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Go from piano zero to hero with Chilly Gonzales's fun how-to book

Robert Rowat

"Clementi Sonatinas do not make for a positive addiction to the piano," says Chilly Gonzales, referring to the uninteresting music so many beginners are forced to learn.

An accomplished concert pianist and recording artist, Gonzales spoke to us recently on a topic he feels strongly about: learning — or relearning — to play piano. In fact, he's on a mission to track down people who gave up on their piano lessons and reintroduce them to the instrument he loves.

His passion for the subject stems from his own unsatisfactory childhood experiences. "At 10, I began piano lessons with one of many bitter, apathetic piano teachers who didn't know how to channel my curiosity and hyperactive energy. My dislike for un-fun, un-musical music teaching began here."

Art Tatum to Aphex Twin: Chilly Gonzales's 10 essential piano works

In 2014, sensing a need in the general public for a better learning experience, Gonzales published Re-Introduction Etudes, a set of 24 easy-to-master, fun-to-play piano pieces. They include helpful explanations and personal shortcuts.

If it sounds a bit like a K-Tel commercial, Gonzales makes no apology for going after the frustrated pianists out there.

"I've met many like you," he says in one of the promotional videos for Re-Introduction Etudes. "Had a couple of years of training, but maybe your professor was focused a bit too much on scales and hand position, and you were looking for joy on the piano."

It turns out Gonzales found his niche: "25,000 copies sold and counting," he told us. "That must be platinum in the sheet music game. Seriously, I am beyond touched that the reaction was so overwhelming. Helping someone reconnect with the piano is the most satisfying feeling I've had in my career."

It's hardly surprising, when you see how appealing he makes this three-minute lesson on his composition Knight Moves:

Gonzales says he dabbled in teaching in the past, but it wasn't for him: "I prefer to inspire than teach." With thousands of frustrated pianists relearning their instrument thanks to his Re-Introduction Etudes, it's obvious his inspiration is contagious.

We wanted to know more about the musical education that turned a three-year-old Toronto toddler into a concert pianist who sells out Berlin's Philharmonie, so we got Gonzales to answer some questions.

What's your earliest piano memory?

My actual first memory has been supplanted by a photo of myself at around age three looking preternaturally comfortable at the piano.

Did you grow up in a home with music?

My grandfather was the one who introduced the piano to my brother and me. He was a Eurosnob, and didn't want us to lose touch with great European culture in Canada. Parallel to that, we watched MuchMusic and fell in love with pop stars.

What were the advantages of learning to play piano?

For me it was a safe place, an escape, a positive addiction.

Did you have any mentors?

As a teenager, I started studying with Toronto-area jazz musicians — Geoff Young, David James were two of them — local jobbing guys who you could find sometimes performing at George's Spaghetti House. My high school had a progressive music department, and I began getting lessons from these guys about how music works, rather than how to play the piano. They were guitarists, drummers, saxophonists — not pianists. This was very mind-opening, as it got me thinking outside of the instrument.

Then you went to study music at McGill University.

I switched from classical to jazz piano about halfway through my composition degree. I was actually their first student to study classical academics and jazz performance. My classical teacher was Kenneth Woodman, who recognized musical talent but also realized I wouldn't make it as a straight classical pianist.

My jazz teacher was André White, who I mostly rebelled against and sparred with. He was a jazz purist and I already was putting my crowd-pleasing instincts ahead of being a fundamentalist. I thank him for that, he really challenged me to think concretely about what I wanted to achieve.

How would you describe the atmosphere at the music school at McGill?

Music school is fantastic. Every time I'm in Montreal I visit and get nostalgic goosebumps, and I see myself in those kids who have decided to devote their lives to music. Every institution has its conservatives and its firebrands, and McGill was open-minded enough to allow me my jazz/classical hybrid degree. The stuffy purists are also there to challenge you. I wouldn't necessarily have wished for a more "liberal" music school. The rules of music are unbreakable and one has to learn how to bend them.

Were you a good student?

I was a good student when I was interested. Otherwise, I got by on charm and guile. Music theory was my best subject, I became obsessed with how harmony works.

When you left university, did you have a career plan? Or did stuff just happen?

Not only did I have a plan, but a dozen backup plans. For better or for worse, I had been bitten by the ambition bug and had a whole lot to prove.

In a typical day, how much time do you spend at the piano?

My piano day is about 60 minutes of sight-reading (in the interest of constantly experiencing new music), an hour of noodling (recorded) and maybe another hour listening to the previous day's noodling. This often leads to more composing. Once in a while I have to drill the muscle memory for piano parts of new songs I'm about to perform or record.

Do you have any favourite pianos?

I like to record my albums on upright pianos for the intimacy and the "everyman" feeling. With an upright, you can imagine your uncle playing in the living room. For concerts though, I need the "orchestral" power that a fat grand can deploy. My favourite brand is by far Bechstein for both uprights and grands.

Sexiest thing about pianos?

The sourdine: the piece of felt you can lower between the hammers and the strings, giving it that boudoir sound. Only available on upright pianos, I use it on all my recordings. Modern pianos have gotten plinkier and brittler by the decade, so the felt is an antidote.

Name three pianists you think are awesome.

1. Glenn Gould: Canada's musical hero, the John McEnroe/Bobby Fischer of the piano game. He questioned some of the most basic presumptions about how to play the piano and how to have a career.

2. Nina Simone: Overshadowed by being a singer, she combined classical austerity and jazz attitude in a way that inspired me directly.

3. Franz Liszt: Obviously I never heard him, but he invented the solo piano recital, and in doing so invented the Romantic pop star.