The Sorcerer’s Apprentices – Berlin Edition

Chilly Gonzales fans are passionate people. They either run a website dedicated to his works, apply for a lesson by the Maestro himself with incredibly witty and funny videos, or they start playing the piano – just because they love his pieces so much. Others queue for hours to enter Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann in Berlin and witness his Masterclass. In the end, only 200 make it inside. While waiting, one of them stated something obvious, yet easy to be forgotten: “He sells out Europe’s concert halls – it is special to be part of something that intimate tonight.”

Intimate is the perfect word. Chilly Gonzales came to share some of his secrets condensed in his latest project, the notebook “Re-Introduction Etudes”, which is actually a manifesto of appreciation to the people following his career and listening to his music. At the same time it is a dedication to all people dear, inspiring and milestone-setting to him – we will dive deeper into this with a soon-to-come review of Re-Introduction Etudes. The approach behind the book is based on an observation you can make while watching little children: Learning is natural and fun. Small kids learn every day without even realizing. Then, at some point, we adults manage to destroy this innocent way of soaking in wisdom – mostly through bad teachers. And all of a sudden, learning becomes something burdening, unfunny, “force-driven”. In Germany, music lessons in the 90s meant “reading” scores with your fingers, while the teacher played a symphony in the background, then memorizing the Circle of Fifths (I even remember the stupid mnemonic “Geh Du Alter Esel. Faule Bären Essen Aas.”) and at the end singing some Volkslieder to the teacher’s terrible piano play. Even at conservatoire, which I joined for more than 6 years, it was all about performance and grades, not about the joy of making music together as priority one. Chilly Gonzales tries to reconcile the inner child with these experiences, takes us by the hand and brings some of the joy back into adapting new or buried wisdom.

Affectionate persiflage as application

In Berlin, he really appeared as the teacher you had always wished for – unless the apprentices did not pay enough attention to the sorcerer’s magic and dropped plates or bottles. In those moments of “audience inattentiveness”, Gonzales either made his point clear verbally or with a little help from the piano. Right at the beginning, after he had played “White Keys”, a short “Kenaston” version abruptly ended with both hands smashing down hardly on the instrument and making it sound almost monstrous. Considered not only the show was for free, but also that Gonzales gives away some of his secrets, one would have understood if he had just walked off stage. Instead, he explained that this is actually interpretation: an expression of his impressions while playing. He even signed the notebook afterwards and chatted with people, which meant almost everyone at the venue. In-between, he touched some relevant questions around music: Is music about emotions? What makes us feel these sentiments at all while listening to music? How important are improvisation and interpretation and which role does each play? How can limitations become a constant challenge? What are Blue Notes, Rubatos, Tremolos (or Tremo-Lows as he put it)? How does one use these ornamentations in digestible doses?

Even if you haven’t touched an instrument in years, the Masterclass certainly touches you and makes you want to pick up the instrument again. Actually, that is exactly Chilly Gonzales’ goal: Helping the lapsed piano student re-discover the beauty and fun in making music. So in the end, his line from the song “Never Stop” “my position is missionary” turns into an event. Someone who certainly has already been missionized, was “student” Eric. The video he entered as his application for the masterclass was shown on a big screen and not only, as Gonzales repeatedly said, “Team Gonzo was blown away”, but also the whole audience. His affectionate persiflage wasn’t only professionally executed, but also contains a lot of “Gonz style humour”. A young person on the hunt for a teacher to foster his musical talents gets rejected by three types of “mentors” (to the sound of “Tarantula”): the nutty professor music theory pedant, the classical music snob and the Berlin Kiez basement producer.

Unleash The Beast in your kid and buy a drum set

Ivan, another student, who was inspired to teach himself the piano after he fell in love with Gonzales’ music, delivered a quite beautiful version of “Gogol” – at his second attempt. Before, he had glared at the audience and was stopped by the Master: “That’s like being with your wife, but looking at the chick with the big ass! Stay with your wife!” Also an eye-catcher was Xenia from Siberia, a classically trained piano player. She was asked to sight-read the Eastern European sounding “Odessa” from the Re-Introduction Etudes. Then she and Gonzales played an overly dramatic version of it, an impressive demonstration of the fact, that sometimes less is more: “The poetry is often written in the music”, Gonzales said, “so let the music itself shine.” Or, as he put it differently: Play the piano like Michael Caine acts – reduced and “well-tempered”, so to speak.

His advice for parents on how to give kids a musical advantage points in the opposite direction: by buying them a drum set and unleashing the Muppet Show Beast in your child. Not only did he start with the drums himself, also rhythm builds the basis of music. When hitting the drums, the kid can just feel and be one with music without being overwhelmed by notes or a complicated execution. The piano as a percussion instrument and the extension of a drum set became visible and audible in “Knight Moves”, the fulminant school bell and end point of the Masterclass. One rejected encore (“Eye of the Tiger” being “musical kryptonite”), a subtle “Overnight” and the Master left 200 inspired students – and Dussmann turned from a study into an (extra-) ordinary Kaufhaus again.

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