Michael Sheppard, pianist & composer

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

That’s sort of difficult to answer, since I have been playing the piano for as long as I can remember. There was a piano in the house. A crappy upright, sure, but my dad (who had taken piano in college, hence the instrument) kept it in decent tune (not that I could tell the difference at age 2, but judging by what he was able to do years later––even currently––on other pianos), and I discovered it at some point, playing things I heard on my parents’ record player (yes, record player) and on TV, apparently with both hands. So, in a way, I guess you could say it was John Williams (whose soundtracks my mom was always playing on said record player, specifically “Superman”, “Star Wars”, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) who first inspired me musically. As for the piano, specifically, that was just the vehicle that was around; after an aborted attempt at lessons at the age of something stupid like 4, it was determined that I would much rather ride my Big-Wheel (sshhh…. it was 1980) outside and watch the lawnmower men mow the lawns in our apartment complex. Structure in lessons didn’t come until much later, when I found a piano in the school where I was going in about second or third grade, and the music teacher there took me under her wing.

As for a career, I didn’t know what that was in the beginning, probably, but as a soon as I did, it never wavered that I would literally do nothing else but that. Or at least, all other passions paled in comparison. I was into meteorology (specifically violent storms, like tornadoes, or anything that spun), and cooking, and geography at one point, but there was no question that music was my magnet.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career?

This, I think, has been that, because of my relatively hippie “follow your passion”-type of upbringing, I never had any structure outside of school and lessons, and therefore never heard of anything like “goal orientation” on a larger scale until much later (some might say “too late”, but I have no room for that type of negativity in my life). So, apart from basically just being happy with finishing pieces (insofar as one ever “finishes” a piece) and just generally improving overall in the pursuit of art and craft and life and understanding, I’ve never had any sort of goal about “getting ahead” or even “what to do” with “one’s life” regarding setting a career in motion or continuing a career maybe already in motion or maybe just staring at a rock (but a really pretty one) that I found particularly inspiring. So I guess you could say the challenge is something that might look like “forward motion” and, concurrently (as a hope, anyway), visibility.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of performances after which someone lets me know that they have felt something, especially if that “something” contained tears or heart-opening. I was really happy with the Harmonia Mundi American piano music recording (speaking of recordings) because––even though recording, itself, is inherently frustrating, and I hate it––I felt like, with the help of an incredible piano, I was able to capture the essence of the pieces I was performing. The same is true of an as-yet-unreleased recording from 2015 (long story, ask me in the interview if you happen to remember and care), where the piano was, if possible, even MORE amazing. As for this improvisation recording, what I loved about it most was the immediacy and intimacy, and what Josh and Ben were able to do with miking and making the piano sound like wet gold all over my feelings. We imaged the hell out of that, and I was greatly inspired by the sound I heard them make from me.

Which works do you think you play best?

Well, as a composer, I try to make sure (and certainly like to think) that whatever is in front of me is what I like to play “best”, because I believe it is all brought about by the same process of someone digging around in what feels like their subjectivity (or having something dropped upon them from what feels like objectivity) and seeing (hearing) whatever that is through their mechanism and then translating it the best they can. Whether it’s improvising or writing it down or singing it into a microphone. All of it is expression of something, and, as a composer first, I feel like the utmost integrity should be brought to it. Which is not unrelated to the next question:

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Well. Let’s imagine, for fun, that there’s such a thing as a “season” for someone who isn’t Yo Yo Ma-level famous. But I imagine the same process would occur, if one cared. Anyway, at least cellists have the benefit/curse of a comparatively limited repertoire compared to the benefit/curse of the practically unlimited repertoire for piano. I will never play even a fraction of all the GREAT pieces I would like to play in my lifetime, to say nothing of the great pieces I am UNAWARE of, to say nothing of the second-tier pieces I’m aware of, to say nothing of the second-tier pieces I’m NOT aware of, and on and on downward (it’s turtles all the way down, to paraphrase a Hindu cosmological assertion about what makes up reality), which is as LEAST four levels away from anything even RESEMBLING “satisfactory”, so really, what winds up constituting my concert “season” is something along the lines of “gee, I really like these seventeen pieces a lot right now, and I know they’re mostly 20-50 minutes long each, but people’s attention spans are fine right now, right? RIGHT??” Yeah anyway, I basically boil it down to nerdy shit like “okay, these two pieces are in G major, let’s put them on the same program, and then play something that’s in, like, the relative minor or something for ‘variety’ (as if the universe/Brahman/God/Allah/Weird Al Yankovic cared about how you raised the fourth to arrive at a five, or maybe it does, or at least it feels like it does, shhh I’m just grabbing the tail of the horse that lives me). So yeah, that’s how I pick my pieces, basically.

What is your favourite concert venue?

I prefer intimacy to spectacle (though all of it is allowed in service of a particular vision), so some of my favourite performance experiences have been house concerts, particularly at my friend Sasha Mark’s place in DC. I love it when audience members can get really close to your own listening. Then again, I’ve had experiences in larger venues where the attention of the room gathers to a pinprick, and exactly everything you do is as important to the further evolution of the room as the room is, itself, so when you have that sort of listening going on, it doesn’t really matter where it happens. My favourite venue is the one with the best listening and––thereby––feeling going on.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I often preface this with “call me biased, but…”, but I’ve stopped doing that, and I’ll explain. My favourite musician is my teacher, Leon Fleisher. And what makes me non- (or at least “not as much as people who routinely use that phrase would like to think”-) biased is that a lot of what made me recognize him as great is stuff that struck me as great independently of the fact that HE was saying it. Like, the principles, themselves, just made sense, just WORKED, irrespective of source; it just happened that the source was him. They made sense, light-bulb-like, even right away, before I had an inkling of how he was thought of in the music world. Like, it just HAPPENS (through transmission, but that’s a whole other subject) that Yoda knows about The Force; Yoda isn’t what makes The Force great. The Force is always already great; Yoda has just happened to have unlocked its secrets, or at least enough of them to make his handling of it (and teaching of it) of a level of revelation that is scarcely encountered in the world, least of all the everyday one. Even as he remains relatively humble, unconcerned with self, and searching for how to get closer to The Force and understand it even better. I’m sure this has become abundantly clear over the course of this paragraph, but replace “The Force” with “music” and “Yoda” with “Leon Fleisher”, and you’ll have some idea of what I mean.

My other favourite musician was a later discovery for me, and the only contact I had with her was when I would see her perform and she had backstage meet-and-greets. This is Barbara Cook, the great Broadway star. I discovered her in 2007 and became obsessed immediately, because within ten seconds of the video I was watching of her, her voice made me cry. I almost didn’t even know what was happening. Very quickly I found out that she is everything I value in terms of honesty and integrity in one’s art, and her twin maxims of “you are enough” and (as regards show business in general) “there are as many ways as there are people” have sustained me in the occasional spiral of hopelessness about my career. Because ultimately, no matter what it looks like, she’s right.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was involved with a Guru for awhile in the early 2000s (what most would likely call a cult) and had, to this day, some of the most profound and memorable experiences in his company and the company of his fellow devotees. Many people don’t know about this part of my life, because it carries with it a degree of social stigma, and ultimately I couldn’t handle it and left anyway (though I am still in touch with a handful of the wonderful people I met in that company)…but if I’m being honest, it was those times when I was privileged to play for the Guru, Adi Da Samraj, that are the most memorable. As a musician, we always look for those that will be our best listeners, but when I was in that company, I didn’t even care so much about listening, even though that was clearly happening––the level of consciousness in the room was PALPABLE––but because what was going on there went to the deepest core of why, I think, we do this at all: the music was being *felt* perfectly, without limitations. If that is a thing at all, it was happening on those occasions. I’ll never forget it.

Another very memorable concert occasion (if talking about the above is maybe too much for your readership/listenership) was when I was on tour in Syria in 2003, arranged by the state department. We were well looked-after, but the final concert in Damascus was at a restaurant, and when I got there early to try the piano and test out the space, there were two little old ladies standing outside. They seemed friendly, so I just nodded, and that’s when I noticed the signs they were holding: “US + Israel = Zionism and terrorism”. Whoa. I didn’t (and still don’t, if I’m being honest) fully understand the situation in the Middle East, so I didn’t really have an opinion (and, therefore, feeling) about it, but I at least understood that these were protesters. Anyway, as I practiced and prepared for the concert, the crowd outside grew. It was a concert for diplomats and ambassadors, and I think the mayor was there or something, and so probably what happened was someone leaked that this was an American event with important people at it. The concert, itself, was marred only by rhythmic chanting (in Arabic) and the beating of drums, so anything softer than about a mezzo-forte was probably lost in terms of atmosphere. We were assured by our watchers/handlers that we would be safe, that the protesters just tended to be “noisy, not violent”, but still, they snuck us out the back entrance after the concert, and it was the closest I’ve ever been to feeling like James Bond. Well, except maybe for every time I have a martini.

As a musician, what is your definition of “success”?

That can be taken any number of ways….. As a career and as has to do with just “making it” on the planet, I would say success is not worrying where your rent and bills are coming from while still enjoying life as much as possible. Not worrying about money. And, after that, with anything left over, helping loved ones who maybe aren’t so lucky.

As far as success in art, I look to Fleisher’s definition of technique: “whatever you need to do to get the sound you intend”. Whenever I have a breakthrough in how to narrow that distance (from my intention for the music to the sound I’m actually producing) still further, and share that result with an audience, I consider it a success, whether it’s for ten people or 3,000.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Got an hour? 😂…well, we can start with Barbara Cook’s “there are as many ways as there are people” and continue with Fleisher’s “YOU are not the star; the MUSIC is the star!” With that healthy groundwork, we can get down to smaller (but still pretty big) concepts like “music is our way of defying gravity” and “support the composer”. In the most broken-down terms, those two things could be summarized as “support the middle of the beat” and “exaggerate the values you see”, e.g. if there’s a long note, let it be a little longer; if there are moving notes, start them slightly later and do them slightly faster. Organize around bigger pulses. few things are boring as the tyranny of a metronomic small-note value. Another (related) Fleisher one-liner: “expression is distortion”. But again, distort in the direction of what’s there. Do too much, and then pull it back to what’s needed, because otherwise it can be a caricature, but often we’re too afraid to even find out what “too much” is. We should be fearless in our practice room/laboratory, because that will help us establish parameters so that we can be fearless in public, because we know what works and what doesn’t. We are so straight-jacketed so much of the time by so many things that ultimately aren’t important. It’s important to zoom at the boundaries, because that’s the only way they get wider. Maybe we can make them disappear altogether. We have to try.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I’d say more visible. I’m also trying to get into conducting more, after years of encouragement from Fleisher and Gustav Meier, whose conducting classes I played for during all but one year of his tenure at Peabody, so for 17 years. He passed away about three years ago, and even in the conversation I had with him on his deathbed in Michigan––as I called to just thank him for all he taught me and how much he helped me grow as a musician––he was encouraging me to try conducting. I promised him I would, and the very next semester, I had my first actual concert experience as a conductor, and it was thrilling, warts and all. So I want to do more of that.

I’ve also been studying acting, because one of my favourite things to do throughout my life is to discover how things relate to each other, whether seemingly very close or seemingly very disparate, and cross-pollinate and synthesize and make my understanding of as many things as possible all that much richer. I would love to have more acting experience, because, like conducting, my first stage experience was electrifying. There is exactly nothing between you and the audience––no piano, no baton, nothing––and the rawness of that sort of vulnerability is what I think we all search for as artists. I want more of it. So in ten years, who knows; maybe I will have developed an ability to have a vision of myself in the future, and maybe that vision will include some TV and film work. And/or standup comedy, which has been a love of mine for as long as I can remember. And, as always, my journey with the piano continues to unfold, and can never be replaced.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I’m not sure such a concept as “perfect” exists, but as something to feel towards, I would say perfect happiness is being able to heal others through the power of art, even as I realize that that power is not coming *from* me, but *through* me. At least, that’s what it feels like, when it happens. One of my favourite Adi Da quotes often helps me get closer to this ideal: “Fear is when Love stops short of Infinity”.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t really know, to be honest. There are many things I still have even from my childhood, but I don’t tend to think about them much. Maybe my hands? Touch is huge for me, and it’s also how I create the sounds with which I communicate my art. But as for objects, nothing is really coming to mind as “most treasured”.

What is your present state of mind?

Expanded. Talking about all of this expands my mind and feeling. Which makes it a good thing, in my estimation. So thank you.

Michael Sheppard’s Twelves Images: Prompted Improvisations for Piano is available now


 

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