning how streaming isn’t paying anywhere near to what it ought to be. As performers, composers, producers, publishers, how can anyone expect to be rewarded for their art at a rate of $0.0037 per stream? 

Back in the good days of CDs, if you were selling a CD at Virgin Records for $25, they would pay your distributor $12.50, and from that, that you’d get $6.25. Full disclosure, this is an indie artist model, not major label. On that $6.25, if you sell 500,000 copies of that CD, that gives you $3,125,000.

Now, that same 10-song CD as a digital album is $0.0037 per stream, so for 10 songs that’s $0.037 per stream for the whole album. If 500,000 people listened to the album on that album streaming rate, that gives you $18,500. That barely covers proper studio time for recording an album – it might pay just for the band.

Within the streaming era, if you wanted to get the same $3,125,000 for the 500,000 CDs from streaming, you’d need 84,459,459 streams of the whole album. That to me is mind-boggling. I don’t know how the streaming companies came up with those rates – some of them are $5 Billion companies. What about if it was $0.10 per stream, or heck, even the basic $0.07 that is usually paid for a mechanical license to cover record someone’s song?

We really need to be in a position as musicians as whole to stand up and say that this doesn’t work, it isn’t fair, and there needs to be something done about it.

As a composer, how do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

My earliest work usually came from me practicing a song and getting lost in the music and then just improving around chord changes, and then changing the harmony, etc. Sometimes I’ve had images in my mind, such as inspiration from a holiday or an enjoyable day. Once, I was sitting lakeside and had an amazing melody in my head, and no manuscript around. I panicked because I didn’t want to lose it, so I went onto my smartphone and downloaded a piano app, and recorded the melody into it. Naturally those apps can’t have the piano keys the same size as a regular piano, so I had to play it in very gingerly. It sounds like me back at my first day learning piano hahaha! And, it makes a great story on stage when I bring that recording and share how the song was written, what the demo sounded like, and then play the fully-arranged song.

How would you characterize your compositional language/musical style?

I would say that I fall into a combination of new age, instrumental piano, classical crossover, world, instrumental fusion – sort of all over the place. I like my music to have a beat, or to be bombastic, or to be lovely and romantic. I like the music and melodies to decide how they want to be represented, as opposed to just keeping myself to a particular genre.

Of which works are you most proud?

All of them – I can’t pick, they’re like my children, and they get very jealous if I don’t select them for an album, or a concert, so I wouldn’t want them reading this thinking I’d committed any of them. I love you all, my songs hahaha!

What is your most treasured possession?

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 pianist and composer 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.

What is your present state of mind?

Reflective and contemplative, and trying to figure out how to approach this ‘new normal’ in our industry of low streaming rates and decreased spends on touring internationally. It’s very bizarre and I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s sure making for some amazing music to share down the line!