Breakaway Daily Interview with Pianist Sky Ladd

in Lifestyle

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Sky Ladd has all the fixings of what makes a great performer; a superstar name, drive and raw talent. Sky Ladd (and that is his real name by the way) lives in San Diego and has traveled all over the world as a pianist, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, and the Middle East. Sky has a B.A. in Classical Performance, was the winner of the Humboldt Concerto/Aria Competition and the recipient of the 1995 Bach competition. When Sky Ladd is not sharing the stage with the likes Jason Mraz, he can be found in the classroom as a music teacher and performing all over southern California delighting audiences with his artistry. 

Were you always fascinated with the piano or did you consider other instruments?

The piano didn’t hold any fascination for me until one majestically arrived in our home, when I was around 12. I say majestically because that is what it felt like to me: this behemoth of an instrument, laboriously moved by several large men into our country home, cajoled into a corner by the television. But it was an old and dilapidated piano with most of the key covers missing and the wood exposed; a loan from a family friend. My family was too poor to buy a piano so we were grateful for anything. My sister is the one who the piano was intended for, and she did take lessons, but eventually I sort of commandeered it.

My first instruments were the trumpet in the school band and the acoustic guitar. I still play both, but with no real goals in mind other than as perhaps timbres in my own songs someday.

 How long have you been playing piano?

 I’m on the precipice of turning 40, so I guess at this point it has been around 26 years that I have been banging away on pianos.

You have played at the O2 arena in London with Gregory Page and Jason Mraz. What was that experience like?

It was wonderful, the highlight of my musical life so far. Haha. I say so far, knowing very well that I probably won’t have an experience that surpasses it in my lifetime, but I also don’t want to think of the rest of my life as kind of that slow, droopy end to a Bell Curve on a graph that goes tumbling down across the page, the valley that inevitably follows the peak—if you’ll permit me to superimpose a lifetime chronology to the shape of the curve. The glass may be half empty now but I still want to hold on to the hope that it might be a full glass some day. Whatever that means.

Anyway, performing at the O2 arena was great. I was performing with my dear friend Gregory Page, a San Diego treasure who was the opening act. Jason was nice enough to come out and sing a couple songs with us at the end of our set, which was a memorable experience. Jason has a magical voice.

What other contemporary artists would you like to work with?

I am lucky to already be working with my favorite musicians in San Diego: Gregory Page, Carlos Olmeda, and Benjamin Ziff. Beyond that, in the world-wide ocean of contemporary artists, there are so many: Steve Gadd, Maurizio Pollini, Tom Waits, John Prine, Robert Pinsky, Lynette Jackson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Roy Haynes, Andrew Holleran, Blixa Bargeld…of course, these people are all at the top of their respective crafts and I don’t imagine that I will be collaborating with any of them any time soon: my name would generate a collective “Sky who?” amongst them. But, one can dream.

Are you also a composer? If so, do you write it down or memorize it?

I do compose, yes. For my classical and jazz compositions I write them down and then memorize them—but for the creative process I need to be at the piano. When you think of the great composers, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Bartok, etc., those are people who composed like we would write a book: they heard the music in their heads, much in the same way that we hear our words in our head when we write or type them down. Stravinsky was an exception to that, he composed at the piano, but in his case it was a choice, not a necessity—he could have easily composed at a desk or on a remote mountain in Tibet. So in that regard I am still a fledgling composer, trying to get better at my craft.

For other genres the process can be a little different, especially in a band where people are kind of working out their own parts to a song.

Who is your favorite composer?

It’s a good question, but it would be hard to single out just one composer. My biggest influence is the pianist Glenn Gould, who wasn’t a composer at all, save for a string quartet and perhaps a few other pieces—but he was so creative and in tune with the architecture of music that I am always inspired by his work. In the world of both composers and artists in general there are a handful of people whose work I keep returning to and learning from, making my own personal pilgrimages: Dostoevsky, Andrei Tarkovsky, Bach, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Walt Whitman, Rudolf Nureyev, Miles Davis, Knut Hamsun, Horowitz, Prokofiev, Di Nigunim, Camus.

You are also a music teacher. Can you briefly describe your teaching method?

Is there a method to my madness? I hope so. In general I work on three things with my students: one, music fundamentals and learning to read and play piano music. Two, learning chords and playing rock, pop, jazz or Broadway songs. Three, creating and recording music on the computer.

I’m pretty flexible. Some students prefer to just focus on one of those three things, which is fine with me. I’m not a strict, disciplinary teacher; it just isn’t in my personality. Which is good for some people, not so good for others. On one hand, I would like to think that my students never dread coming to piano lessons and generally have a pleasant experience regardless of whether they have practiced or not—which most of them haven’t. But, on the other hand, they are never motivated out of fear of me getting upset with them. I have seen some students leave me, having made little progress, and blossom when they go study with a stern, strict teacher. Piano teachers, like many things in life, have many motley variations and every student just needs to find a good fit. Strangely, in my own experiences as a piano student I worked best with teachers that were more austere.

What other goals do you wish to accomplish as a pianist and as a teacher?

As a pianist it is just the continual melding of technique with emotion and expression, which is a lifelong journey with no end.

As a teacher my main goal, really, is to give people the gift of music that they can take with them their whole lives. Life is so difficult, with so much hardship and suffering and sadness that comes our way. Music can be such a powerful source of joy and amelioration, a salve for our souls, and I just want people to always have that with them: to be able to broaden their happiness when things are going well and to help ease their pain when the road gets a bit bumpy. It doesn’t matter so much to me if a student can still play a Beethoven sonata 20 years after they stop taking piano lessons—what matters to me is that that they still play the piano, or any instrument, no matter what style or genre, no matter how simple or complicated it is, and it brings them a little bit of happiness. 

Are you planning on releasing an album in the near future? If so, what kind of music do you think you would record?

You’ve opened the Pandora’s Box! I am going to share two things about me which will seem to be contradictory, and indeed they are. The first is that my dream has always been, from the moment I started playing the piano, which was also the moment I started creating and composing my own music, to make CD’s of my original music. It is what I have always wanted to do, more than anything.

The second is that I am nearing 40 and I still have never recorded a single CD. Strange, yes? It isn’t from a lack of material, I have gobs of music that I have composed. But you asked about what I would record first. I would like my first CD to be a collection of my classical compositions for solo piano. The stumbling block has been finding a Steinway D to record on. No recording studio in San Diego has one. I only have an upright piano—which I don’t even own, I rent it. I have myriads of other excuses, which I will spare you, as to why I haven’t recorded my classical CD. And there are so many other CD’s I would like to record: the chamber music I have composed, a vegan punk CD, a jazz trio CD, I just joined a New Wave project and I would like to record some electronic tracks in that vein, avante garde classical, singer-songwriter songs, disco (yes!)…but it is silly to enumerate them, I suppose, until I actually start and finish the first one.

I’m in a punk project with my friend Benjamin now, The Thief’s Lineage, which came out of the overcoat of Ben’s previous band, Di Nigunim. Joining Di Nigunim and experiencing the punk scene for the first time was such a revelation for me. Punk is all about energy and it doesn’t matter if you have a terrible instrument or sing out of tune, it is just about getting out there and making music—no excuses. I see people playing instruments that they literally found in a dumpster, that half work…people that can barely play their instruments, technically speaking…they scream at the top of their lungs—and it is all amazing. It has sort of turned my “Steinway D” way of thinking on its ear. So hopefully I will get a CD recording finished before I am 40.

In the meantime I will have to find solace in Scarlatti, who composed most of the piano works he is famous for in his 50’s. The Bell Curve hasn’t flattened out yet, there is still hope.

I think it is safe to say, the “sky” is the limit for Sky Ladd! Thank you to Sky for taking the time to talk to me about his passion for music and teaching. To learn more about Sky and see some of his video performances, check out his website.

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