Nine Lives: Wells Hanley, part 2

Continued from part 1, we hear from pianist Wells Hanley, local musician and the new jazz piano professor at VCU.

Editor’s note: Continued from part 1, we hear from pianist Wells Hanley, local musician and the new jazz piano professor at VCU.

David Tenenholtz: You’re also the musical director to something like twenty different cabaret or Broadway singers in New York, Tom Wopat being one.

Wells Hanley: Yep, from The Dukes of Hazzard man! That was a show that in the later ‘70s and early ‘80s was an iconic TV show about these two country boys doing good deeds but they lived in a town with an overactive sheriff. Tom Wopat was one of those guys. If you showed a picture of him to your average American that watched the show, they’d say “That’s Luke Duke.” He is a top-notch Broadway stage singer, and I think he spent a couple years singing in Annie Get Your Gun, among other shows.

So in addition to work with him, you freelanced in New York with other projects?

I was in grad school at the Manhattan School of Music from 1998 to 2000, and I stuck around after I graduated. My first year out was the year playing at the Russian Tea Room, and then that closed. So I fell into playing with singers because it paid well. The rehearsals, shows, and recordings were paid, which is so different from the common band idea where the leader says, “We have a show in two weeks, and we’ll rehearse three times, and the pay is 50 bucks.” So I set up this business as accompanist, and billed by the hour. It’s the type of thing where a singer goes to a pianist and they help the singer get to where they want to go. I worked with singers to help them understand the lyric. For example “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is a love song, but it’s a dark love song, man. Think about that concept of having someone under your skin. It’s not comfortable. But people will get up on stage and sing it like it’s the greatest thing ever to be in love, but the message is more uncomfortable, like “I wish you weren’t there, because you’re like an ulcer that I can’t get rid of.” And all the lyrics support that.

So you help the singers uncover the elements of what’s actually in the lyrical material.

Right. People are misinformed, and have this idea that all of those songs are just happy, American Broadway types of things. It’s like a lot of songs and movies from that era, there’s so much joyful pro-America stuff, but if you really pay attention to the message, it is quite dark too. And I like that about it, because it has two faces. It’s a work of art that has this surface level thing to it, but underneath that there’s this whole other deal. Shostakovich did that a lot. For example, he would be in harm’s way if he didn’t write things that were supportive of the Communist party, so he would write things that seemed nationalistic but if you really paid attention they were very sarcastic towards that. It’s sort of a trickster archetype. I’m into that.

And you are into psychology as well, right? Some Jungian theory? Tell me more about that.

I find symbolism really interesting. I think it started from reading The Scarlet Letter in high school. The symbolism in that work totally killed me, and got me into the idea of symbolism in art as well as psychology. The way Jung would unpack symbols that are a part of our daily lives…

What’s an example?

The example that is the strongest is the swastika. Sort of a touchy subject, because obviously even as soon as I say that word, it’s like “Oh shit, this is going to get weird.” You have an emotional reaction already, and feel it. But anyway, the idea of that symbol coming into existence shows a lot about Hitler’s own study of occultism. The cross that was the symbol Hitler used as a source for his originally had tails that went in a direction to show a clock-wise spinning of the cross. This represented evolution and moving forward, which of course is going to involve greater diversity and expansion. But Hitler reversed the tails, and made the cross spin in the opposite direction, which symbolized a tightening of genetic material, and a reversal of the original symbolism.

Oh that is interesting! I had no clue.

But that’s just one example, and so you have a sense of what his agenda was just from seeing the symbol. Jung would say it’s a part of the collective unconscious. So I love to read a story or watch a movie and try to find what the author is actually trying to tell me through the symbols or figurative language. People don’t write books just to tell a story about some characters.

There’s something in between the lines there. So how do some of these ideas get explored within music? Do you get into that much with students?

No, not necessarily, but I have theories about my own personal psychology of playing music. I could see getting into that with students, but it’s so personal. There’s definitely a lot of psychology that I think about, such as “what is the relationship to your audience?” For a lot of young players, that relationship is fear. They’re afraid of all the things the audience is thinking, which really isn’t what they’re thinking. So there are practical things to deal with about playing on stage. If I saw a student that was struggling with that in performance, I’d talk to him about it.

Have you had some experiences yourself where you have to think closely about how you’re relating to the audience?

Totally. It’s an ongoing process, and a lot of it depends on how I feel on a particular day. If I’m not in my comfort zone or am unsure of myself, then I wonder more about what the audience is thinking. When I’m comfortable, then I can really enjoy it and the audience is along for the experience. If you’re up on stage gigging, you’re in a social situation where there’s a whole group of people looking at you. If you’re at VCU playing in a jazz ensemble, you’re playing a concert in front of all the friends you go to school with. It’s weird to stand up on an elevated level with everyone looking at you. Thoughts creep in like “is something hanging out of my nose, does my hair look alright, is my fly up?” But I think of the stage as a bizarre social situation where you have to be put up higher than the rest of the audience, and it doesn’t happen other than in performance.

We’ve talked a bit about education, and psychology, but I’d like to ask you more about some of the ideas your teachers have passed on to you, like Sophia Rosoff. I’m interested to find out about what you picked up from her.

I love talking about her, and I think she’s awesome. I got started with her because she’s Fred Hersch’s teacher. And she’s a natural born teacher, who was a protégé of Abbey Whiteside who wrote a method book Indispensables of Piano Playing, which emphasized that you don’t play the piano with your fingers. The connection is through your elbow, which is through your shoulder, which finishes at your back. So then you are thinking further about your sitting bones, and playing the piano becomes a full body process. So Sophia Rosoff had me try to do things that created an awareness of my fingers and other parts of my body. She would have me try to balance an egg on a table just using my fingers, or then try to hold both hands as close together without touching the fingers together. So if you try it and focus on your fingers, they get hot! They warm up! So it’s a lot of body awareness stuff that I was really into because I’ve done Alexander Technique before.

But the biggest thing I got from her was to be myself at all times, not just when I’m interpreting music, but beyond that. She had a way of knowing when you were playing honestly, or playing based on some other thing, like worrying about what some other teacher said in the past, you know. I studied mostly classical with her, but I’d also improvise pieces in lessons. Some Chopin Études for technique building and a Nocturne or two, like the D-flat Nocturne, were some of the pieces I did with her. Her way of understanding those difficult pieces was that if you’re doing something that makes you tense up, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a way of making it easy, and you’ve got to find that way. But the biggest thing I got from her though, was “don’t waste your time not being yourself.” Every hour you spend at the piano not being your self is counter to your ultimate goal. Which I think is so cool, you know. And it sounds New Age-y or Self Help-y, but it’s such a simple thing that if any musician is honest, that’s what they are trying to learn how to do. I’m not sure if she talked to Chick Corea or Richie Bierach about that, but it’s what I needed, and she centered in on that. The big picture, along with smaller details about fingering certain phrases in more unorthodox ways that might trigger something else in the music. This is tough to talk about when we’re not at a piano. But the idea of being yourself is so fundamental to everything I’m doing with students. Even if we’re working on ii-V-I patterns, the biggest thing I’m ultimately trying to help them with is finding their creative voice. It can sound so insipid, but it really is what I’m
trying to do.

Yeah, people really have to hear that from their teachers, especially to get the next generation of artists out there in the mix. There are so many faceless jazz musicians out there that can duplicate the way things sound from the classic recordings, and that’s great, but there’s something missing there.

Yes, I like that.

So now that you’re in Richmond and teaching more, do you still plan on making trips up to New York regularly?

Yep, I’m still doing it once a month. It used to be Wednesday through Sunday, but I cut it down to Thursday through Sunday so that I can keep my teaching duties together. Otherwise I’d be doing a lot of makeup lessons. The main reason I’m going up there still is the work I do with singers. I pack it all in on one weekend. I’m doing shows, a bunch of rehearsals, and a recording this month. The shows include playing piano, singing back-up, playing guitar, playing ukulele, and dancing. At one point in a show, I get up from the piano and do some swing dance, and other old dances.

Like the Charleston and the Two-Step?

That type of stuff. The Twist. So you get an idea of the gamut. The recording sessions include playing drums, keys, and singing back up. One of the things I like about
it is that it’s challenging, you know. In my mind I was thinking “Man, I’d love to learn how to play ukulele.” And we came to this tune in a show called “Under a Blanket of Blue,” which is an old standard, and I thought “wouldn’t this be cool if it was three-part harmony with ukulele?” And the group said yes, so I went out and bought a ukulele and figured it out.

So you find yourself saying “yes” to more opportunities than “no.”

It’s the alternative to being stuck. I try to challenge myself like that. That’s how I ended up dancing. Even if there’s a part of me that thinks, “I don’t want to do that,” or “That’s so corny to dance in a show,” there is this other angle I have, which is “My attitude to being on stage will never be the same after that.” It’s all about pushing me out of my comfort zone. So when I’m thinking only within the box, then my idea is to blow the walls right off the box, and so I say, “I’ll dance in the show, sure!”

So now you can come back from New York and show your piano students the Charleston and other dances!

[laughs] Well I definitely won’t do that. But I’m going up there for work, and I may as well have as much fun while I can there.

And talking more about the piano ideas that you would potentially be passing onto your students at VCU, we can maybe chat a bit about Garry Dial, your improvisation teacher at Manhattan School of Music.

A big part of his gig is that he loves teaching and loves his students. I like how methodical he is, whereas Fred is more experimental and open-ended. Garry’s thing is a perfect complement to that. It wasn’t that it was all that different from what Fred’s thing was, really. But he helped me balance the unstructured part of my nature with the structured part of my nature as a teacher. Because for the last ten years, a lot of my growth has been about experimenting in the unstructured way, but what students need when they’re starting out is a lot of structure. So I pull that stuff from Garry’s thing.

Yeah, I think a lot of jazz students when they are starting out, as devoted as they are, they might not be organized.

Exactly, and they need that organization. As a teacher, it’s taken me years to get a handle on that, because how I am now as a self-teacher is different from how I am with my students. Also though, Bob Hallahan is a very organized teacher, and the piano levels at VCU were set up by Bob. So I’m tailoring my teaching to Bob’s levels that are already there. I like that aspect of it, because I know I’ve got to get them through these levels.

So once a jazz piano major has completed the four years with you, that’s sort of just the beginning, right? They then have to take what they’ve learned and go out there and say “yes” to gigs and, who knows, maybe even dancing on stage.

I definitely think so.

As someone who has shared the stage with all kinds of different folk in New York and has had a wide diversity of experiences, you’re a great person for them to learn from.

I hope so!

  • error

    Report an error

David Tenenholtz

There is 1 reader comment. Read it.