This past week I had the pleasure to discuss Piano Karaoke with Elise MacDonald and Steve Gonzales. Elise was the owner of Studio 99 which was a great source for concerts and music here in Nashua for many years. Steve is a regular attendee at Piano Karaoke as well as an active participant in the musical theater community. NCMS hosts Piano Karaoke on the first Wednesday of the month from 8pm-11pm.
Gillian: First things first, what is Piano Karaoke?
Elise: Singers performing their favorite pop, jazz, folk, and show tunes, in their best key, accompanied by a live pianist, in front of a live audience. Lyrics from an internet-based song lyric website are displayed on an iPad for the singer’s reference.
Steve: Piano Karaoke is a rewarding and altogether different experience than the karaoke sessions hosted at bars or lounges. As an artist, the live piano allows you to express your song in the key that best suits your voice in the tempo that feels most natural. Elise is an amazing accompanist who will give you the ability to experiment and make creative innovations to songs in ways that are impossible with pre-recorded tracks. As a performance venue, Nashua Community Music School is a place designed for listening without the noise and distractions that you might encounter in a crowded bar or busy lounge.
Gillian: Elise, in describing your role you just glossed over something that most may not realize is a rare skill. I know many classically trained musicians who read music fantastically and I know many who play by ear but rarely do you meet someone who does both. I knew you first as a classical flute player but I also know that you play bass. Being able to read, play by ear and adjust the key on the fly for a vocalist is a rare treat. How did you come about this skill?
Elise: All thanks go to my grandmother, who was my first music teacher. She played piano for silent movies in NYC during the 1920s. From practically the time I could walk, I was playing piano by ear with her. She was the one who showed me that it was possible and fun to play by ear, and was one of the most complete musicians I've ever known, even though she didn't read music.
Steve: It is amazing. The environment is truly welcoming to all regardless of vocal experience, style, song choice and musical genre preference. There is nothing else like this experience anywhere in the Greater Nashua area.
Gillian: So are the people that come all expert singers? I know many people are intimidated to come to sing karaoke? Do you have to have a certain skill level to do this?
Elise: Not at all. We've hosted everyone from timid performers who've never sung in public before to seasoned musical theater singers. Most haven't have classical training or private voice instruction. The audience is amazingly supportive, with a quiet listening habit and huge applause at the end of the performance!
Gillian: Definitely a supportive audience. I have had the pleasure of listening in and I love how the audience finds what is special about each singers piece and is sure to tell them. Steve, I imagine the nature of this audience is what keeps you coming. Is that part of the attraction of Piano Karaoke for you?
Steve: I have spent a great portion of my young adult life performing in a capella or barbershop groups, choral ensembles, karaoke venues, open mic nights and in community theater productions. Of all of my recent engagements, I am confident that my experience with piano karaoke has helped me grow tremendously as a musician and performer. Elise consistently encourages and supports experimentation with the array of songs I have performed with her ranging from adult contemporary, show tunes, standards, and alternative rock. I have watched other performers creatively interpreting music and have learned a great deal by watching them. I would recommend this group to anyone striving to find an open forum for artistic expression, musicianship training and an evening that will have you smiling ear to ear or in tears by the end from the amazing performances that fill the hours that always seem to fly by.
Gillian: What is your favorite artist to listen to or perform?
Steve: Favorite artists: Perhaps my favorite artist to cover at Piano Karaoke is the legendary Billy Joel. Other times I like to experiment and work with songs or artists who do not use piano or keyboard in their original tracks, Last month I performed "I don't want to miss a thing" by Aerosmith and the month before I tried Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" and "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol. My favorite cover experiment was Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" because of Elise's amazing command of replicating and interpreting the bass lines of well-known tunes and adapting them uniquely for piano accompaniment.
Elise: I'm a big fan of jazz, classical, and pop, with a particular fondness for Philly Soul and Motown --- everything from Marvin Gaye to the blue-eyed soul of artists like Todd Rundgren and Daryl Hall.
Piano Karaoke regular Gary R. likes to request "Harmony" by Elton John. That might be my absolute favorite to perform at Piano Karaoke --- probably because it was written for solo piano and voice in the first place.
Gillian: I know that this group holds a special place in your heart. Could you tell us more about why it is so special?
Elise: The mutual support among all of the singers is just beautiful to watch. Piano Karaoke also gives me a perfect outlet for my ability to play piano by ear, on the spot. Three hours simply fly by. It's only once we're done that a bit of fatigue sets in and I realize I've been working hard!
Steve: The Group: The regulars who have been following Elise since she opened up Studio 99 in Nashua, are a wonderful group of amazingly talented, welcoming singers who truly love their craft and appreciate the listening experience as much as they do the performance. We are an intimate group and encourage each other to experiment, try new songs and collaborate in duets. Newcomers are welcomed with open arms and are encouraged to share their voices and express themselves in whatever genres they feel passionate about.