Time to Move On

I know I haven’t updated this blog in a long time.  It was originally meant to be a record of my experiences as a music director in a professional theatre.  But it turns out that working in theatre doesn’t allow much time to blog! 😉

And so today, I want to take the time to share some thoughts on where I am in my career right now.  Several months ago, I made the decision that I would not return to Barter Theatre next season.  While the decision was not made public for a while, I informed the Artistic Director (my boss) of my decision early on in the summer.  Rather than leave them high and dry during a season, I expressed my desire and intent to finish out the fall rep, music directing both “Zombie Prom” and “Tarzan: The Musical” through to the completion of their runs.

But now the time has come.  Here are my thoughts and feelings, rambling as they might be.

Just two days and two performances left at Barter Theatre for me as Resident Music Director. Really hard to believe it’s happening. Each performance gets more and more emotional for me.

I don’t remember the last time I left a job on such good terms, to be honest. I’ve been fired from jobs, I’ve quit jobs because I was angry, I’ve been laid off from jobs….but this time around it is quite peaceful, a planned exit thought out months in advance, and I even was able to help “groom” the fine gentleman who will replace me. (Lee Harris, you have my utmost respect and love as a friend and a fellow musician.)

Maybe that’s why it’s so emotional for me — I’m not just storming out the door frustrated or hurt. Has this job been tough at times? Absolutely. Has it been an incredible experience? Absolutely! Would I trade anything about the last five years (an unintended musical theatre pun there…)? I don’t believe I would. I am a much better musician, a stronger man, and much more of a dreamer now that I have spent this time at Barter.

Theatre has opened my eyes to so much. I have cried, I have laughed, I have held my breath to avoid doing either. I have participated in the most heart-warming stories, and the funniest of comedies. I have participated in inside jokes with actors, and I have wept with them through illnesses that made them feel like they couldn’t get through the show.

I have performed shows where I was the only musician. And I have performed shows with a 26-piece orchestra (last year’s two-show performance of “Cabaret” with the Symphony of the Mountains will probably always remain one of the highest points of my career).  I have sat at a small upright piano on a small thrust stage, accompanying and underscoring, and even sometimes providing special effect sounds (I’ll never forget having to voice the invisible “Queenie”, the dog in “Holiday Memories”).  I have sat at a grand piano on a much larger stage, pulling from all of my classical training to make that piano sing like an orchestra in “Forever Plaid”.

I have experienced the shocking feeling of a G-string landing on my head during the infamous blackout at the end of “The Full Monty”.  I have performed while at the very top of my game physically, and struggled to perform with a temperature of 102.9 (a number much more suited to an FM radio station than to a person’s temperature!).  I have made silly faces at actors on the “Steve-cam” that they use to watch me for cutoffs when they miss a cue I give them, and I have given them thumbs up or fist pumps when they blow me away with their performance.  I have raced through endings of songs to get an actor to a cutoff quicker when they aren’t feeling well, and held strong final notes long enough that the actors felt like they might pass out.

I’ve given critiques and I’ve given compliments. I’ve scolded, and I’ve encouraged.  I’ve watched young actors grow into fine, mature actors.  I’ve seen the look of surprise and joy in an actor’s eyes when they accomplish something they never knew they could do.  I’ve had the joy of telling actors who never considered themselves to be singers that they truly have become musical theatre actors.  I honestly believe I have seen lives change, both on stage and off.  And I like to think that maybe, just maybe I’ve been a part of that process of change for some of them.

Do I have a favorite memory?  There are too many to choose from.  And some of them already start to blur together with the passage of time.

What would I like my actors to remember me for when I’m gone? Here are the things I have strived to accomplish.  Whether or not I succeeded will only be known if you ask them.

1. Music matters.  Music is not just filler in a play or something that interrupts the story.  Music, if it is written well, and if it is performed well, takes the story forward and enhances it. It adds unspeakable dimensions of depth and emotion to a story.

2. People matter. I have tried to get to know my actors personally, and to coach and encourage each one individually based on my relationship with them.  It’s about relationship.

3. Even the small things matter.  The way you emphasize a particular consonant…the way a phrase gets “spoke-sung” for dramatic emphasis…whether or not you crescendo or decrescendo when you are holding a note…the way you shape that vowel…the way you approach that particular interval so that it’s in tune…it all matters, no matter how small we think it is.  There have been times when I have felt incredible magic during a particular phrase of music just because of the way an actor sang one particular note in that phrase.  It’s those little things.

I could probably write for hours more with all the feelings and emotions I have right now.  But I will leave it at that for now.  And to paraphrase some lyrics of this final show that I’m performing for now: I am trusting my heart, letting fate decide to guide this life that I’m living.  I wish the very same for all the ones I am leaving.

steve 🙂

Tidings of Comfort and Jazz

December 19, 2011, I embarked on a new direction musically with a performance at Barter Theatre (Abingdon, VA) entitled “Tidings of Comfort and Jazz”.  While I’ve certainly played jazz in lots of contexts before, this was the first time I had ever attempted to present myself as a jazz artist.  I put together a stellar quartet which included (in addition to myself on keys, of course) Andy Page on guitar, Brandon Miller on bass, and Jerry Greene on drums.  On a few tunes, we also were fortunate to have the vocal stylings of Sean Campos with whom I work at Barter (he is an actor in the resident company there), but who also has great jazz vocal chops!

After about 45 minutes performing as a quartet, we took an intermission.  For the second half of the program, I came out by myself and after a few brief words of introduction, sat down at the keyboard and proceeded to play about a half-hour of uninterrupted improvisation on many Christmas songs, reflective of the style of my “Christmas Solitude” CD.  The band and Sean joined me on stage for one final song before concluding the night, which seemed to be an enjoyable evening for all who attended.

We were able to record the program to multitrack, and I hope that we’ll be able to use those tracks to mix and produce some sort of EP or full-length recording to release for Christmas 2012.  In the meantime, I have put together some very, very rough mixes (I mean VERY rough!) of some of the songs from that program that you can enjoy.

“Peaceful Journey” and the Use of Technology

I offer no apology for my use of technology. Let’s just get that straight up front! 🙂

There are some that feel like technology makes people stars who don’t really have the talent to be stars. And in some cases, I would agree. A singer who can’t stay in tune may sound great in recordings because pitch correction can do wonders in the studio! In that case, technology makes up for a lack of true talent. But in a lot of cases, technology is not a replacement for talent, but rather an aid in capturing the talent that is being recorded. I would hope that is the case for me 😉

Let me explain it a little differently. Recording takes time, and time often equals money. So, if I can actually play every note perfectly, but in the studio I hit a wrong note or two, I have a few options available to me:

  1. Continue recording take after take until I eventually get the perfect take.
  2. Make use of technology to correct the wrong notes or insert the correctly-played notes
  3. Release the recording with the wrong notes in order to remain true to some perceived expectation that I’m not replacing talent with technology.

Option 1 is a valid option, but again, could take a looooong time and cost a lot of money! Option 3 is also a valid option, but I have found that I, as well as other listeners, are not nearly as tolerant of wrong notes on a recording as we are in live performance. And I’m not just talking about my own recordings.

So, in my case, I find option 2 to be the best use of both my time and my talent. The technology exists to help me achieve that “perfect take” and I don’t see that as falsely representing my talent at all. So I take advantage of it.  Ironically, I don’t fix every little thing (maybe because subconsciously, I don’t want to misrepresent myself), but I do try to fix glaring errors.

In my first three recordings, I did this solely through audio editing. I would either re-record a section of the music over again to correct something that went wrong, or would (at least in one case) change the arrangement slightly to edit out the error. In one case, I couldn’t find any way around a note that I didn’t like, and I actually recorded something over top of it to “distract” from the note and make it less obvious!

In the upcoming “Peaceful Journey” release, I went a step further with the use of technology, though. I actually recorded all of my tracks to MIDI format first. Now, if you’re not familiar with MIDI, I can’t fully explain it here in this post, but suffice it to say that the MIDI file format keeps track of every note played, its place in time, its velocity (how hard I hit the note), the length which the note was held, when the sustain pedal was held or released, etc. This enables a degree of editing virtually impossible with audio editing alone.  If a note is wrong, I can simply correct the file to point to the correct note instead of the wrong one. Then, when the file is played back, the correct (the intended) note sounds instead of the wrong one that my fingers unintentionally hit.

Using a digital keyboard (a Yamaha Clavinova, if you want to know), I recorded the MIDI files into software called Pianoteq, my latest technological dream toy! Pianoteq does something that most synthesized or sampled pianos do not–it actually models the sound of the piano in realtime rather than depending on pre-recorded samples. (For the real geeks out there, this results in a thinner, leaner software that can run on computers that have sufficient CPU, but without using a lot of RAM…in other words, this thing can actually run on a netbook or old laptop. Try that with sampled pianos that require more and more RAM for each note you play!) This gave me quite a few advantages.

First, I was able to record with a decent piano sound to get the right type of audio representation to my ears, but not lock myself into one piano sound until after the recording was complete. How was this possible? Well, once I finished editing my MIDI files (I used ProTools for this task because it proved to be the easiest and quickest method for my editing purposes than anything else I had on hand, despite the fact that ProTools has always been more about audio than MIDI), I was able to open those MIDI files into Pianoteq and “re-record” the audio with their “export WAV file” feature.  It was at this point that I had to make my final decisions with regard to piano sound, mic placement, etc.

Pianoteq allows me to control virtually every aspect of the piano that I’m modeling for my recording. I can control the string length, the hammer hardness, the effectiveness of the dampers, the tuning, etc. etc. etc. And then I can control where the virtual microphones are placed, their relationship to each other, etc.  So, once I had recorded and edited my files, it was almost like I got to be the piano technician and recording engineer for someone else playing my music; it was as if I had cloned myself! 😉  So, as I listened to myself play, I tweaked the settings on the piano (something that is not even remotely capable of being done in real life!) and moved mics around until I got the sound I wanted (something that is only possible in real life when two people are involved).

Once I created the audio files from the self-edited Pianoteq piano model, the audio files went back into ProTools where they were combined with the nature sounds that I used on this recording as well.  The songs were sequenced, everything was mixed the way I wanted it to be, and the final audio was bounced from ProTools to WAV file format.  Then, that final mix was imported into Adobe Audition where some mastering tools were used to polish off the sound, insert the CD track markers, and create the master CD that was sent to the replication company.

What is the end result? Well, I believe that the final product is a very true representation of my musical ability. I believe that I have honestly captured who I am musically. I don’t think that I “cheated” in any way, nor do I apologize for any use of technology in this fashion.  Truth be told, I didn’t do a huge amount of editing. I tend to be pretty happy with my first takes in recording. But occasionally, there would be very small things that I adjusted–the volume of a particular note that needed to come out more, the timing of a run that had the smallest of hiccups in the middle of it–things that some people might not even notice.  Just for fun sometime, I might post a “before and after” set of files for people to play on their computers and see if they can detect the differences!

And with the use of this particular technology (specifically the recording to MIDI, which I had not done with any of my previous recordings), I have the capability now of offering MIDI files to those who would like them. Some people have pianos in their home that are capable of playing MIDI files. For those people, they have the ability to experience me playing their piano right their in their own home without me physically having to be there. For other people who would like to learn some of my arrangements but can’t wait for the sheet music to be produced, a MIDI file gives you an easy way to change the playback tempo and study what I’ve played at slower tempos. (A disclaimer: I did not play with any kind of click track, so importing these MIDI files into software notation programs will likely not give you anything very usable in terms of notation of my arrangements.  If anyone knows of software that would allow me to manually place bar lines within a MIDI file, please let me know, because I would love to use this technology to produce sheet music of my own arrangements/improvisations!)

So, that was probably way more information than most of you care to hear.  And maybe it peaks out on the Geek-o-Meter 😉 But I hope that at least some of you enjoyed this “behind the scenes” look at the creation of the latest Steve Sensenig CD.

New CD Promotion

Steve is releasing a new spiritual/worship CD very, very soon.  The new CD, called “Peaceful Journey”, features well-known hymns and worship songs with a subtle nature soundtrack underneath.  For a short time, you can still pre-purchase “Peaceful Journey” at a discounted pre-purchase price from Steve’s Worship Keys website.  You can also hear the first few tracks from this CD right now on Steve’s Indieheaven site.

In addition, Steve is running some promotional giveaways right here on pianosteve.com.  You can enter these by commenting on the appropriate posts.  Depending on the type of contest, a winner may be drawn at random from those that comment, or the question may require someone to get close to the correct answer in order to win.  Originally, these were offered on Steve’s Facebook Fan Page, but apparently, that is in violation of Facebook’s Promotional Guidelines, so we are moving them over here.  Sorry for any inconvenience.  Additionally, please note that due to excessive spam, you must have your first comment approved by an adminstrator, after which your later comments will automatically appear as you post them.  Again, sorry for any inconvenience there!

So, on to the giveaway.  Post a comment on this post answering this question, and one winner will be chosen at random from the comments submitted.  The question (and sorry for those who already answered this on Facebook…we have to start from scratch here) is: Besides Steve Sensenig, who is your favorite pianist/keyboardist?

Comments submitted prior to 8:00 PM EDT on Sunday, October 31 will be eligible for the random drawing.  And….GO! 🙂

Artist Central on Amazon.com

My artist page on Amazon.com’s Artist Central has been updated now with current information, photos, etc.  If you are looking for MP3 downloads in a place other than iTunes, you can purchase them directly from Amazon.  Ignore my physical CDs for sale on Amazon. I have no idea who is selling them on there, but the prices are outrageous!  All three CDs are available via MP3 download, though, at reasonable prices.

“Annie” Opens at Barter

I would love to update this blog more frequently as a means of keeping in touch with people following my musical career.  It seems hard sometimes to keep up with blogging when life keeps moving so fast.

This week has been a long and tiring week teching and opening Barter Theatre’s production of “Annie”.  This classic musical is a lot of fun, and I’m very pleased with our production of it.

This is my second opportunity to music direct a show on Barter’s mainstage (last fall, I md’d “Forever Plaid”) and my first musical as Resident Musical Director.  I’ve also music directed several shows in the past at Barter’s Stage II (a smaller thrust stage theatre).

“Annie” is a large production, involving a large cast, lots of kids (we actually wrote two more orphans into the play than are called for in the script since we had so many girls audition for the show), lots of music, large set, etc., etc., etc.  To prepare for this production, we actually added an extra eight hours of tech which made this week seem even longer and more exhausting!  Eight hours of tech on Tuesday, two “10 out of 12” tech days on Wednesday and Thursday, and another 5 1/2 hours of tech on Friday before our first live audience showed up Friday night.

So far, we’ve done three performances (one last night and two today) and have two again tomorrow followed by an eight-show week.  Once we complete next week’s full schedule of shows, we’ll move into a rep schedule with the next mainstage show that is scheduled to tech and open, “Blue Sky Boys”.

I’m also currently in rehearsals for “Violet” which techs in a couple of weeks.  It’s non-stop in this theatre, but I’m loving just about every minute of it!  If you are in the southwest Virginia area anytime between now and mid-August, come by and see “Annie”.  You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure!

steve 🙂

New Position at Barter Theatre

More than two-and-a-half years ago (July, 2007), I found out that Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA was looking for a new Resident Musical Director.  I had heard lots of wonderful things about Barter and was excited about applying for the position. I eagerly submitted my résumé and waited for an interview. The process seemed to drag on and on.  More than four months after expressing my interest in the position, I finally got an interview. I had to wait more than another month before getting an answer.  And the answer was not the one I wanted.

“We really like you, but we’ve decided to go with somebody else,” I heard on the other end of the phone line.  I was crushed. I thought my interview had gone so well. And they did seem to like me, but I felt like I was being fed a line.  Furthermore, they told me, “Please stay in touch. We’d love to work with you someday.”  That sounded like the biggest line of all. What could they possibly need from me now? They had hired somebody else for the only music director position they had available.

Fast-forward about six months to June, 2008…I was on vacation with my family in Pennsylvania when I got an email from the music director they had hired. They were preparing to stage a two-keyboard version of “Sweeney Todd” and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in playing second keys for it.

It didn’t take long for me to decide to do it. I figured it would be fun, and after six months the pain of not getting the job had finally subsided. I was to start in early August on a five-week contract. I would never play in the “Sweeney Todd” production, however. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Less than two weeks before I was to start, I got a phone call from Tim (the musical director) asking if I might be able to start a few days early and assist with some rehearsals on “Beauty and the Beast”. It turns out that he had an Assistant Musical Director, but they weren’t confident in his keyboard abilities to help out with the rehearsals. So they wanted me to help in addition to the “Sweeney Todd” gig. This was turning out even better for me!

A few days before I was to start, I got an urgent email from Tim. Apparently, the assistant had disappeared and nobody knew where he was! “Stay tuned,” said Tim. “We might have more work for you.”

They figured out that the assistant had walked off the job and was not coming back. Within 48 hours, my five-week contract had changed to a five month contract, and I was sitting in a rehearsal playing! I was now the Assistant Musical Director, given my own show to music direct (“Bat Boy”) which was already in rehearsals, and slated to also music direct one of the holiday shows later that year.  The schedule no longer permitted me to participate in the “Sweeney Todd” production (other than as assistant musical director accompanying rehearsals), so another pianist was hired to play that show.

Because of the length of the contract, and the fact that we were still living in Boone, NC, we decided to rent a furnished house in Abingdon so we could easily stay as a family in either town where we needed to be. And what followed was a hectic five months traveling back and forth several times each week. I was still working at Appalachian State University (even though I scaled back quite a bit because of my new work at Barter), and found myself driving that windy, mountainous route (about 90 minutes between our two homes) many, many times.

By the end of that five-month contract, Barter had already talked to me about some possible employment for the following year (2009), and so made the plunge to stop renting our home in Boone and officially move to Abingdon, where we found a wonderful home for us to rent (since we no longer needed a furnished rental) on a (currently unused) horse farm.  The 2009 season provided a fair amount of work for me at the theatre on a total of four different contracts. I was not contracted as an Assistant Musical Director anymore, but an independent contractor.  In “Joseph and the…Dreamcoat”, I played second keys in a two-keyboards and drums configuration (we had a BLAST!).  Then, I created the accompaniment tracks for their production of “Wizard of Oz”. Later on in the year, I music directed “Forever Plaid”, another show that I thoroughly enjoyed.  That production is scheduled for a five- or six-month national tour beginning in September (2010), but I will not be taking that tour.  Another pianist will be hired to play it.

Finishing out the 2009 season, I played piano for a sweet production of “Holiday Memories”, a tender story based on two Truman Capote short stories. It was a calm and refreshing end to the year.

At the end of 2009, I met with Richard Rose (the Producing Artistic Director of Barter) to discuss 2010’s season. It was decided that I would music direct three different shows during the season, providing work from mid-April through mid-November.  But all that was to change…

Less than a week ago, I received word that Tim, the Resident Musical Director, had tendered his resignation, with his final date of work being March 28. Two days later, the position was offered to me, and I have accepted it.

So, beginning March 29, I will finally step into the position I first applied for more than two-and-a-half years ago! I will become the Resident Musical Director at Barter Theatre. I’m very excited about this move in my career. And I look forward to being a more integral part of the production staff there.

New Site Launched

I have finally gotten this site (pianosteve.com) fleshed out and launched. This particular page will feature blog entries about my musical endeavors.

As we start out 2010, I have a lot of things happening, and a lot of exciting goals for my music.  One of the things that I did right at the end of 2009 was launch a fan page on Facebook.  While I’m still working out the kinks in that system, I’m excited to see the number of fans who have already signed up, and I enjoy reading the wonderful comments left there.

I have a CD/DVD project in the works that I really hope to get released within the next few months.  I actually started recording this CD several years ago, but it has sat unfinished. It is a continuation of my spiritual/worship CD releases, following in the lines of “Ivory Worship” and “‘Tis So Sweet”. Originally, it was meant to be a replacement of both of those CDs once I left the label that I was under for those first two CDs.  But then I had the opportunity to purchase the rights to those first two projects and re-released them independently. So, the “new” project has sat while I’ve continued to market those re-releases.

The DVD portion of it is a collection of videos being authored by Tim Yerks (YerksByDesign), who has also done the artwork for my CDs. Tim has done a beautiful job of compiling nature footage with my music, and I hope to offer it as a bonus addition, packaged together with the new release when it comes out.

I also hope to record a jazz Christmas CD later this year. Currently, I’m using the working title, “Tidings of Comfort and Jazz”. This project will hopefully be a jazz quartet featuring me on piano and other musicians on guitar, bass, and drums.

This Spring I will be returning to the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University (Boone, NC) two days a week, after taking a year off from accompanying there. I will be accompanying about eight students there, as well as performing in some other events (see the Performance Calendar).

I’m also returning to Emory & Henry College (Emory, VA) for my second semester of accompanying their monthly Music Hour and juries. This semester, I’ll also be assisting with their Musical Theatre class, accompanying and coaching there as well.

And finally in my musical plans for 2010 is my third season at Barter Theatre (Abingdon, VA). At this point, I am slated to music direct “Always…Patsy Cline”, “Violet”, and “The Full Monty” for them in this season.  If you happen to be in the southwest Virginia area this year, and would like to see one of those shows, I’d love for you to come!

I don’t know how often I’ll update this blog, but I hope to share thoughts about music, as well as recap performances and other projects in which I participate.

Until next time,

steve 🙂

arranger/orchestrator, pianist/keyboardist music director