My students have more fun!

Irv's Musical Journey

I started playing piano at the age of eight.  For the next eight years, I took classical piano lessons.  For six of those years, I studied under one of the most respected teachers in the Salt Lake valley, Florence S. Brinton.  Although I was honored to have been accepted as one of her students, much of the time I felt like a square peg in a round hole.

Age 13

I loved playing the piano, and spent hours and hours practicing.  But I frustrated Mrs. Brinton (and my mother) by not spending as much time on the assigned scales, boring Hanon exercises, and icky Bach Inventions as she wanted.  I was much more interested in experimenting, figuring out how to play songs I'd heard on the radio, and composing my own songs.  I loved Chopin, but wasn't fond of many of the other classical composers, and was never given a choice in the pieces assigned.  All of Mrs. Brinton's students learned the same pieces, in the same order, all the way through her program, which was geared towards one thing: preparing concert pianists to compete in classical piano competitions... which didn't interest me at all.

Because I loved music, I kept trying.  But sometimes I felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall.  For example, I couldn't figure out how to read the notes above and below the grand staff.  The "Every Good Boy Does Fine" type tricks were not intuitive for me.  I did eventually figure out how to read the notes within the grand staff, but nobody ever explained to me a logical a system for learning notes above and below the staff.  It was just kind of expected that I would know them.  As I progressed, more and more pieces had notes above the staff, and I found myself just guessing what they were.  Along the way, I discovered a way to "cheat" the system.  If I could just get Mrs. Brinton to play the song, it was much easier for me to learn it than if she just assigned it cold.  I didn't know it then, but I was using a combination of ear and reading.  Mrs. Brinton knew exactly what was going on, and she did not like it at all!  She tried in vain to get me to stop relying on my ear and to just use my eyes and play what was on the page by rote.

Even though I struggled and eventually quit lessons at age 16 because of my frustration with the classical repertoire and the teaching style, it wasn't all bad.  I am very thankful to Mrs. Brinton for drilling into me excellent technique (hand and body position, relaxed wrists, curved fingers, and correct fingering).

In sixth grade, I composed my first piano solo piece.  At the time, I was the pianist in the elementary school orchestra, and decided to write an arrangement of the song for the orchestra: first and second violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano.  My teacher was impressed, and the orchestra learned and performed the song.

During my Junior High years, many evenings, when my parents thought I was asleep, I often laid in bed with my "transistor radio" pressed against my ear, at a low volume, listening to the amazing songs of the late 1960s.  The next day, I would listen to the radio, hoping a certain song would come on, and when it did I would record it onto a small reel-to-reel tape recorder (and later, onto a cassette tape).  Then I would take the tape recorder downstairs to the piano and try to play along with it to learn the song.  Through trial and error, I invented a system: I would press the "play" button, listen to the first chord of the song, and stop the tape.  Then I would hum the melody note and find it on the piano.  Then I'd rewind the tape, play that one chord again then stop the tape, listen for the bass note, hum it, and find it on the piano.  If I could find the melody note and the bottom note, that was usually two out of three notes in the chord, and then it was a simple matter of experimentation to find the third.  Then I'd repeat the process for the second chord in the song.  Before long, I progressed to the point where I could find all three notes at the same time, and soon I was able to listen to a measure at a time, then a line at a time, and eventually an entire verse of a new song, and reproduce it on the piano without difficulty.  I even got the the point where I could usually anticipate the next chord of a song when hearing it for the first time.  I discovered how to invert chords, as well as the different types of chords, and chord progression patterns, all on my own.  Because I couldn't sing as high as most of the records, I was also forced to learn to transpose so I could sing the songs.  Nobody taught me any of that stuff.  I just figured it out on my own.

Likewise, nobody ever explained to me how to write down any of this cool stuff I was discovering.  Then at age 17, I bought my first guitar and taught myself to play it.  That is when I learned about chord charts, which are commonly used with guitar.  It didn't take long for me to figure out that I could also write chord charts for the popular songs I was learning by ear on the piano.

Age 17

During the latter years of my classical piano training, I was also expanding my classical musical knowledge by playing viola for four years in my junior high and high school orchestras.  During my senior year, I fell in love with choral music, so I quit orchestra and joined the concert choir.  I was fortunate to study under one of the best choral teachers in the state, Morris Lee.

I volunteered to serve a mission for my church and spent two years in Arizona and Nevada.  While in Las Vegas, I taught myself to play the pipe organ.  There was a beautiful, 11-rank, Wicks organ in one of the church buildings, and I fell in love with the sound of it.  On preparation days, when the other missionaries were in the gym playing basketball, I was in the chapel, learning to play that organ.  Although I had not liked Bach piano pieces, I discovered that I loved his organ pieces, and learned several of his preludes and fugues.  (Since then, I have been the main organist in every church congregation I have attended.  Even though I have never had an organ lesson, I have been told by many people on countless occasions that I am one of the best organists they have ever heard.)

When I arrived at the University of Utah at the age of 21, I decided to major in accounting.  In hindsight, I'm not sure if that was a good decision.  My thinking was that I could always do music for fun, but I needed to feed my future family.  So I followed my brain instead of my heart, and pushed through a five year bachelors/masters accounting program in accounting in 3 1/2 years, graduating magna cum laude.  However, I never stopped studying music.  During those years, I was in the University Choir under Dr. Jerry Ottley, the Institute Choir under Dr. Paul Hanks, and the A Cappella choir under Dr. Newell Weight.  I gleaned much musical knowledge from these choral masters, and I served as Assistant Conductor in the Institute Choir.  I also took a few courses in music theory and pedagogy during my years at the U. of U.

Age 22, playing at a wedding reception

I put myself through college with money earned by playing piano and organ for weddings, and by playing in bands.  I was a member of several bands during those years, none of which were particularly good, but they at least gave me some performing experience.  Things changed during my masters' year, when I joined a band that became one of the top three bands in the Salt Lake valley in the early 1980s.  That band was extremely demanding, learning several new songs each week.  Of course, there was no sheet music.  So that experience further developed and refined my ability to learn songs by ear.  And the vocal harmonies in that band were extremely intricate and precise, which further developed my voice and my understanding of harmony.

Age 28, playing with a top 40 cover band, in the Hotel Utah Grand Ballroom
(where the theater is in the Joseph Smith Memorial building today)

Same band

Several years after my graduation from the U of U, I became disillusioned with accounting and decided to pursue a career in music and other arts.  I built a small 8-track recording studio and composed radio jingles.  I scored films for BYU Motion Picture Studio, and started a video production company.  I also taught "play by ear" and "play in a band" piano lessons to teenage students who already knew how to play piano but who, like me, had become frustrated with classical pieces and quit taking lessons.  I taught my students what I had learned about playing by ear and making chord charts.  I developed my own curriculum and materials and helped many aspiring rock and roll musicians to develop their skills.  It was kind of an early version of School of Rock.  This experience proved to me that playing by ear is not something you are born with and that most piano students can be taught how to do it.

My logo from the 1980s

My dream career was short lived.  After a few years, personal and family circumstances forced me to abandon my studio, video production company, band, and teaching, and move to California, where I ended up back in accounting.  Several years later, I pursued a Ph.D. in business at the University of Nebraska, with a minor in educational psychology.  Upon graduation, I accepted a position in the School of Accountancy at Utah State University, where I taught for 15 years.

(Over the years, many people who have known me in musical circles, when they have learned I hold a Ph.D. and that I taught at USU, have automatically assumed my degree was in music and that I taught in the music department at USU.  The level of my knowledge and skills in music are such that people are very surprised to learn my degrees are in business.)

During these years in California and Nebraska, I kept playing in bands.  One of the better ones was during my
Ph.D. program, when I played with a classic rock band in Lincoln, Nebraska, called The Rockerfellers. 

Age 37, in Lincoln, Nebraska

When I accepted the job at USU, I took a break from bands, and became involved with a small community theater group in Box Elder County called StageStop Theatre.  I was cast as a lead character in many plays, including several musicals, and I also recorded several MIDI soundtracks for musicals, including The Sound of Music and Big River.

on stage at StageStop Theatre, ages 38-40

I also sang in the Northern Utah Chorale Society under Doctors Will Kessling and Cory Evans.

At the age of 47, I taught myself to play bass guitar.  One of my first public performances on bass was at a concert of the USU choirs.  (I have been a guest artist for them many times, since.  I have also written nearly a dozen choral arrangements for the USU choirs.) 

with Aram Arakelyan and Dr. Cory Evans after a performance with the USU choirs

In 2003, I returned to playing in bands and formed The Fender Benders.

The Fender Benders performing at Summerfest in 2005

The Fender Benders band has been going strong now for more than 15 years.

In addition, I am a member of several other musical performing acts, including Relic Acoustic Band which is basically the three original members of The Fender Benders playing "unplugged" oldies with acoustic guitars,

Relic Acoustic Band

and Cristina & Irv, which is a female vocalist and piano duo.

Cristina & Irv

In 2011, I finally returned to my favorite career, teaching music lessons.  And I've been smiling ever since!