Interview by Esther Basha (MGBH)
In this issue, we are introducing a new section titled Crossover Piano, dedicated to outstanding individuals who use their piano training and skills to help them achieve success in their careers. Our first interviewee – Darlene Koldenhoven (MGBH), a Grammy Winning Artist, used her piano skills to help advance her career as a singer, music arranger, composer, and producer. She is known globally as the featured soprano soloist in the PBS television special and DVD, “Yanni, Live at the Acropolis”, and in Grammy Winner Ricky Kej’s “Shanti Samsara” concerts/videos in Bangalore, India  for environmental consciousness. Koldenhoven has an MVP award from the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (The GRAMMYS®) for “Best Studio Singer” for singing on thousand of recordings in movies, television, albums/CDs, commercials, video games, live shows and more.
PPM: Rather than just a pianist, you are known as a crossover artist having accomplishments both in vocal work and piano composition. When did you affair with the piano start, and how did it progress over the years?
DK: I fell in love with the piano at age 7, when the upright arrived in the house. I was not allowed to touch the piano in any way, so I would sit under the piano bench coloring, while my mother attempted to learn beginning piano. One day, early on, I was becoming extremely frustrated with her, because she kept hitting the wrong note. I got up and said, “Mom, you keep playing the wrong note. It’s THIS note!” (E instead of F) and pointed out the correct note. How I knew that, I’ll never know. She looked at my finger, looked at the music, saw it was correct and was shocked! She whisked me off to a wonderful piano teacher, Celia Bosma (OBM), with whom I studied classical technique and music until college. A few years before I moved to LA, I started learning and playing jazz, rock, blues, new age and began the art of improvisation, which led to composition. I’d listen to all the jazz piano greats and would try to play as fast as the amazing Oscar Peterson (OBM)! I now play a mix of classical piano, new age piano, sometimes, Latin jazz, and accompany myself in my concerts.
PPM: What was your experience as a student at the Chicago Conservatory College?
DK: It was a great education in many ways. The largest class I had was 15 people, at best. Teachers were professionals in the symphony, choir or soloists. It was a hands-on education, and they let me create my own schedule after my first year when it all seemed too easy because of the great musical education I had growing up. So, I graduated in 3 years with two majors (music education & voice) and two minors (piano and conducting) and began teaching music in the Chicago suburban school system at age 20. When I was 19, just after I appeared with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall (as it was called at the time), I auditioned for the Chicago Symphony Chorus under the direction of the late great Margaret Hillis (OBM). I sang “Ombra Leggiera” from the opera “Dinorah” by Meyerbeer (OBM) and proceeded to the sight-singing part of the audition. I still remember being in this tiny room with her and two other judges when she looked up and said to the others, “Well, this is the first person of all the hundreds we auditioned that has sung the sight-singing part perfectly.” And I became the youngest member at 19 of that truly great choir, backing Beverly Sills (OBM) at Ravinia, the summer home of the symphony. I met Ms. Sills backstage on a break where she asked me to sing for her. I sang my aria unaccompanied, right then on the spot. She was great in encouraging me to pursue a career in singing. Later on, while teaching elementary school music full-time at two schools, I completed a two- year Master’s Program in one year and graduated Magna Cum Laude.
I remember waving good-bye to mom out the window, realizing I was on the path to a great musical adventure that would eventually become my whole life.
PPM: Who were your role models growing up?
DK: There was one musical role model who influenced my life tremendously, and his name was Mr. C. Willard Clutter (MGBH) – my 9th grade junior high music teacher. He led me to my first voice teacher at age 16, Virginia Parker (OBM), at the Chicago Conservatory College where I continued to study for my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees. He was also my vocal coach, helping me win vocal competitions in high school at age 16. One was a scholarship from the King’s Choraliers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was only 16 when it was my first time flying alone on a plane to Grand Rapids to perform for 2,000 people. I remember waving good-bye to mom out the window, realizing I was on the path to a great musical adventure that would eventually become my whole life.
PPM: Who got you your first grand piano?
DV: When I was 14 and my sister was 5, our father unexpectedly passed away. With no will, he left us with very little money. At 19, my $2,000 bought me a Baldwin 5’4 grand piano that you see in the photo. I used to walk by the Baldwin store on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago every day on my way to college. One day, while preparing a Mac Dowell (OBM) piano concerto, I realized I needed a better instrument to be able to compete. So, I went in and came out with my 1970 Baldwin. I’m still in love with that tone and touch to this day where it gets played or recorded daily in my studio. A few years later, I started “baby-sitting” for a 1926 Steinway Golden Era Model L with new German Steinway action, which now resides in my living room.
The TV was blaring, and it looked like there was a huge plane crash. It was the flight I was supposed to be on!
PPM: Years ago, you came to Los Angeles from Chicago to pursue a music career. How was that transition for you? Can you share some stories that happened to you along the way?
DK: Making the transition from Chicago to Los Angeles was a bit of a culture shock. With competition at its peak, everywhere you go, you’d overhear some conversation about the entertainment industry. The hardest part of my transition from Chicago to Los Angeles was learning to be social. I was raised in such a sheltered environment that I had zero social skills, which is what the entire business is largely built on.
Along the way there have been many interesting stories, but the one that happened during my transition I will always remember. I was at Universal Studios in Chicago visiting a college friend for lunch when their top keyboardist, Terry Fryer (MGBH), asked me to do him a favor and stay in town to sing on a demo for Ramsey Lewis (MGBH) that weekend. I had my bags backed and was headed out the door to Los Angeles on American Airlines flight 191 on May 25, 1979, when he stopped me and convinced me to stay I was two hours away from boarding that flight, but drove to mom’s instead. When my grandmother opened the door in tears, she turned white, and almost passed out. The TV was blaring, and it looked like there was a huge plane crash. It was the flight I was supposed to be on! To this day, that flight remains on America’s worst aviation disasters to happen on American soil. The engine fell off upon take off, and no one on board including two people on ground survived.
PPM: How has piano training helped you as a vocalist and an arranger?
DK: It’s helped me immensely. With the piano, you have the whole orchestra at your fingertips. I accompany myself and others, test out my creative ideas. It’s the best instrument for learning and teaching music theory. I find that many of my voice students want me to teach them piano because they see, over time, how important the piano is for study, learning ear-training, and the fun of accompanying yourself when you sing. It helps one learn a song faster when you can “plunck it out” on piano first and play the chord changes. It even came in handy while I was working on the “Sister Act” films with Whoopi Goldberg (MGBH). One day, the accompanist for the choreography rehearsal didn’t show up, and I filled the chair. Knowing how to play the piano came in handy on many occasions of over a thousand recordings I’ve done in movies, records, television, commercials, and so forth. When I first came to Los Angeles, one of the jobs I took was a piano “stunt double” for an actor who had to look as if they were playing. I also coached actors – Linda Hamilton (MGBH) and others – on piano.
PPM: What does new age music signify for you?
DK: New Age music to me is music, which sole purpose is beauty and relaxation. When the vocal is used, we usually mix it into the fabric of the music as opposed to having it way out front like a pop vocal mix. The mix, in New Age music, is critical and in my albums. My engineer Steve Shepherd (MGBH) and I have long discussions about weaving it all together so as to maintain the proper balance to engage the listener into a relaxed and focused state. I also apply some of my sonic therapy techniques into the composition, orchestration and mix of my music.
Standing on stage at the Acropolis in Athens looking up at the Parthenon with a huge moon, realizing that I was on the same stage as the apostle Paul (OBM) and many historically famous people once were, was a real honor and thrill.
PPM: Under what circumstances did you meet Yanni (MGBH) and what was it like working with him?
DK: The first time I met Yanni (MGBH) was at his house when a vocal contractor Morgan Ames (MGBH) asked me to come to audition for him. He had the music for “Aria” on the piano, a loosely based arrangement of a duet aria I sang in college, “Sous le dome épais from Lakmé”. I sight-sang his charted arrangement. When I was done, he rose up from accompanying me on the piano and said excitedly, “This is exactly how I’ve heard this piece sung in my head!” When I got the job, at the first rehearsal, Yanni handed me his chart and said, “Here, I don’t have an ending or the nonsense syllable lyric, so come up with something.” Half an hour later, I had those “lyrics” and the vocal arrangement for the end of the piece that you hear today. Yanni was very nice to work with. Interestingly, he doesn’t read traditional notation, but came up with his own. I was hired to sing, and sing I did. Standing on stage at the Acropolis in Athens looking up at the Parthenon with a huge moon, realizing that I was on the same stage as the apostle Paul (OBM) and many historically famous people once were, was a real honor and thrill.
PPM: You produce your own music. What skills did you have to learn in order to be able to comfortably do this?
DK: I have produced all of my albums on my label, TimeArt. So, I have total control musically. The skills to be a producer vary from knowing music theory, to arranging, to engineering and mixing, having basic knowledge of piano and how other instruments work, to having a knack for hiring the right talent for the job and, psychologically, getting the most out of the performers. Then there are the financial and organizational aspects of which to keep track. It depends on what one is producing, but, basically, this sets the groundwork for producing music.
Before I begin, I ask, “What does the world need to hear today?” and say, “Thank you for the inspiration!”
PPM: Where do you draw your inspiration in composing music?
DK: My inspiration for composing music comes from God, or, what some would say, Universal Consciousness, and from curiosity about life and the human interaction. I’ve had several occasions where a whole song, words and music, or even an entire lyric only, would just spill out of me. One day when I had finished listening to Tomatis 8,000 frequency, I came home and put my hands on the piano, and within seconds, out came the entire “First Light” from my Color Me Home album. So, for me, it definitely comes from a higher source. Before I begin, I ask, “What does the world need to hear today?” and say, “Thank you for the inspiration!”
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your most recent CD recordings.
DK: Of my last two albums, “Tranquil Times” is my first solely instrumental album featuring the piano with mostly original compositions and all my arrangements. Album #9 is “Color Me Home” with all my own original compositions, songs, arrangements as well as the vocals. The CD comes with a puzzle and a coloring book. Coloring while listening is great for release, focus, relaxation, and creativity. I will be releasing album #10 this year called “Chromatones,” where you’ll hear more of my piano and synth work. This will be my second album with no vocals. It is coming out on June 1st with pre-sales on April 25th.
PPM: What does it take to promote your own album and how has this process changed for you with the social media revolution?
DK: Promoting your own album is not cheap and is a full-time job. I did not write any music or perform it during the entire 2017 due to marketing and promotion taking all my time. In 2016, I was doing the album, in 2017 – promoting it. In 2018, I will be doing appearances and releasing the new album. Social media is another platform of promotion including blogs, contests, links, likes, subscribes, and more. Each one pays differently and operates differently, all playing into the whole. Get help with all this. Otherwise, it can be really difficult trying to balance it all and maintain yourself as a creative performer. When it comes to promoting for the Grammys, back when I won mine, you were disqualified if you gave out your albums to voters. Today, it’s all about social media and carefully not getting disqualified for what may seem as bloc voting or exchanging votes. However, social media, for as much time as it takes out of one’s life, can be very liberating in terms of promoting one’s music and offers many opportunities we didn’t have a while back.
PPM: You are also a sonic therapist. What is sonic therapy and how do you work with your clients in that area?
DK: Sonic therapy uses the power of music to retrain the brain and body. One of the main methods I use the was developed by Dr. Alfred Tomatis in Paris, beginning in the 1950’s, that he called “audio-psycho-phonology,” or what I call the ear-brain-voice connection. Simply, we listen to mostly Mozart, processed and filtered in a special way as to exercise the muscles of the middle ear to regulate the impulses going to the brain, through the use of special air and bone conduction headphones. Clients either come to my studio or they can do it at home under my supervision. As a voice teacher and vocalist, I use it to remediate issues and enhance the vocal quality. Tomatis’ research proved that the voice can only produce what the ear can hear. So, it is imperative to have “a musical ear” in order to think and produce musically. I work with clients who have a difficult time matching pitch and rhythm to open their ears. I developed what I call the “Listening Eye” Technique. With a simple eye movement, the ear can open up to receiving the musical signals and begin to understand and reproduce them through the voice. I have had success reviving slack vocal cords using a combination of the APP and special vocal exercises. I have also helped relieve clients of their ADD, depression, dyslexia, PTSD, and the aging brain/body/voice, even eliminating unwanted foreign accents. My practice is called Listening Matrix, and there’s info on my website – ListeningMatrix.com. Sometimes I use my 12 tuned Quartz Singing Bowls and a quartz tuning fork for clients who need deep relaxation and a focusing of energy. I have also had clients lay under the piano while I play relaxing tones and have taught clients how to use their own voice to assist in relieving various maladies, such as certain kinds of tinnitus, which the Tomatis method also helps.
PPM: What piece of advice would you give to a beginning performer who is just trying to figure out his/her path to success?
DK: Practice, practice, and practice. First, work on excellence in all areas. Start building a team of supporters because even if you were capable of doing it all yourself, one cannot do all that, get on stage and perform. Learn the business of music. There several great books out there for this such as “This Business of Music” by Donald S. Passman, Esq. Make sure your image matches your music. Listen to a lot of great music. Listen really deeply. Now we have social media to help with our promotion, but don’t get bogged down or distracted with it. Work on having great social skills verbally and make cold calls confidently. Ask a question designed to get the answer you want/need. Pay the money and study with great teachers, as you will save time and money in the long run. Now we have Skype or FaceTime. Indeed, I have students from around the world using these platforms. Persevere. Be curious about continuous education. Hire the best musicians and engineers. They are totally worth it to make you sound great, make your life easier, and they usually are the best ones to work with. Be disciplined and organized, and if you can’t, hire someone to help you with it. Manager and agent roles, legally, are different in each state – so, check that out. People think they need a manger first. Actually, that comes later, and most won’t even talk to you until you have accomplished some things on your own first. Keep that inner smile. Makes you look great on camera, in person, and invites good social contact. Imitate others musically as a springboard in building a musical education and vocabulary until you can master your own style. Get a lot of experience. Take action – don’t just dream. Be cool and easy to work with.
I wake up every day by asking first thing, what I am grateful for today. Life is so much better when one comes from a place of gratitude, no matter how trivial or gross.
PPM: You seem like a very positive person. What tools do you use to stay positive or come back to the positive mindset after a setback?
DK: Being positive is a choice in perspective. I do have my “human” moments when all bets are off.. Eating healthy food, breathing clean air, getting exercise, vocalizing, and playing piano daily is what keeps me positive. I wake up every day by asking first thing, what I am grateful for today. Life is so much better when one comes from a place of gratitude, no matter how trivial or gross.
PPM: How do you keep fit and healthy?
DK: Being a touring singer/pianist performer requires I stay in good health. I am dairy and gluten free and eat read meat about once every two months. I eat high protein, low carbs, walk and vocalize daily, no caffeine except for what is in the dark chocolate I eat almost every day. At home I don’t eat before bed. On tour, I do my best to avoid that, but sometimes it is more important to avoid a hypoglycemic episode. I eat small portions six times a day. I use a humidifier as much as possible as Los Angeles is a desert, so I also drink a lot of purified and electrolyte water. The only TV shows I watch now are comedies and documentaries. There’s already too much stress maintaining a career, and laughter is the best medicine. I also get 6-8 hours sleep nightly. A new favorite recipe I came up with is simple and tastes great: grilled pineapple with lots of Trader Joe’s Chili and Lime powder. I don’t follow recipes per se, but enjoy the creativity of cooking. I also make my own gluten and dairy free pizza using Daiya brand cheese.
PPM: What are some of your favorite restaurants in LA?
DK: I eat out occasionally, but mostly cook and bake at home because of my dietary restrictions. But when I do eat out, I enjoy Hugo’s and Tender Greens in Studio City.
PPM: Do you have any pets?
DK: Yes, I have two rescue dogs. Little Poochini loves to sing with the piano, with me and has a different song for the Ice Cream truck, the phone, and whatever I’m working on. My late Dalmatian could also match pitch, rhythm and dynamics like Poochini. The other dog just looks at him like he’s crazy but over time, now she tries to get in the act but just can’t seem to sing although its funny to watch her try.
When one is playing piano, reading music and singing at the same time, all areas of the brain light up, so to speak, and become a free source to maintain a healthy brain, well into our senior years.
PPM: Can you discuss the healing aspect of music and the role it plays in your art?
DK: It was my mother who realized that as a young child, I would be using music to calm myself down when I would get frustrated or angry or lonely. I’d go sit at the piano and practice my lesson for hours beyond the practice time. Music saved my life so many times in so many ways. When I almost passed away from toxic mold and had practically no neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, the doctor said the only way I could be functioning at all was because of music. No matter how ill I was, playing piano when I couldn’t sing from all the mold in my lungs and brain, is what kept me going. About twenty years ago, at the peak of my career, I popped the tendon and broke the ring finger on my right hand. That took 5 years to recover, and today I still cannot straighten or bend that finger. Friends were sending me the left-handed concertos and music like that. I finally got my speed back, but certain keys and distances are more difficult to play precisely. When one is playing piano, reading music and singing at the same time, all areas of the brain light up, so to speak, and become a free source to maintain a healthy brain, well into our senior years.
People often tell me there is a profound healing quality to my voice. “Emmanuel” on my holiday album “Heavenly Peace” especially comes to mind. When I presented that track for my beginning singing class at Citrus College several years ago, I just played it, said nothing, and watched many of the young students in the class have tears roll down their face. The response was, “What just happened to me?”
Just a few months ago when I was singing in Bangalore, India with Ricky Kej (MGBH), audience members came up to tell me that was the first time they actually felt in their chest the feeling of a human voice. My first voice teacher would always tell me to project. Now I take that a step further and project with a certain energy into the vibration sending it directly out to the audience. It was fascinating seeing many of the one thousand guests grab their chest, whisper to each other about what just happened to them then break out in spontaneous applause during the song in the way they did.
My first voice teacher would always tell me to project. Now I take that a step further and project with a certain energy into the vibration sending it directly out to the audience.
PPM: Thank you, Darlene, for such an engaging interview! May God send you many blessings of health and good fortune, and may you continue using your gift to heal others through your music.