In 2015 I gave two concerts in Lugano, Switzerland as part of the LongLake Festival. To prepare for my Swiss debut, I learned a song from the 1920s called “I Miss My Swiss” (which is on my CD "By the Sea"). “I Miss My Swiss” is very cute, and has some musical imitations of yodeling and cuckoo clocks. Catnip for Swiss people!
Some time after my return from Switzerland, it occurred to me that the novelty effects of “I Miss My Swiss” would work well in the “Beer Barrel Polka,” which I get a lot of requests for (unlike "I Miss My Swiss"). So here's my Swiss-inspired rendition of the "Beer Barrel Polka" -- complete with yodeling/cuckoo clock interlude.
Today I’d like to revisit the first song I ever learned in my life: Heart and Soul. When I was nine years old, the Uslan family became first-time piano owners. Our neighbors were departing with their Wurlitzer Spinet and we took it off their hands for a good price. To my knowledge, no Uslan had ever successfully learned to play a musical instrument, so if I could get Mary Had a Little Lamb going with two hands together, it would’ve been seen as a success.
I remember the day the piano was moved into the house. I thought that playing the piano would be easy. I was skilled at picking my nose, so picking out a tune couldn’t be that hard. Boy was I wrong. Mary Had a Little Lamb was proving elusive. But then my mom came over to the piano and said “Watch this.” And she showed me how to play Heart and Soul. It blew my mind.
Now, most people are familiar with the ubiquitous Heart and Soul piano duet. It’s a foundational part of the non-pianist’s repertoire. If you are not familiar with it, you can get up to speed by watching the following video, which is performed in part by a cat.
Although that cat is a tough act to follow, here is my Heart and Soul rendition. It’s a bit more complex than what my mom taught me in 1988. It’s also a tad more sophisticated than the feline interpretation. But keep in mind I’ve been working on this tune for 31 years, and unlike the cat, I have opposable thumbs.
I’d also like to mention that Heart and Soul is a real song, with words and everything. This might be shocking to those who are only familiar with the famous duet version. The music was by Hoagy Carmichael and the words were by Frank Loesser. Both men were songwriting heavyweights of the 1930s and 40s. Here are two of my favorite recordings of Heart and Soul, both of them from 1938, when it first came out.
In the Larry Clinton/Bea Wain version, it opens with that familiar vamp from the duet. To me, that is evidence that the whole piano duet thing was inspired by this recording.
Here is a version with Billy Mayerl on the keys. Billy Mayerl was a wonderful British pianist who I can't get enough of.
And that concludes my blog post on Heart and Soul. I’ll get around to revisiting Chopsticks eventually, so please stay tuned.
As part of the Ravinia Festival's "Reach*Teach*Play" program, I visited four Chicago public schools, interrupting their regularly scheduled classes to give them their own personal concerts. One of the schools was an elementary school. I played the Tiger Rag as a “freeze dance.” During the “hold that tiger” part, they all roared. It was ferocious!
For the high school students, the concerts were followed by Q&As. The questions were not just about the music, but about myself and how I came to be a professional piano player. Among other things, I told them that when I was their age I began to practice piano in a disciplined way on a regular basis, and I got better and better not overnight, but over a long period of time. And yes, there were times I wanted to quit! Music, like most meaningful pursuits, takes practice and effort over many years, and the younger you start, the better. I don't fancy myself a motivational speaker but I do like passing on my limited wisdom to the young whippersnappers. I don't want to go around giving unsolicited advice, but these were curious kids who literally raised their hands and asked for it!