Interview by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)
He performed for presidents, recorded over 40 albums, his music has been played on space shuttles Endeavor and Discovery. His Snowman Foundation raised over $3 million dollars to provide access to music for all kids.
Today he has another creation to present to the world of piano afficionados – the Ten Grands Extravaganza Show.
Meet Michael Allen Harrison (MGBH) and get inspired!
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Please, tell our readers about yourself: where did you grow up? Do you have any siblings? Who introduced you to piano? Who was your first piano teacher? What influenced your choice of choosing a career of a pianist vs. any other profession?
Michael Allen Harrison (MAH): I grew up in Portland, Oregon. My brother is a guitarist, and my sister plays the flute. My parents thought pianos lessons would help with my shyness. My neighbor was my first teacher. As the time went by, she suggested that I get a better teacher and referred my parents to Aurora Underwood (MGBH). Aurora was one of the great legacy teachers. I studied with her until college, and she was one of the greatest influences in my life. In college, I started to be recognized for my composition skills and was asked to write the music for a children’s theater project to the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. The show was a huge success and soon thereafter the phone just started ringing. I call my career path “By Request.” Soon I got a call from the Ballet Company here in Portland and became the company pianist. I got calls to play for singers, piano bars, weddings, concert series, funerals, jazz clubs, company parties, retirement homes, keyboards in a cover band, Symphony guest artist, etc… I said “yes” to everything.
PPM: What is the Ten Grands Project all about?
MAH: I created Ten Grands as a fundraiser for music education. Ten Grands accomplishes several things. It delivers great music from all genres. So, it has a wide appeal. The show includes classical, jazz, new age, pop, classic rock, movie scores, musical theater etc. The stage is classy and glamorous providing a beautiful platform to present an incredible piano extravaganza and deliver the message of how important music is to our community and how vital it is in a complete education for our children.
PPM: What inspired you to create the Ten Grands Project and where does it get its name from?
MAH: In the late 1980’s Oregon voters passed a bill called Measure 5. Measure 5 started the beginning of less funds for the community and especially the Arts in schools. I witnessed a slow decline over the years and decided to stop complaining about lack of funds and try to do something to bring it back.
I had a project idea called the Portland Pianists. The idea was to put together the top ten pianists in Portland and record a CD, put together a concert and see what happens. I mentioned the idea at the first Snowman Foundation board meeting, and one of my board members shouted, “TEN GRANDS!” I drew the stage concept on a napkin to Greg Tamblyn (MGBH), my co-producer and stage manager. He did his magic, and 9 months later the first show was born. The show sold out, and we raised $150,000.00, gave several pianos to schools, individual kids, community centers and awarded several scholarships for private lessons.
I mentioned the idea at the first Snowman Foundation board meeting, and one of my board members shouted, “TEN GRANDS!” I drew the stage concept on a napkin to Greg Tamblyn (MGBH), my co-producer and stage manager.
PPM: What criteria do you use in selecting pianists for the Project and how often are they rotated?
MAH: I make a huge effort to find the best talent and the best attitude. The cast becomes a show family. We care about music and the message. No divas or bad stage parents are allowed. We have several established professionals on stage, young prodigies and sometimes a community member who does not do music as a profession, but has professional skills. For example: Sgt. Jim Quakenbush (MGBH) of the Portland Police Department often performs with us. He was a piano performance major in college, decided to follow a different path of service, but never lost his love for classical music. He often plays for kids in the community in full uniform… He’s a very unique guy, and everyone loves his talent and spirit.
PPM: What kind of repertoire do you choose for the shows?
MAH: Each pianists chooses their own featured solo in the style of which they are known for.
One of the things we do that is the most fun is we reach out to the teaching community and find out if any of their students will be at the concert. With no one knowing, we pull a name out of a hat at the concert, announce the name and ask them to come on stage a play for us… Always fun… always memorable!
PPM: What is The Ten Grands show like?
MAH: We’ve been doing this show in Portland at The Arlene Schnitzer Concert for 18 years. In Seattle at Benaroya Hall for 10 years and now expanding to other cities. We will be in West Palm beach on February 18th. The show requires a big stage in a large hall because of all the pianos, the platforms, chandeliers, 3, 000 roses, curtains, staging, and lighting. The young people we include get so inspired by the experience of being on a big stage with such high production values. They feel very special and grown up. They have all very much been inspired and carry great memories with them. I always feel like I’m giving and witnessing a concert at the same time. I play a big solo, I lead and participate in the Ten Piano arrangements. The rest of the time I become an audience member sitting on stage listening to all the other great artists. It’s a very unique experience for the artists on stage and the audiences that attend. The show has heart for the community and passion for great music. One of the things we do that is the most fun is we reach out to the teaching community and find out if any of their students will be at the concert. With no one knowing, we pull a name out of a hat at the concert, announce the name and ask them to come on stage a play for us… Always fun… always memorable!
PPM: What is your team’s performance and rehearsal schedule like?
MAH: Everyone practices their parts at home. I send them MP3’s of the arrangements to practice with. We get together the night before and run the ten piano arrangements. The next day we sound check at the concert hall, run the group numbers and a few hours later we present the show. It’s amazing what we accomplish in a very short period of time.
PPM: What cities have you toured with the Ten Grands Project so far?
MAH: Portland, Oregon, Hillsboro, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, West Palm Beach, Florida. Depending on our success in Florida, we plan to head north to Philadelphia and New York .
PPM: You have made many music arrangements for ten pianos. Please, tell our readers a little bit more about this aspect of your work.
MAH: The ten piano arrangements can be tricky. It’s really important not to give each player too much to play, because it can get too thick and hard to hear the nuances of the composition. I treat each arrangement in a way similar writing for a full orchestra. I also have to consider each pianist’s skills. Some of the Jazz or New Age players don’t read music as well as the classical players but are great improvisers. So, it makes each arrangement a little challenging, but really interesting.
PPM: Besides being a pianist and an arranger, you are also a composer. Would you, please, tell our readers a little bit about this facet of your career?
MAH: I started composing around age 16. That’s when I wrote my first Sonata. In college I studied with Tom Svoboda (MGBH) & Eric Funk (MGBH). Eric was especially encouraging and invited me to join the composers club. We would meet every Wednesday night at his house to listen to and analyze scores. We would be challenged to write pieces in every genre and era. Eric would provide musicians to play our pieces for us, and we would have great open discussion and hear suggestions. We did not receive any college credit, but I learned the most and felt the most fulfilled and supported by that group. We also wrote everything back then by hand. I use Finale now, and it’s much faster. The tools at our disposal now are remarkable. The old school training however is still the best foundation before you head to the computer.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite classical and contemporary composers and why?
MAH: Well… Chopin (OBM)… Best ever composer for the piano.
Beethoven (OBM)… Best story teller and incredible infinite melodies.
Mozart (OBM)… I love the child-like playfulness in many of his compositions.
Earth Wind And Fire… Best all time, feel good band.
The Beatles & Brian Wilson (MGBH)… Pop song writing on a genius level.
Gershwin (OBM)…. Best modern fusion composer of Jazz and Classical.
John Williams (MGBH)… Star Wars!!! Need I say more?
PPM: Please, tell our readers about the pianists and other instrumentalists you are working with this season.
MAH: This year both the Ten Grands Portland and Florida showcase a fabulous diversity of talent: Tom Grant (MGBH) – a Jazz Legend, Joshua Humlie & We Three (MGBT) – Singer Songwriters, Hailey Potts (MGBH) – a Young Composer, Mac Potts, (MGBH) – a Blues & Jazz Extroadinaire, Jim Quackenbush (MGBH) – a Portland Police Officer, Colleen Adent (MGBH) – A Legacy Teacher, Cayla & Ashley Bleajoa (MGBT) – Young Composers, William Chapman Nyaho (MGBH) – a Seattle Professor & Concert Pianist, Andrew Gu (MGBH) – a Classical Prodigy, Rosa Li (MGBH) – a Classical Concert Pianist, Jure Rozman (MGBH) – a Classical Concert Pianist, Tanner Johnson (MGBH) – a Violinist, and Julianne Johnson (MGBH) – a Vocalist.
PPM: Can we briefly discuss your solo recordings as a pianist? Are you planning to offer your fans the recordings with the Ten Grands Project?
MAH: I have recorded over 60 albums since 1984. My recordings range from Original Classical Compositions, New Age, Jazz, Smooth Jazz, Easy Listening, Ballet, Musical Theater, Jazz Standards, Film Score, Commercials, etc. Each Ten Grands Show releases a CD with donated performances by each artist. We plan to record our first CD of the best ten piano arrangements in 2018.
PPM: What is your the Ten Grands’ performance schedule for 2018?
MAH: On February 18th we are going to perform at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. On March 31st we have a performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon. On May 12th – at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Washington. On August 4th we have a show called Ten Grands On The Green. For that show we are still deciding on location.
PPM: Besides the visual impact of ten grand pianos on stage, there is also an aspect of impressive stage decor. Who does your stage design?
MAH: Greg Tamblyn (MGBH) and Gene Dent (MGBH) designed the stage. Greg is also my co-producer and stage manager. He’s the best in the business.
Music has the power to change the life of one child that we all know. The power to create, however, goes far beyond the development of one individual student. It ripples out into the community spreading itself without limitation, for music is a respecter of no person.
PPM: Let’s talk about the Snowman Foundation. What is it all about?
MAH: Concert proceeds benefit the Snowman Foundation and the Play It Forward Program, which helps bring music education and instruments to organizations that serve disadvantaged youth. Play It Forward has been honored to touch hundreds of lives this year, through the thoughtful donations of instruments and sponsorships. We celebrate the families, schools, churches, and music outreach programs that are keeping music alive for our youth. We are so proud to support them through generous donations of instruments and giving.
We are now working towards expanding our scholarship funds that provide musical instruments and scholarships for music lessons tied together, offering students with desire and talent, but no financial means to, finally, have the music lessons that have only lived in their dreams.
As we continue to give the gift of music to our community, we see students thrive and music programs grow. Generous donations of instruments and scholarship funds will go to help countless students in ways that we can only imagine.
Music has the power to change the life of one child that we all know. The power to create, however, goes far beyond the development of one individual student. It ripples out into the community spreading itself without limitation, for music is a respecter of no person. And that may be its greatest power that its boundaries are indeed limitless.
PPM: Besides being a pianist, a composer, an Art Director, and an arranger, you are also a teacher. How would you describe your teaching style?
MAH: I give a different menu to each student depending on his or her level of natural talent and desire. My goal is to create an appetite for excellence. Classical training is the main menu item. Mostly scales, arpeggios, theory, and a big piece to prepare for recital. The most important foundation is to understand the language and develop technique, so when the student accomplishes a great piece of music they are able to express themselves freely. The result is they get to make beautiful music and share it with us. That’s where the fun and magic happens. The preparation and focus on the content is what brings it all to life!!!
There are three areas to focus on in being nice to yourself in the art of practicing – Mind, Body, and Spirit. They are all connected to feelings. The biggest obstacle is feeling frustrated.
PPM: Please, tell our readers bout the TedEx talk that you gave at Mr. Hood and the concept of “being nice to oneself” in learning an instrument.
MAH: There are three areas to focus on in being nice to yourself in the art of practicing – Mind, Body, and Spirit. They are all connected to feelings. The biggest obstacle is feeling frustrated. If your mind is moving your fingers faster than you understand the information, it feels frustrating, and practice is not feeling fun at all. When you slow your mind down to a tempo of understanding and then tell your fingers to move at that tempo, your heart feels better, and you start to find out what it is. Then repeat that section several times at that tempo of understanding. As it becomes familiar, slowly increase the tempo with the attitude of how good can I get this. Keep repeating until it becomes second nature and you are loving it. Most students end up memorizing the section, and it sticks forever. Go on to the next chunk and repeat the process. Before you know it, the entire piece is mastered and you can’t wait to share it because you feel proud of what you learned and you also just plain enjoy the way it sounds and how it rolls out of your Mind, Body and Spirit. The feeling of frustration is the biggest factor that keeps any student away from practice or any kind of learning. Learning this process of being nice to yourself can help in any discipline of learning.
PPM: You seem like a person who works around the clock. How do you manage your time in being able to accomplish your plans? What is your advise to those who juggle many projects at a time?
MAH: My dad always said this to me, “Find something you love to do… Do it well… Give back… If you don’t find something you love, love what you’re doing!!!” It’s simple, really… It’s all about attitude, creating great content. That’s when the magic happens, and you never get tired of the work.
The other important thing is to fall in love with a great person that understands who you are and you believe would be a great gift to your children. I always ask our kids, “Who are you going to gift your kids someday for a parent?”
My dad always said this to me, “Find something you love to do… Do it well… Give back… If you don’t find something you love, love what you’re doing!!!” It’s simple, really… It’s all about attitude, creating great content. That’s when the magic happens, and you never get tired of the work.
PPM: How do you spend your down time?
MAH: With my lovely wife Marietta (MGBH) and our 6 kids. All of them are out of the house in college or graduating from college. Our youngest Esther (MGBH) is 8 years old. She is enjoying being the only child with older siblings out of the house. She gets most of the attention at the moment and is the little shining angel of the family. I do enjoy playing golf with my buddies, and I’m a huge Green Bay Packer fan.
PPM: What qualities do you value in people the most?
MAH: I really admire people who give unconditionally.
PPM: What message would you like to send through your work to others?
MAH: My most common message in everything is to be nice to yourself. I believe the nicer we are to ourselves the nicer we are to the world!
My most common message in everything is to be nice to yourself. I believe the nicer we are to ourselves the nicer we are to the world!
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.