Thursday, October 17, 2019


I've been pondering a review, years ago now, from Cam Miller:

"The ever tasteful Joe Holt is a soloist extraordinaire. An intense musician with terrific chops, who shows you he means business."

An intense musician. And that intensity he sensed, as others have and do, is that part of me that is expressed through the music. Or maybe it is just who I am. And what in my life I need to navigate is the channeling, or direction, or harnessing of that intensity. I could imagine, though I have no experience in this, that it could be something like taming a wild horse. I say taming as opposed to breaking, as at any point or moment I, the rider or tamer of myself could lose the control. But really it is neither taming nor breaking. It is more like channeling energy. The horse remains wild even as it moves, dodges and weaves on command and synchronizes in rhythm with others in the herd. But there is another rhythm, albeit irregular; the rhythm of an opening and closing of the curtain, that has it's own importance. The rhythm of the curtain allows this energy to ebb and flow, release, then reset itself. In other words you don't allow everyone to see everything. So what may become a primary motivator in organizing the artist's life is controlling when we are in the display window. It can be a complicated and sometimes tricky subject. One that can further be complicated by the integrity that is required of the true artist. The integrity of being true. Thinking of this brings another review to mind, from a Tri-State Jazz Society concert in 2012:

"Jazzman Bunk Johnson once said, “Jazz is playin'
from the heart; you don't lie.” Or maybe it was
Louis Armstrong. At any rate, one interpretation of 
the above statement would be to say that a jazz musician's
improvised performances are a reflection and/or
extension of his or her unique personality.
Which brings us to the appearance of Chestertown,
Maryland jazz pianist Joe Holt ... He is
the genuine article, an artiste, whose work is a
reflection and an extension of who he is. He plays
from the heart, mind and soul; he does not lie."

The true artist puts their true self on the stage, then draws the curtain. For those who are not accustomed to the stage, their first struggle is often in drawing the curtain. For those who have overcome that struggle to put their true selves on display, their struggle may be in closing the curtain. On stage and backstage. Managing this can be one of the biggest challenges that artists face. And backstage is not a single, or simple place. There are areas, rooms and compartments. Directly behind the curtain is a more communal space for those that know the process and share in it. A green room or dressing room is a more private space but one in which we can invite or share with others who are closest to us in this journey. And there is the necessary solitude. Behind the curtain, behind the door, behind the additional privacy walls. It is a complicated and multi-dimensional navigation. And we don't always get it right. At least I don't. But I know my experience in this is not unique. When the intensity is great within an artist, these vibrations will sometimes find their way to a less-than-ideal location. Some artists are famous (or infamous) for this. 
But back to Cam Miller calling me an "intense musician". No one has ever questioned that. Especially me. I know the intensity well. And this is the paradoxical place. Where the simple meets the complicated. The profound holds hands with the ridiculous. The intensity finds stillness. And the magic happens. As we are true.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


My night vision has always been poor. There are some nights when I walk outside, and though the sky is clear, I won't see a single star. After a while few will come into view. Slowly but surely it all unfolds. I can look up through the trees and see the stars begin to peek through, while overhead there remain large patches of empty sky. So I walk and wait some more. The stars continue to slowly fill in. After about 20 or 30 minutes I begin to see the sky as I would expect to. The stars were there all along, and kind of an analogy to me of waiting, and trusting, for the "space" to open.  
The other day was one where I was off the mark; the kind of day that I purpose to avoid through the lifestyle that I lead, starting by opening the space in my heart at the piano.
But if I am not patient, or attentive, or still, I can become overcome with procedure and expectations. And my focus shifts away from being and more to doing. It was one of those days. So when I sat down at a piano on my gig later that day, I felt an old familiar, uncomfortable place. Not one that I have been any time lately, but one I have lived in much the time in my past. In that place, there are obstacles in the way and what is inside cannot come out. Or perhaps better said, what is outside cannot shine in. The connection is missing, and I am as in the dark. I used to spend a lot of my time playing the piano in that condition. I wouldn't know what to do about it except to keep trying. And every so often the window would lift up a crack and for a little while the connection would happen. I would know it. Everyone around me would know it. But soon it would end, not to be found again. Especially so because I was looking for it, having just held it in my hand. The connection/space would leave, replaced by the frustration of failing to find it again. But now I know it is always there if I clear the deck first, and wait, and trust. So actually that day is a reminder of how far I've come, even if that distance is just a small step. Because it was the exception, and playing in the space has become the rule. And what a difference that is. As I look up at all the stars.

I often will say that the stage is our (the musician's) "school", more so than any other. And it struck me, during the show on Monday night, that sometimes this will mean more than simply that we learn by doing/experience. Some of our experiences in (music and) life are more themed and focused, and in a way, more of a "formal" education, even if the "degree" we earned is something only understood and acknowledged within ourselves. Or maybe put more simply, some of our experiences are their own school, in and of themselves. My nearly 2 year gig as the Amateur Night accompanist at the Crazy Horse Saloon, in Barrington, NJ, starting when I was 18 years old, was certainly one of those circumstances (that's a story all to itself, and for another time). Or my 11 year (off and on) tenure as "Picnic Pianist" for the Cherry Hall (NJ) Mall food court (another story for another time). I thought of those "schools" last Monday night as I realized that my Mainstay Monday run has been, in fact, a "degree program" of it's own. So much has been learned and absorbed that could only be accessed through travelling this unique, organically unfolding path. Just as I could say when "graduating" from amateur night in 1980(?), or the mall gig in 1997, or my return to church ministry in 2006, or any number of other experiences, I'll be a different (and better) musician going out than coming in (Mainstay Monday will end on Labor Day, 2020). What also hit me the other night was realizing that I am in year 4 of my "4 year program". A little "senioritis", perhaps? Or just an acknowledgement that this chapter will have run it's course, even if the next chapter is yet to be defined. Though in this book, chapters are written, and lived concurrently. Each experience is it's own thing, even as it is (also) a piece of the larger puzzle. Another set of chapters, distinct from any particular gig or experience, are the seasons of life we pass through. And those "degree program" experiences are often the means of guiding us through. As I ponder the change of seasons. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019


I like the idea of things like this. Different approaches interacting in a common space. Years ago, I was in the schedule rotation in a restaurant chain that featured jazz every night. On the evening I worked we had 2 shifts; I played solo piano from 5-8pm, followed by a trio (with a different piano player, plus bass and sax) from 8-midnight. One day, the manager got the idea to have Ed Yellen (the sax player) move his shift up an hour, and play 7-11. So for one hour a week, for several months, one of our sets would overlap. It's probably safe to say that I was the most traditionally minded of the musicians who played there (on any night), and Ed was the most "modern". Kind of like Oscar and  Coltrane here, but perhaps even further apart. The one thing we had in common is that we knew some of the same tunes. And we played them, even as I was hearing things come out of his sax that I didn't know what to do with, and he was, in all likelihood, playing with a stride (more or less) piano player for the first time. And we enjoyed the heck out of it, both of us looking forward each week to that one hour of unique experience. Whenever two musicians play together, an unique space is created. It would be fun if there were any recordings of those sets to listen to now, on one hand. But on the other, the memory of how if felt is a nice place to visit, when something like this video reminds me.

Friday, September 20, 2019


Many if not most of us, myself included, will trust our intuition. Or better put, trust in our intuition (leaving the interpretations of what that may mean aside). How many times have we heard it said, or said ourselves that we should trust our gut/first impression, and not over-think things. Yet who doesn't? I think many would agree that we already know that second guessing our intuition will send us down a side road, if not the wrong one altogether. And we still do it. It occurred to me recently that trusting one's intuition could be understood as a very (if not most) basic expression of (the idea of) faith. For me, personally, trusting my intuition has become pretty much the center of gravity of this season of life. Especially so when playing piano. When I will get, and stay, out of my own way is when I will connect to the deeper places. But I've also come to learn that those spaces that music will allow me to enter are not just places to make music, they are places to live. Practicing music, and in particular, practicing to the space, is in a very real sense, where I can learn and inhabit who I am. So I have arrived at some level of comfort in recognizing the "signals" and allowing them to point me to in the direction I should be. One night, a few months ago, I felt the familiar wave, this time more of a jolt. And it told me something I may have already known, but unwilling to embrace without a proper push, that the time had come to put an end date on Mainstay Mondays. To allow myself to be guided and led as I play piano is to avoid getting tangled up in my head, and allow myself to travel beyond self-imposed boundaries. To allow this everywhere else in life is to be taken where I am supposed to go, or be, even if I don't know what or where that is. It's all the same thing. I'm learning. 



Friday, August 23, 2019


It's finally here. I won't say (admit) how much behind schedule, but that's okay. Everything came together at just the right time, and now, "Keeping A Hand in This, and That, and The Other Thing" is on hand and will soon be available on your favorite steaming and download platforms. This product has been a lesson in patience and providence. One lesson I've already had ample opportunity to learn is that you cannot allow circumstances to dictate artistic decisions (to the extent that is possible) in a recording project. If it's not ready, it doesn't go. If you run out of money, don't just put it out anyway, wait to save some more. If it's probably good enough, but certainly not what it could be, then schedule another recording session. Et cetera. After multiple sessions and significant technical issues (resulting in about half the takes being unusable), I was finally willing to consider conceding that I as was close as I was going to get to my goal of having an appropriately diverse project, and prepared the final master recording. Then I waited. It may be that inner hesitation (or perhaps even in some cases, procrastination) is connected with our intuitive sense. Beyond recognizing the problem, this intuition sees what we (cognitively) cannot: a resolution. it won't detail it to us, but it summons us to hope, faith, and trust. These were realized when I got a call from a graduate student at The Peabody Institute, in Baltimore, asking if I would be willing to record some solo piano tracks for his Master's project. I'd walk in, lay down some tracks that he would submit for his project, and I would walk out with the files free to use. Deal. I saw this as my providential extra inning, and made sure, as best I could, to arrive prepared to be in the space. I later heard an account of how I arrived, calm and unassuming, then sat down and made it happen. The door was open for me to walk through, and I knew that I was given (just the right) provision, at just the right time. 4 of the tracks from that (roughly one hour) session were chosen to round out this project. And now my intuition says go. So I am.

A few pictures from the session: 


         One would expect a nice workstation at Peabody. It was. 

Each of the pianos there have names. 
It took a day or so for it to dawn on me.


    Rich, who has since graduated (congrats!), documents the effort.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

I periodically experience affirmations of where the musical center of gravity is in my heart. It can happen at any moment as I am listening to Oscar, the (new testament) Basie Big Band, or any other deep swinging happening thing. The other week I came across a live stream from Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring Catherine Russell. Bam. So now the chicken and the egg question: Is this music what reaches me most deeply because I've spent so much of my life immersed in it, to and beyond the point where there is any possibility I can ever accumulate similar time with anything else? Or did I lunge into this musical culture as a teenager (and stay there) because my heart found its home? Yes. But I'm finding a more generalized lesson for myself here as well. I need to find my own (emotional?) connection with whatever it is I want to perform, before I can be anywhere near a satisfactory place (to me) in expressing it. So, once something speaks to me, I can then begin to learn to speak with it, or through it. I need to find that piece or part or area or essence in whatever it is that touches me, in order to connect with my own expression. On one level, this seems obvious, a description of the natural process. On another level, this seems a bit of an epiphany, that can focus my procedure by
understanding my starting point; to find it in my heart/soul before I can begin to effectively manage it in my mind. So (therefore) my most meaningful thoughts are those informed by my deeper feelings. Yes. I need to live in whatever place it is long enough to begin to feel my connection to it (patience, the key to everything). If I apply study to what I can first intuitively find or feel, my study will have more meaning. Okay Joe, get to work (and re-read this every day for the next month).   ;)

Sunday, July 28, 2019


For as long as I can remember, I've said that I enjoy accompanying, and if forced to choose only one expression, it would be that (over playing solo, or with a group). At this point in my career, and especially in recent years, as I have allowed things to develop more organically (without a pre-determined agenda) this has shaped my path, and the opportunities presented on it. Over a decade ago, I began working as Musical Director for the annual Women Helping Women concert in Chestertown (sharing the responsibilities at first, eventually assuming them solely). This unique show has me accompanying/supporting a stage full of stylistically diverse performers, one at a time (around 20 or so) over the course of an evening. And being in this position aligns with my strengths. Or my strength. And now I'm in the position to move not just from performer to performer within a show, but with Mainstay Mondays, from show to show to find and live in the unique moment and connection at hand. Though it is true that if I'd ever have to choose between solo piano performance and accompanying, it would be no contest, I wouldn't want to have to make that choice. But allowing things to evolve as they will (or to allow providence to unfold) without getting in the way will place things where they are supposed to be. And wherever that place is will likely not be where it would (or could) have been imagined. No way, say, a decade ago, could I have predicted where my career would be at this point. One step taken, or one possibility embraced at a time will eventually (or sometimes quickly) take you beyond what can currently be seen or understood. Ultimately, everything is connected with itself as we move through time, so while at any given point, we may make sense of where we find ourselves. And as for what will the landscape look like a year or two from now? The more I trust the path and the bigger picture (Providence), the less it matters. 

Saturday, July 06, 2019


This little blog entry has the potential of being a bit wonky, and I'll try to avoid that. It also will shine a bit of light on a long felt and nagging insecurity of mine that has the potential of getting in my way at any time, as a performer, especially when sharing the stage with more "modern" jazz musicians.
Jazz, to many contemporary practitioners, is defined by/as the acquisition of a particular 
"vocabulary'' (harmonic and melodic), much of which was codified after the Great American Songbook/swing era of jazz (the unique time when jazz and popular music overlapped). During this era, jazz was less a product of academic study and acquisition, and more an absorption of and conversation with the existing environment of music and musicians. When describing the process by which this absorption takes place, at least in a very general way, I'll point our that people learn, at the basic level, not through formal study, but by being around others who are already doing whatever it is. A young toddler learns to express spoken language simply through being around others who use it. The early jazz musician, much the same.
Something came clear to me recently; that my struggle to connect with some of the existing "modern jazz" vocabulary may less about the vocabulary and more about the process. This began to come into focus some years ago, when (what I observed to be) Keith Jarrett's music expression/process "clicked' with me. There are some "modern" (post swing/Great American songbook era) players who will describe their music making process as, essentially, decision making (Chick Corea comes to mind), and some as expressing their emotions, or feelings (Bill Evans comes to mind here, who makes a point of separating the necessary mental acquisition of vocabulary and skills from the expression of playing, which draws on that which is acquired, but originates from another place). Of course I have to be careful here. I am not making comment on the abilities of any great musician (whose skills are far above mine), but in that which resonates with me. Expression. For myself, as I'm come to embrace, this is what music making is all about (Charlie Brown). And is connected, ultimately, to why I've struggled with the current world of jazz, and in particular the more "modern" academically codified approaches. And boy, did I just potentially step in a rabbit hole. Perhaps I'll just take a seat here for awhile.






In 1994, I made the 36 mile drive from Elkton, Md, where I lived, to Chestertown for the first time, having picked up a music therapy contract with Heron Point, the area's continuing care retirement community. It was the beginning of the journey that would eventually lead to official certification as a music therapist (I was recruited for music therapy contracts prior to being certified and didn't solicit them until afterward) and eventually, ongoing relationships/contracts with around 30 senior communities. It was also the beginning of a 25 year association with Heron Point, and many long term relationships, even some with residents who have been there as long as I.
Gone are the days when I maintain active contracts with dozens of senior communities.
The page has pretty much turned on that, with the exception of Heron Point. At this point, anything you can imagine a pianist doing at a retirement community, I am (some of the residents have a standing line that I should already have my own room there). One of the very meaningful things I get to do is play the majority of the funeral/memorial services. Without exception, each one is an inspiration, as the resident's life is recounted, remembered and revered. These experiences fall into the category of off the radar screen (or the stage) things I do that are among the most meaningful. Music makes connections, and these connections are beautiful. I am a blessed guy.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


The American Constitution; one of the newest ships in the American Cruise Lines fleet. Since it is a larger vessel than some of the older ships, I had to be tendered out from shore on a recent visit to St. Michael's, MD. The Constitution holds 180 passengers, I believe, nearly twice as large as most of the older/original ships at 100. It actually makes a big difference in the feel of the cruise, and the dynamic of my shows. On the smaller vessels, there is more cohesion in the group (especially on the American Glory, which holds only 50 passengers) as they all sit together in a "living room" area for my show, which is more like a concert. The performance area on the Constitution is a much larger space where many sit close and are attentive, while some separate themselves in other parts of the room and are more inclined to socialize. Of course things evolve as they go along, so you adjust. And in my 10 years as a walk on entertainer for the company, as there would be for 10 years of anything, adjustments are just a part of the process. You won't see these shows listed on my performance schedule, as they are for the cruise passengers only and not open to the public. But pleased and blessed to be still going at it.  

After all these years; 45 to be exact. I was 14 years old when Joe and Paul Midiri walked in to the Triton Regional High School band room for the first time, during a concert band rehearsal as I sat in the trumpet section. Many who know me know the story, and the nearly lifelong on and off association with the various Midiri Brothers groups (starting with the original "A Couple of Joe's" Trio when we were still in high school). Back in the day, there were many big band gigs, sometimes several a week (alongside of all the smaller band work). It's a very different world now. And here I am, back with the band (after more than a decade away from it) with, arguably, the best seat in the house (the piano bench) to take a picture during "Sing Sing Sing". It's sad that there are so few Big Band opportunities now. Many memories, though. And also good to come "home". I am, after all, the "Other Brother". Back in 2005, after I had rejoined the band for awhile, the 3 of us made a 30 year reunion CD. The title was probably inevitable. Well now the wandering "brother" is back lurking about and the idea of a 45 year "anniversary" recording has come up. Or maybe we'll wait 5 years and celebrate the 50th, who knows?   

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


This week Mainstay Monday began it's 4th year of concerts (with few exceptions) every Monday night. What a fun night with the incredible fiddle player Nate Grower! 
Over a decade ago, I began working as Musical Director for the annual Women Helping Women concert in Chestertown (sharing the responsibilities at first, eventually assuming them solely). This unique show has me accompanying/supporting a stage full of stylistically diverse performers, one at a time (around 20 or so) over the course of an evening. And being in this position aligns with my strengths. Or my strength. I've long said that if I'd ever have to choose between solo piano performance and accompanying, it would be no contest (Of course, I wouldn't want to have to make that choice). And allowing things to evolve as they will (or to allow providence to unfold) without getting in the way brought me to the next level, if you will, of this journey. Mainstay Mondays, which can have the effect of enlarging one of the 4 minute Women Helping Women blocks to fill an entire evening, allows me to partner with a single artist to create an complete program. With Nate Grower, it was a wonderful experience of crossing the street, back and forth, as I joined him on some traditional fiddle tunes, and he challenged himself, quite successfully, to gain command of some jazz standards. Cherokee, especially, was just great fun. It's all great fun, and a wonderful privilege. Full steam ahead into year 4 we go! 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


I lost an important person (to me) several weeks ago. She no longer suffers, which is comforting, even as she is sorely missed.
Candy was an avid doll collector, and would often leave something on my shelf when she would visit my house, creating this little scene. Today it reminds me that life (the one we know in the here and now) is short. And fleeting. And precious. And how many days do we have? All I know is that I have fewer than I did yesterday, and (probably far) less that the number I've lived up to now. 
 I just turned 59 (she was the same age), which is not the point at which I would have thought one ponders these things. But what do I know, I've never been this age before. I do know that my age is when people often start (continue) talking about retirement. That's something I don't think about as it's not an option for me, circumstantially or temperamentally. I seem to be at this paradoxical point where I feel that my more energetic days are behind me, while my more significant contributions (depending on how one measures them) may be in the days to come. Do the good you know to do. Trust, not understand. Be grateful in all things. 
I come back to this doll scene often. And remember that there is always a bigger picture.  

Monday, May 27, 2019


Conducting an experiment of sorts today, to do something I have been resisting for years now. First thing in the morning (whatever defines morning on a given day) is perhaps my best time of clarity. A good time to write, except for a commitment to playing the piano first, ideally before anything else. This has served me well for the desired purpose of opening up the creative space and allowing me to more easily find it throughout the day. For some people, the creative space involves words, but for me, not (or at least much less) so. Words often lead me to spaces in my head, and the absence of words can more easily allow me to find the spaces in my heart. As much of my lifetime that I have spent tangled up in my head, it is easy for me to understand my PTSD of sorts regarding the concern (or perhaps fear) of losing my space (in the space) when I need to find it later in the day. And I'm talking now about when at the piano, which I've come to embrace as my (main) communication portal. That portal goes both directions, inward and outward, to the connections I can make beyond myself. Of course, words can communicate too. And I'm not incapable of using them. In fact, some times it can work out quite well. But only sometimes. This evening (since I'm writing on a Monday) will be another Mainstay show, where I'll have to speak in addition to playing. My stock line that I will often say is that it's a crap shoot every time I pick up the microphone. What I won't often say is that it can also a crap shoot every time I sit at the piano. And my responsibility to play the odds in my favor, so to speak, whenever I perform. Since I am performing most days, it is a lifestyle choice of sorts to revolve my day, and even my life to a large extent, around the piano. So here I am, sitting at my laptop, living on the edge.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


I've always struggled a bit with the "jazz" label. For those who love jazz, it's okay. But for the majority of people it's a nebulous term at best. More often than not, to the general populace (like it or not), the knee jerk response to the term jazz is "I don't like it". When putting on a show, one of the struggles performers face is reaching/winning over the audience we have. Prior to that, another struggle is attracting that audience in the first place. I don't mind using the jazz term in front of an audience. I'm sometimes less comfortable using it as a description before the fact. But what other term is there? It is, in fact, the correct term to define what I do. I most often play tunes associated with the jazz vocabulary. I'm spontaneous and take to improvised flights of fancy. I'll converse (musically) with anyone on stage with me, to the best of my ability. All of this connects with audiences. And depending on who is in the audience, I may hear my favorite response of all: "I don't like jazz, but I like you." or "I didn't know I liked jazz", or some variation on the theme. 
When I describe myself as jazz, I'm prone to qualify it with the word "classic". My connection to jazz connects me to the historic classical literature, as this is the vocabulary which informs it, particularly (for me) up to the Impressionistic era. The connection to classic jazz also connects me to popular music, at least in concept. In the "classic" jazz era, in large regard, jazz WAS popular music. And even though I'm not a heavy ragtime player, I'll sometimes throw that word out and have fun with a Scott Joplin tune or two, particularly when performing the cruise shows, if I'm in need of another descriptive term.
Ultimately,I just want to play and let the connections happen. It's the words leading up to the performance that can be the most challenging part of the process.   

Monday, January 28, 2019


I was a "non-traditional" college student, graduating with a BA in music (in 1986) 8-1/2 years after I began. I wasn't looking at college as a ticket to a job. In fact, I knew full well otherwise, especially as a general music major (about as marketable a degree as basket-weaving). I went to college because the opportunity was there, and I was actually interested in learning (that's another story, for another time). I did it part time, while working as a piano teacher and gigging musician. The gigging musician phase of life began when I got my driver's licence, and soon became my primary activity. College was just one of the other things I worked in/around. There was no hurry, though I was glad when I finished. From that point I just kept going and continued to follow the paths I found. One of the paths lead me to a Music Therapy certification (MT-BC) in 1997. Another story for another time. Suffice to say, I didn't go in through the front door. I wasn't planning to do it. Never even thought about Music Therapy, actually, until I was recruited (based on work I was already doing). I was just going about my business, trying to do the best good I could. Then the whole thing grew organically and essentially presented itself to me. It's like following a dream that you don't know you're dreaming, because you're walking the path instead, one little step at a time. One day you discover that many small steps make a leap, and there you are. Or put another way; bloom where you're planted, then be attentive to what grows. Fast forward to today, and the latest example of this. 3 years after being recruited to help the Washington College Jazz Combo (because they didn't have a pianist at the time), and doing the best good I could, I was given the opportunity to join the faculty (as an adjunct "lecturer") and direct the group. I wasn't planning to do it. Never had any ambition to be college faculty. And certainly, no expectation, given I only have a bachelor's degree. But, by this point, I do have over 40 years of being in the trenches as a performing musician. And I suppose that means something. I also have a lifetime of dreaming the dreams I discover as I live them. A few years ago, I was a guest musician in a church, and one of the staff musicians was taken by the fact that I am a full time gigging musician. She said I was "living the dream". It was nice to hear at the time. Now I reflect on that again. Living the dream. Yes, I am. Perhaps now with a little better grasp of what that means. 

Friday, January 18, 2019


Back in college, as a student of Yoheved Kaplinsky, I was introduced to "rotation", or Talbman (named after it's originator Dorothy Talbman, with whom Dr. Kaplinsky studied directly) technique. I am not a perfect practitioner of the approach, but have held on to it's basic principles as foundational to my own physical prowess to express from the piano. At its core, it is about using (our own) weight and momentum as the catalyst for piano technique, as opposed to unnecessary muscle involvement. When it is first introduced to a student, they will often be asked to sit at the edge of the bench and let their arm hang limp alongside. The teacher may lift up the arm and, while positioning themselves to break the fall, ask the student to let their arm fall freely. This is met with varying levels of success. Occasionally you get a dead weight arm (the goal) the first time. More often, though, when the arm is "dropped", it moves very little, sometimes frozen stiffly in place. It is difficult to let go. Feels unnatural, or perhaps better, as a loss of control. To let go is to feel vulnerable, until you come to realize that it is not only safe (given the proper landing), it is, in fact, the most natural way to be. What a student is told, once they are willing to "fall" into the piano key, is to land on their fingertip, supported by the first finger joint, and "stand" on the note, as opposed to pushing the key down with the finger or arm muscles. It is, indeed, as effortless as (and analogous to) walking. What happens when you put one foot on front of the other? You don't stomp your foot down as you go (unless you are having a tantrum), rather you allow gravity to effortlessly pull your foot down to the ground, and then you stand on it, supported by your ankle joint. Generally, we are not taught how to walk, because it is natural. We will work through the phases (sitting, crawling ...) until we get to the place we are supposed to be. So, something organic and natural, like walking, can become a foundational model to other pursuits. And this certainly is so with regard to playing the piano, at least through the prism of rotation technique. 
But there seems to be a general lesson here as well, to work with the forces at play, and become harmonious with them. It folds into that bigger picture of getting out of our own way when expressing through music (or anything else). But back to, specifically, the technique of falling into a note, as opposed to pushing it down. The primary manner in which I keep myself connected to rotation technique, 4 decades after being introduced to it, is to maintain awareness of how it feels. Specifically, the feeling of falling, as opposed to the feeling of pushing. Of course, there is much more detail, actually quite exhaustive, that underlies this approach. And honestly, I have lost the mental connection with much of it. But I do remember what it means. And really, that's most of what I'll retain about anything. On a broader level, it is related to what I once heard in an interview with an opera singer (whose name, unfortunately, I don't remember) when he said something like "People go away from my performances and won't necessarily remember what I sang for them, but they will remember how it made them feel". And similar to getting out of our own way to become more harmonious with the forces around us - as would be walking as opposed to stomping, or falling into a note as opposed to forcibly pushing - my focus in playing piano is on that place, that feeling, if you will, where intuition informs thought; where my internal, or mental efforts become connected to the larger scheme of things, the forces around us, to become more harmonious with them. It's like that limp arm hanging alongside the bench. Once you learn to allow yourself to let go, you are in a position to begin to learn that letting go does not mean giving up, it means being connected. You aren't losing control, you are gaining freedom. And yes, I believe the application here is ultimately much broader than playing piano, or making music, or any other subject matter. But as this is the perch on which I sit, and the learning environment in which I live, this is the lens through which I see. And to feel, and learn to live in this connection, is a lead a blessed life indeed.     

Thursday, January 10, 2019


I'm actually finding myself in the position of having an opinion about something to do with football. Being from the Philadelphia area, I might pay a bit of attention when something notable is going on with one of the Philly sports teams. It was the playoffs, and eventual Super Bowl win by the Eagles last year that first caught my interest. By the time I had any awareness of the circumstances, Nick Foles (the back up quarterback for Carson Wentz who was injured late in the season) was leading his team to a highly improbable world championship, earning the Super Bowl MVP award in the process. And he truly earned it. Seemingly, in every clutch situation, he delivered. He was in the zone. The team seemed as one with him. It was truly inspirational. Immediately as the season ended the buzz began about the starting quarterback situation the following year, and it was clear that Nick Foles had not won the job, even if he had won the Super Bowl. To say that he was gracious about it would be an understatement. Whenever I would hear him speak, he always centered around the theme: Don't think about tomorrow, don't think about yesterday, be in the moment. Most importantly, to this observation, this is how he conducts himself on the field. And the (even more) highly improbable events of the current football season have brought this into focus for me. With 3 weeks to go in the regular season, and with a 6-7 Eagles record, Carson Wentz goes down again. Enter Nick Foles, and the team wakes up to win the last 3 games of the season (which they weren't supposed to), sneaking in to the wild card playoff round. By now everyone is paying attention, as Nick Foles continues to perform, at seemingly every critical moment (or maybe just every moment. He tied the NFL record for consecutive completed passes - 25 - in the final game of the regular season). So now the Eagles, having won the wild card round in a heart stopping game, find themselves in the thick of the playoffs again. And everyone in the sports world is talking about Nick Foles. And here is where it really begins to hit home for me. The summary of all the chatter is the consensus (sort of) that Carson Wentz is the better quarterback, in terms of overall ability, and as such is secure in his starting status going forward. To which Nick Foles responds something like: "I love being part of the Eagles organization. I'm happy to be here no matter what. I'm not thinking about tomorrow, or yesterday, just in the moment". So we have the (accepting the argument) superior skills versus ability to completely, without distraction, be in the moment. The other week, when I heard a commentator reference that Carson Wentz can have a tendency to overthink (because more options are on the table for him, because of his abilities, or something like that) ... "ding"... yes. I am really identifying with Nick Foles at this point. And drawing inspiration. It is said that Nick Foles plays a game with more limited options because of his limited abilities (compared to Wentz). In my realm, I also play with limited options. I am not a comprehensively skilled pianist. There are things I do well, there are things I don't. And I know what these are on both sides, and construct my playbook accordingly. The idea of "playing within your box" has been on my radar screen for some time, as a critical element in performance. Know what you can do, know what you can't, live in the former. But add being in the moment, and what do you have? You have magic. You have authenticity. You have connection. You have uniqueness. When someone wants to assert (or challenge me) that I can do anything at the piano, I'll respond, "No, but there is one thing that I can do better than anyone else; be myself". But pondering all this allows me to better see that being myself is not simply disciplining within my skill sets. It is also surrendering these to the moment. And Nick Foles is showing everyone what is means to get (self) out of the way, and be in the moment. This is the magic. And everyone appreciates the magic. Until they start talking about it. And then they (or many of them) miss the point. Whatever happens this week (the Saints are an 8 point favorite on Sunday, and beat the Eagles 48-7 in the regular season), Nick Foles is being an example for all of us. Let us all be receptive to the deeper things.      
   

Friday, January 04, 2019


Another season, and year, has come to a close for me with American Cruise Lines. I began performing for them as a walk on entertainer in 2010, when they added Chestertown to one of their itineraries. A few years later they dropped Chestertown, but retained me, allowing me to drive to meet the ships at other ports - usually Cambridge, MD. About the same time, the company began expanding itineraries to other parts of the country, beginning with Alaska; diverting resources, and travelers, away from the East Coast. Other expansions followed, continuing to shrink my schedule and opportunities here. But thankfully, and most importantly, I still got the calls. The tide turned a bit for me this past year with the addition of a(nother) new ship, the American Constitution, and a new Revolutionary War history themed itinerary (although this last cruise was Christmas themed). This ship presented a bit of a challenge at first, as it can carry near to twice the passenger load of most of the older ships (180 as opposed to 100), losing that smaller living room feeling in the performance space. And it has a dance floor, which I learned requires potential redirection to maintain the "concert" environment. But this last cruise presented a new issue, a non-functioning sustain pedal. As it turned out, I had spent time earlier that day pondering on the significance of a positive attitude. Conveniently, that was on my mind, and I kept it there. Or, more accurately, I kept my mind clear and free from conscious thought of my circumstance, except for how I would overcome it. The end result was actually more positive than had the circumstance been "normal". I got a chance to put in action what I already knew; that attitude will trump circumstances, in the rock-paper-scissors game of things. So, Happy New Year! And happy attitude.   :)    

Monday, December 03, 2018

  
For a few years (a "season") in the early 1980's, I was the keyboard player in a contemporary pop band. I can't really call it a detour from the traditional jazz road I traveled. More of a concurrent journey. In fact, for a good while I split my gigging with Eastwind on the weekend (Friday/Saturday/Sunday) and a society/jazz band during the week (Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday). Monday night was only my night off. I didn't think twice (and certainly didn't mind) about being one of 8 or 9 people in the movie theater, or knowing I could walk into a restaurant and sit just about anywhere I wanted. When I finally had a Saturday night off and decided to go to the movies, I had a rude awakening, and remember asking myself "Why do people do this?" Similar to the feeling I would often have driving to gigs and watching the rush hour crawling along in the other direction, I've always appreciated my upside down life. It's the only one I know how to live. 
I've had reason, in recent weeks, to ponder on this season. This (quite large) painting arrived by UPS recently. There is a tragic story behind it. Eva, our vocalist's daughter, who was 16 or 17 at the time, painted this logo scene, which we would take to gigs and display on stage. Not long after she painted this, she passed away in her sleep, with no warning or suitable explanation. Mignon (Eva's mother) saved the painting, displaying it in her home. Mignon and I had lost touch some time ago, and I was saddened to be informed by her niece that she has passed away. Knowing my place in this history, she graciously offered to send me the painting. Both sad and happy memories. For everything there is a season.   

     

Wednesday, November 07, 2018


Wide angle lens. Awhile back I came to the place where I embraced the view. Or embraced that this may be the only (angle of) view that I have. I certainly can't say that I understand all (or most, or some, or perhaps hardly any) things intuitive. But I can at least begin to grasp that there is some connection between the wide angle lens and the ability to sense things that seem to originate not from my thought processes, but rather are introduced to my thoughts from some other place. The "heart space/head space" symbolism that I was brought to some years ago continues to be the means by which I can understand and express this, as I continue to grow into seeing more consistently thru the (wide angle) lens of my heart. Or, as I'm inclined to say these days, to see with my feelings. 
As we move along a path, we develop more of a frame of reference and an overall context. It was 12 years ago when I began to grasp enough to use the term "spiritual" to describe music making. This past decade has been a wonderful ride of discovery, and a most important lesson; to allow things to happen as they do naturally, or organically. And the macro and micro are connected here, essentially the same. Introducing thoughts and determinations serve to steer a process toward a desired end. But what if the desired end is left open to a trust in that which is outside of my thoughts and determinations, or my head? In terms of music making, this has become the whole deal, to "get out of the way" and allow the music to come through me, beyond my conscious (or known) thought processes, beyond my understanding. And I'm learning to feel where that switch is, and even, at times, be able to flip it (even as it is a more passive rather than an active engagement - sort of). 
I played a gig recently where one of the musicians became focused on some negativity. Observing this person as time went on, it was like I could see the thoughts in his head, as a weight, holding him down. I must be quick to acknowledge here that I could easily recognize this because I am well familiar with it, within myself. And learning to separate myself from this internally is like being released from a self imposed prison. But without a taste of freedom, one may not appreciate the limitations of self-imposed confinement. Or, one may not fully appreciate (or even see at all) what it directly in front of them without a lens adjustment.

Monday, September 17, 2018


Recently I performed in a really fun concert in Chestertown's premiere arts performance space. Underneath the radar of it all was the deliberation of something, to which my performance played a bit part. The time has come for this organization  to replace it's piano, which had been nursed along for as long as possible, and recently laid to rest. The fork in the road for the decision makers is whether to jump on the electronic music bandwagon and purchase a digital keyboard as opposed to a grand piano. What they are evaluating specifically is a state of the art "hybrid" piano, which provides the mechanical action to create the experience of playing an acoustic piano, while using digital technology to create the sound. There are practical reasons, reasonable considerations, on their own, to make a move to the digital hybrid, along with valid, if not necessary reasons (depending on how the organization views itself) for a performance venue such as this to have an acoustic piano.
This concert was the trial run for the hybrid piano, so the organization rented one for the show, and I was, in effect, the musician providing the demo for others to evaluate. A funny position for me to be in. I am quite open in not enjoying electronic keyboards, even as I (am compelled to) play them often. They serve a necessary purpose, but from the position of a pianist, they lack one feature that is necessary for me (to most authentically commune with the music): acoustic vibration. When the felt hammer hits the string on the piano, the string responds by vibrating, in a complex arrangement that contains and creates the sounds and combinations of sounds which we process as (acoustic) musical pitches.

The science of acoustics is not my field. But acoustic vibration, which can be felt and heard as sound, is the pallet from which I paint. My process of music making is like an interactive response with my environment, even as I am creating it. When I play an electronic keyboard, I'll respond to it (the sounds created) differently than an acoustic piano. Without going into too much theoretical detail, an electronically generated sound throws me into a more polyphonic approach, where acoustic vibration often sends me into more harmonic density. And this isn't just me, it appears. Whenever I discuss this issue with another (experienced professional) musician and make the assertion that Bill Evans (meaning his impressionistic harmonic approach) would not have happened if he only ever played a Fender Rhodes (the only electronic keyboard available for much of his career), it always finds agreement. In a very real way, the substance of the acoustic sounds themselves are altered when electronically replicated. And as you can imagine, when you alter a cause, you can redirect an effect. Years ago, when I began playing with a regional jazz group, the first few jobs required me to bring a keyboard. The first time we had a gig with an acoustic piano (and a mediocre one at that), after a few tunes, the bass player (a very accomplished and knowledgeable musician) asked me if I had worked out new (chord) voicings. I responded, "No, this is the was I really play". He understood.    

The larger issue of replacing a connection to the physical world with an electronically based replication has me concerned for what the long term implications may be. And it isn't limited to music, though music remains my focus in this piece. In a digital world, music has become more of a sharing of information and less a communion with natural vibrations (at least in some areas).  It can still access our emotions and make us feel things, but in the end remains a simulation; a virtual reality walk in the woods, complete with artificial breezes and heat lamps and recorded nature sounds. There is a reason that we are drawn to walk on the beach, or in the mountains, or commune with nature in general. My experience with the piano each morning as I sit down to practice (commune) is much the same as that, in a very real way. For a time, I was forced to practice on an electronic keyboard at home. I survived it, even grew musically, and if that's all I would ever experience, I wouldn't know any better. But I would be on an altered path, one that I'm not sure wouldn't point away from an ultimate source (or at least obscure it) rather than point toward it. After all, isn't everything in nature/creation vibratory, ultimately (according to science)? I can't say that I have answers at this point. But I do have lingering questions. 

Thursday, September 06, 2018


The Chestertown Jazz Festival is now underway. In recent years, it has grown from the original one day presentation to a now nearly week long collection of shows, events and venues. The main event remains the Saturday lineup in Wilmer Park in Chestertown, with a full afternoon of concerts, beginning at noon and ending with the headliner show starting at 4:30. This year Mainstay Monday becomes the closing concert for the festival. Looking forward to this unique opportunity with Tom Baldwin on bass and Aggie Brown III on drums. I'll also be playing for Karen Somerville now the 12 noon gospel set (It's a short one, so don't be late) on Saturday. Click on the poster to view the schedule and take in a show. Or several.      

Monday, August 20, 2018


Music makes connections, in so many ways. I remember the day, 25 or so years ago, when it  became crystal clear, in an epiphany moment, that there was, indeed, a reason I was to make music. Up until that point, it was because I enjoyed it. And I could. And (for some strange reason) it seemed a reasonable way. or at least the most realistic one for me, to make a living. And then, in an instant, looking out into a crowd as I was playing, I saw a gentleman (whom I didn't know) and understood why I was there. It was for him. But in him I also saw everyone, outside of myself, beyond the motivation that I enjoy playing piano, or that it provides some benefit to me. Outside of myself. It truly turned my world, or at least my internal landscape, upside down. To realize that I am playing piano not for me, but for the man/woman in the audience. For the connection that is made. For the benefit that is provided. The years that followed brought the gradual unfolding of what this means, and how it happens. And now, every time I play, I have the task, the opportunity, the joy, of connecting with someone. Or many people in a room, or concert venue, that can become as one. It's the same connection I make with the music every morning when I begin my practice routine. I've learned that the connection itself is outside of me, even as it is within me. And it is a place, or space to be shared. 
Yesterday I had the joy of performing in a small, invitation only house concert, and made a new friend, whom I invited to sit at the piano/keyboard with me to improvise together. Sophia experienced the shared space. I trust that this will inspire her as she continues on. 

Friday, August 10, 2018


Yesterday, I attempted another recording session toward my solo project that I intend to release later this year. Listening today, am warming up to parts of it. Yesterday, little, if any of it was working for me. Throughout the session, I had trouble settling into the space. And just that circumstance can pretty much insure that you won't find it. It's easy to self diagnose, looking back, and realize that I didn't really approach stillness. In the quiet anxiety of bypassing stillness, the path can be hard to find. Because it involves stillness. But the other thing I've come to learn is that an agenda driven circumstance can tend to bypass the moment that may present itself. As much as it is practical (and likely beyond that as well) I purpose to align myself with the moment I find. But going where it takes me might land me far afield from the outcome I sought. So then my task becomes to seek the outcome that presents itself. And when I fail, I can say thank you, and carry on.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Oops! I wrote this post 2 weeks ago and forgot to hit the publish button:
What a fun and productive weekend! On Friday, I had a duo concert with Danny Tobias at the 1867 Sanctuary, in Ewing NJ - the first of an ongoing series (once e/o month for now) where I perform with artists who have been Mainstay Monday guests (essentially exporting a bit of Mainstay Monday to another venue). On Saturday, I paid a visit to Chris Biondo's recording studio in Kensington, MD to work on two projects; Beth McDonald's original Christian Contemporary/Gospel release, and my new solo album. On Sunday, a duo concert with Chuck Redd at 49 West in Annapolis, MD (another venue where I'm in the rotation) inspired the artist's rendering above. And Monday night brought A listers Max Murray and Frank Russo to the Mainstay, to create a killer rhythm section. It's about staying on the path, and staying out of the way. I'm looking forward to what's to come.  

Friday, June 15, 2018


Funny how things change over time. Or (better, I'm sure), evolve. When I lived about a mile from the Chester River Bridge, I'd find myself walking into town most every day, crossing the bridge over and back, sometimes more than once. It was my happy, open, connection space. My friends (particularly on Facebook) were aware of it because I took lots of pictures. Everyone who drove the bridge was aware of it because there is nowhere to hide or fade into the scenery while walking the bridge. That last part didn't bother me at the time, though I've come to understand that it does now. I no longer live walking distance from town, though do have occasion to drive in frequently. And if opportunity permits, I'll walk. And almost always toward the water. But lately, when I've reached the bridge, I don't progress much further before turning around. The force field of solitude that used to surround me, even as cars would drive by - some silently, some honking, some waving, a few being rude - seems to have vanished. It's funny when change happens. The old habits and patterns can lose their motivation, even become empty. And we adjust. In this case, I think I'm responding to (or have been spoiled by) the blessing of solitude, as soon as I walk out out my front door. No cars, no people, and no sense of being watched or on display. Grateful for that, and will enjoy it as long as I am given that blessing.   

Wednesday, May 02, 2018



I saw a video posted on the Oscar Peterson Facebook page the other day with Oscar and Basie together in 1974, with Skeets Marsh listed as the drummer. My heart leapt. Disappointingly, the camera angle only showed Skeets and Freddie Green (seated directly in front of him) from the back. Skeets Marsh was a mentor and encourager to many a young musician, myself included. It was only a few years later when, as a teenager, I found myself on gigs with Skeets in the traditional jazz circuit in the Philadelphia area. Skeets was a storyteller, and young musicians like myself would gather around and listen. Decades later, I was struck with the importance of this, as the musicians of my generation became the storytellers, and encouragers to the young players. I remember one occasion as I felt the baton being passed from one generation to another, and immediately thought of Skeets. During one storytelling session (which may have been the one about his only gig with Art Tatum, which didn't turn out so well) he turned his head, pointed his drumstick at me and said "See him? He's serious. His middle name is serious.", then continued his story. I didn't say much around Skeets, but I did listen. His business card read "formerly with Count Basie and Duke Ellington", but we never heard those stories. My friends and I wondered what that meant, assuming it was true. One gig with each? We didn't know. It appears now that I may know more, discovering another video from the same year that suggests that Skeets did a single tour with the Basie band in 1974, possibly under the stage name Skip Martin. Probably the Oscar appearance was part of that tour, with the rhythm section being a meld of Basie's and Oscar's (Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass). In this wonderful documentation of a 1974 Basie concert, the drummer gets lots of camera time. 99% sure it's Skeets. It warms my heart to watch this. Skeets will always be an inspiration to me; to live the life, to encourage, and to tell the stories.

Friday, March 30, 2018


Kent County Maryland, where I live, is the least inhabited county in the state. The center of gravity (and county seat) is Chestertown, with a population of just over 5,000. Leave town and you travel through miles of farmland. Enter town and you almost enter another world, where an entire downtown is designated as a Maryland State Arts and entertainment District, and artists of all stripes have a home, and a community. Perhaps the single event that most drives this home is the annual Women Helping Women fundraising concert. Originally established to support the work of Dr. Maria Boria to provide medical services to area migrant workers, the charitable outreach has expanded to included support services for the local opioid addiction epidemic, among others. Now in it's 13th year, this event has become a showcase for locally based performing artists, and seems to find a way to raise the bar every year. I'm privileged to serve as musical director each year, and accompany nearly every wonderful performer. This show is worth the trip to Chestertown and an overnight stay to see. Do it next year.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Welcome to Mainstay Monday!

Thanks for clicking on the link to visit Mainstay Monday artist websites. This list will be periodically updated.
Mainstay Monday is a unique weekly performance collaboration between myself and a guest artist. Learn more about Mainstay Monday performers (note - performers without a website will have a link to a video, relevant article or bio, if available):   

My website
http://www.joeholtsnotes.com
Guest artist websites/links:

Jan. 21    - Karen Somerville
Jan. 28    - The High and Wides
Feb. 4      - Tom Lagana
Feb. 11    - Sue Matthews
Feb. 18    - Barbara Parker
Feb. 25    - Paul Midiri
Mar. 4      - Lynn Henderson/Ed Klein
Mar. 11    - Steve Abshire/Amy Shook
Mar. 18    - John Schratwieser
Mar. 25    - Dick Durham

Find complete show information here.

Thanks for visiting. See you at the show!

Friday, February 23, 2018


I'll often say that those of us with an artistic bent, and especially those of us who "live the life" are born with rose colored glasses permanently affixed to our heads. I'll also say that the artistic temperament, depending on one's view of things, is either a calling or a disease. In other words, we don't choose (or accept) this path because it makes sense. So I suppose that means those of us who do this are attempting to take something that doesn't make sense and make it work (or try to make sense of it). And perhaps, in attempting to do so, we miss the mark, or the point. Not that we don't want it to work, but rather that we wrap ourselves around what working, in this context, means. 
It's the tension that every artist faces, especially the independent artist. Either one's livelihood gets in the way, and pushes the artistic pursuits away from the center of our everyday, or the struggle to make a livelihood from our art does much the same thing. But the rose colored glasses remain. I've worn them all my life. And they've kept me on the path, running the race, even if I may have tried, at times, to see around them.
Is it rose colored glasses that led me to work as a salesman (in music, of course) in my 20's, in order to learn sales techniques? ..to make piano lesson barter arrangements with a business consulting firm and a sales manager, to receive sales coaching? .. to develop a billable hour sales strategy, to spend time selling and strategizing (at the expense of practicing), and consistently pulling off 400+ gigs a year (at the expense of practicing)? At the time, I would have said yes. I was doing what I had to do. I was believing in myself, even as I was working overtime to prove it was permissible to believe in myself. And I'll still say I was doing what I had to do, the best way I knew how at the time. For everything, there is a season. But as seasons pass, the rose colored glasses may fog up and run us off the road, or we may begin to see through a wider angle lens, seeing that believing in yourself (or anything) doesn't require you to prove it - rather, believing leads one to live it. So, some years ago, I threw out my business plan - the one that calculated how many hours, and at what rate, I needed to bill, and what steps I needed to take to get there. In it's place, I simply embraced the view. The view that says "Yes, I am this. Yes, Be this. Yes, trust what you know. Yes." 
So now the business plan is reduced to a rather simple formula, or better, statement: Show up at every performance with the space opened up, prepared to play. Devote the day leading up to the gig (and really, all of my time) to practicing, contemplative listening (prayer) and living in the moment (which, the deeper I get into this, the more all of these become the same thing, or at least occupy the same space). I could lament that I've found, later in life, the practice discipline that would have made all the difference (or at least a big one) in my earlier years. But it's more than just discipline. A better word would be maturity. And each of us find our own path toward that, throughout our lives, as we progress through it's seasons. 
Yes, I see through rose colored glasses, and the future looks bright.