Interview with Composer Kevin Kern for our Songwriter Spotlight
In this edition of our Songwriter Spotlight, Musicnotes.com shines the spotlight on Kevin Kern, an acclaimed pianist, composer and performer who has an interesting story to tell. Even though he was born legally blind, Kevin exhibited his musical talent at the tender age of eighteen months.
After you read our interview with this talented musician and composer, you can find out more about Kevin Kern by visiting his website located at: www.kevinkern.com. Kevin invites you to follow his musical journey through your favorite social sites including: Myspace, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.
If you’re interested in downloading piano sheet music from this composer, we invite you to visit his selection of Kevin Kern sheet music on Musicnotes.com. At the end of the interview, read a message from Kevin Kern written especially for you!
Can you share with us how you first fell in love with music?
- The truth is that I really can’t remember a time when music wasn’t at the center of my life. Believe it or not, I started to play the piano when I was eighteen months old. One day, everyone was watching TV in the den when they heard “Silent Night” coming from the living room. Pretty weird in May. When the family walked in, they saw me standing with my hands over my head plunking out the melody with one finger. Soon, Mom began pulling my high chair up to the piano so I could keep playing. From then on, the music simply kept flowing.
How has your blindness affected your ability to learn and compose sheet music?
- I was born legally blind. That meant that while I could see basic shapes and colors, something like trying to read was much more difficult. Everything was letter by letter. Eventually, I simply gave up. I wasn’t able to learn music from printed scores. I could see well enough to distinguish individual notes, but reading music was never practical. I learned all the classical pieces I studied by having my teachers record the music for each hand separately, speaking the fingering as they played. I would then assemble the music by listening to the complete pieces on records. While this was a tedious process, it forced me to develop my musical memory and my ears. It’s just like lifting weights. Eventually, you develop strong muscles by working them constantly. Years of studying classical music and learning thousands of pop tunes from records and the radio helped me to sharpen my listening and learning skills and those skills still serve me today.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you started your career as a composer and professional performer?
- My very first role model was the great jazz pianist George Shearing. We met when I was seven. Shearing, who is also blind, showed me that it was possible to excel and succeed in music if one worked to develop the talent and skills. Listening to his intricate harmonic style and marvelous tone complimented my classical training and helped to give me the sound I have now.
I began playing professionally in my early teens. I had a group in high school that warmed up for several major jazz artists including Dave Brubeck among others. I was drawn to jazz both as a player and a composer because it made very few demands on my inability to notate thoroughly. The improviser’s art was ideally suited to a blind musician with lots of ideas but few ways of communicating them effectively. For this reason, jazz has always been special to me and I still love to play and compose music in that style.
As far as composing goes, initially, I would get a good idea and then forget some key part of it before having the chance to put it on tape. Once music production software like Cakewalk and Sonar became accessible for the blind, I could not only hear my melodies, but my orchestrations as well. This last element was crucial because it helped me develop the musical voice my fans know today. However, it wasn’t until Sibelius notation software was made more blind-friendly that all the pieces came together.
What inspires you to write music?
- I’m inspired to write music by the simple fact that I’m able to do it. After years of not being able to make my ideas clear, the chance to get it right is inspiration enough. But that’s not where it stops. My ideas come from a number of sources. The first is my classical background. Years of hearing the music of the great classical composers has filled me with a wealth of thematic ideas that I never seem to exhaust. My second major inspiration is the sound of great film scores. The film music I like best has a very orchestral Romantic sound to it and I love hearing how great film composers draw upon the classical tradition to compliment a film with their music. The third major influence is my exposure to the music of the great popular songwriters. From Tin Pan Alley to the great pop writers of today, I’m always listening to what the great melody writers are doing. That way, I never stop learning and my music never stops growing. Lastly, I’m also energized by the sounds of the world around me. I’ve spent many a summer evening in the hammock taking in the sounds of the wetlands behind my home. The songs of the birds and the peepers (little frogs) that come back every spring are just some of the sounds that provide the energy that invigorates my composing process.
How has your blindness affected your ability to arrange your sheet music for others to play?
- For most of my life, I wasn’t able to arrange music for others to play at all. In fact, if I couldn’t make my ideas sound good with one piano and two hands, I was simply out of luck. I’ll never forget trying to write a big band arrangement when I was at New England Conservatory. There I was listening to these excellent sight readers trying their best to make sense of my horrible handwritten parts. I knew the ideas worked but I couldn’t hear them played correctly because the parts were too hard to read and the performance suffered because of that. That was 1982. It would take more than twenty years before personal computers, notation software and special adaptations for the blind would come together to make it possible for me to put my music on the page the way I heard it in my head. To sighted people, this is probably no big deal. To me, it’s a life changing event that I celebrate with joy every day. That’s where you guys come in. Musicnotes has played a critical role in making my piano arrangements available to fans all over the world who have been asking for them for more than a decade. I’m looking forward to expanding my Musicnotes catalog for my fans.
As a composer, you’ve also written for film in addition to producing your own CDs. What is the most rewarding aspect of working with other musicians?
- Actually, while many of my songs have been used in movies for television and in commercials, I’ve yet to write an entire film score myself. Through the years, I’ve spoken with film directors and others who have all commented on how my music has a cinematic quality that’s made for film. I consider that a great compliment. Now that I’m able to put my music on the page, I’m hoping that the film score of my dreams won’t be far behind.
To answer your other question, the greatest part of working with other musicians is hearing my ideas come leaping off the page exactly the way I imagined them. I feel as though the world has been unlocked for me. The exhilaration that hearing my music played by others brings me is simply indescribable. Whether I’m hearing students play my music in their end-of-year recital, or rehearsing my arrangements with local professional musicians in a concert hall half way around the world, the thrill of hearing my notes come back to me is simply one-of-a-kind. I don’t imagine I’ll ever quite get over it.
We can’t imagine what it would be like to write music without clear vision. How do you do it?
- I use a combination of software that speaks the contents of the computer screen in a program like Sibelius. I can place my cursor in a given staff and measure of a score and the screen reader will tell me everything that a sighted person would learn by looking at the screen. That combined with being able to play the score from any given point gives me access to all the information I need to write the score and parts.
One song that a lot of Musicnotes fans really enjoy is “The Enchanted Garden.” Can you share a little history about the song?
- “The Enchanted Garden” was the title track for my debut album released in 1996. The song was inspired in part by the view of the garden I saw from my window as I composed. It was one of those rare things where I simply woke up one morning and sat at the keyboard and began to sketch. The ideas kept flowing and flowing. I first thought of the key of D Flat, a key that most people don’t use very often. As I looked out the window, I started hearing the opening phrase. The melody just seemed to flow from there. Remember that I couldn’t write anything down in the 90s, so the idea had to be complete on solo piano. To make “the garden” lush, I filled it out with the sounds of an orchestra for the CD. In the end, the key was to translate the sights and sounds of the world around me into the language of the piano. I feel my best music expresses my world in the piano’s native language.
A Message from Kevin Kern
Kevin Kern would like to know which of his songs you would love to have sheet music for. As Kevin described, offering you the chance to play his sheet music means a lot to him, and both Kevin and all of us here at Musicnotes.com enjoy fulfilling your sheet music requests.
Musicnotes.com would like to extend our thanks and gratitude to Kevin for the time and energy he devoted to this interview. We wish him continued success on his musical endeavors!