Rhonda Rizzo, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

When I was young, we always had a piano in the house. One of my earliest memories is of lying in bed at night and listening to my mother play hymns while I went to sleep. Neither of my parents are professional musicians, but my mother has a lovely singing voice and my father taught himself to play the guitar. I used to make up songs at the piano, and when I was six, my parents enrolled me in piano lessons with a neighborhood teacher. My father would take me to classical recitals and concerts as part of my music education and family lore has it that when I returned from my first recital, I announced that I wanted to play concerts when I grew up.

My choice to pursue music as a career was much less straightforward. I loved to write (I published my first stories when I was fifteen), sing, and had strong entrepreneurial interests in addition to playing the piano. My parents worked as teachers for Seventh-day Adventist secondary boarding schools and we moved frequently. By the time I reached university, I could play well enough to win local competitions, but had many weaknesses in my technique and musical understanding. University was a lesson in humility and hard work! In my twenties, convinced that I didn’t have what it took to be a professional musician, I worked several corporate sales jobs while I wrote teen romance novels. I fell into piano teaching when I realized that if I could do corporate sales, I could survive as a self-employed teacher. The teaching led me back to performing, and eventually I realized that music was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Dr. Leonard Richter, my undergraduate piano professor, and Dr. Jill Timmons, with whom I studied for many years after university. Jill Timmons was the first person who looked at me and asked me why I had to choose between being a writer or a pianist. She encouraged me to do both, plus she gave me the tools I needed to build a solid, financially-sound career in the arts. She changed my life. And finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to harpsichordist/pianist/master teacher, Peter Brownlee.  Not only has he transformed my understanding of Baroque music, his knowledge and passion for true musicianship has influenced everything I play.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Juggling teaching and performing. I taught private piano lessons, worked as an adjunct professor, played piles of collaborative piano gigs, musical theater jobs, and along the way some rewarding concerts and recordings. Another challenge has been that I don’t fit into most of the music industry boxes. I’m considered a “classical” player, but I dabble in jazz and musical theater and I perform new music that crosses all genres. My abiding love for the music of living composers means that I have to do a lot of marketing to bring what I do to audiences. It’s rewarding, but it’s also challenging.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

This is a difficult question. I know I should list some of the professional highlights such as premiering Scott Pender’s Three Impromptus live on allclassical.org and performing Claude Bolling’s Suite for 2 Pianos, Bass and Drums with my fantastic duet partner, Molly Wheeler, but the moments that really matter to me are less impressive and focus on deep communication with listeners. Most recently, that would include playing for a music-loving neighbor in the last few weeks of his life, and playing a concert in a local art gallery where one of the employees came to me in tears afterwards because he was so moved by one of the pieces played—in other words, performances where the music communicated something deeper than words.

As to recordings, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason remains one of my favorites, as well as 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet that I recorded with Molly Wheeler.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

20th and 21st century American music, particularly the music of living composers. I love music that sits outside mainstream repertoire—pieces that straddle the line between classical and jazz. Some favorites include music by friends: Scott Pender’s Etudes, Chester Biscardi’s Incitation to Desire and In Time’s Unfolding, Dave Deason’s Reminiscence. I’m also drawn to Aaron Copland’s Four Piano Blues, anything by Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein (especially the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story arranged for two pianos), and anything by Claude Bolling.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Most of my career has been as a collaborative pianist so for years my repertoire choices consisted of the music I was paid to learn. At this point, I’m focusing on repertoire for piano duet or two piano, and solo pieces by living composers that I can learn, film myself performing, and then write about on my blog, www.nodeadguys.com. The pieces I choose to learn are ones through which I know I can communicate something meaningful.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Art galleries and former churches. There’s just something about these settings that inspires me and expands my playing. I like small and intimate settings.

Since I started my blog, another favorite concert venue is my own home. It’s remarkable to think that the videos I record can be seen and heard all over the globe.

Who are your favourite musicians?

This could be a very long list! Pianists include (in no particular order) Joanna MacGregor, Paul Roberts, Yuja Wang, the Anderson & Roe piano duo, Andras Schiff, Laura Downes, Murray Perahia, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, Keith Richards, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, to name just a few. Non-pianists include Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Placido Domingo, Andy Sheppard, and a host of other musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are several and most involve other people: playing Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances with Molly Wheeler in a cavernous performance hall and having one of those magical moments of “one-mind” clarity in our playing, performing the Shostakovich Piano Trio with two amazing string players and bringing a crowd of students to their feet by the end. There are also concert experiences that are memorable for how terrifying they were, such as the time I played Beethoven’s 2nd piano concerto and cued the conductor-less orchestra with my head from the piano [shudder].

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is getting the ego out of the way so the music can communicate clearly and simply. It’s also being able to play music I love—music I feel I can play and have something to say. Success is also being able to juggle many different income streams and jobs because very few of us live on concert revenue alone. Success then becomes (in part) about finding the balance between what we do for money and what we do for love. When we’re really lucky, those two things coincide.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Learn how to be an entrepreneur! Even if you have a manager, no one will care about your career as much as you do. At the same time, find what you play well and play it. Don’t try to play everything. Learn humility and patience because if you don’t, the business will teach you these things the hard way. Be open to new things. Read. Explore. Have a life outside music so you have something to say when you sit down to play. Fall in love. Choose to keep a generous spirit, no matter what life throws your way. Never lose your sense of humor because you’re going to need it.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully by then I’ll have Bach’s Goldberg Variations in my hands.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Living with love, compassion, integrity, and contentment.

What is your present state of mind?

Grateful


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

Rhonda Rizzo earned her undergraduate degree from Walla Walla University and her Master’s degree from Boston University.

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