With so many of the other pieces in our Education Guides in print and in this Education section on our website devoted entirely to the education of the young and impressionable, I thought it fitting that we take a look at the education of the ancient and jaded. Well, not necessarily ancient, but aged enough to feel way too far over the hill to learn, or relearn, how to play the piano. Scott Houston—aka the Piano Guy of public television—feels our pain and is offering a reasonably priced cure.
Houston’s Play Piano in a Flash show has truly hit a chord (pun intended) with PBS viewers of all ages. While Houston is an admittedly just so-so professional pianist himself, he has come up with a no-frills, cut-to-the-chase teaching method for piano playing that is selling like hot cakes everywhere instructional music is sold. He has already raised more than $10 million for PBS by pitching shows as premiums during station fund drives. Move over John Tesh and Yanni. But there’s a big difference between Houston and those two guys, beyond the hairstyles. Houston is not promoting himself and his own music, but rather selling the radical concept of having fun playing music.
Houston says to adults, “If you can look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘No I really don’t think I have a career goal of being a concert pianist. But I’d give my eyetooth to be able to come home after a long stressful day and sit behind this piece of furniture I’ve been dusting for the last 30 years and play a tune.’ If you’ve gotten to that point logically, then I can tell you an easier way to play.”
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Houston’s approach is that he is basically preaching the gospel of the lead sheet, known to jazz musicians though the Real Book, with its straightforward notation of chords for the left hand and single line melodies for the right. You see, he feels that reading music has gotten in the way of playing music. “Piano is one of the only instruments that’s like this,” says Houston. “Somewhere the cart got before the horse—the black notes on white paper became more important than what they were recording, which was the music. This is about music creation, not regurgitation. People have tried and failed to play as children because they thought that becoming the note reader was the panacea. And it isn’t, at least for non-classical music. The objective is to play.”
Originally a jazz drummer, Houston points to a jazz camp in Shell Lake, Wisc., during his high school years as the site of his first revelation. “John Raid was the jazz piano teacher there,” explains Houston. “I was up there for two or three weeks, and I thought I’d sit in on the piano classes for a few days. John, bless his heart, in a period of a day-and-a-half told us what I tell everyone in this workshop for a few hours. I thought, ‘I’ll be damned, that’s how they do it, huh.’ The barn door just swung open. And from that moment on, I started playing more and more piano and less drums. I never got to be a real proficient piano player, but there’s not a soul on this planet who has more fun than I do.”
Like a self-help guru using parental dysfunction as his entry point, Houston seems to thrive on resentment for piano teachers. Has he received any negative feedback form these apparent oppressors of the creative impulse? “When the show started airing about a year and a half ago, I got maybe 8-10 of the most scathing letters. One piano teacher said she was going to organize other piano teachers into a boycott of their public television station. I never got [angry letters] any more. I think they’ve realized that I’m not the anti-Christ to piano lessons.”
In fact, Houston feels he’s good for their business. “Once I get them started, then they go back to piano teachers to get into more complicated stuff. Not only am I not stealing students, I think I’m adding students. And [teachers] are getting active learners who don’t have that huge fear.”
Houston’s message is hard to resist, not the least because he, a piano-playing salesman, delivers it in such a disarmingly aw-shucks manner. But salesman he is. He’s even made appearances on the Shopping Channel. Does the idea of being pitchman ever rankle him? “I don’t make any apologies for selling this,” he says. I want to be the best damn salesman that every walked the face of this Earth on this topic. Today there are thousands of people in this country playing piano and having fund that weren’t doing it before the show started. I just don’t think it’s a crime to sit down and have some fun. And not take all this stuff so seriously.”
Somebody say Amen.
This article was originally published in the 2004/2005 JazzTimes Jazz Education Guide.