Talks Yamaha keyboards and the transformative power of music
MUSIC IS SIMULTANEOUSLY ONE OF MANKIND’S GREATEST ACHIEVEMENTS AND GREATEST MYSTERIES. AS NEUROLOGIST OLIVER SACKS POINTS OUT IN HIS BOOK MUSICOPHILIA, THERE IS NO ONE PART OF THE BRAIN WHERE MUSIC IS CENTRALIZED—IT ENGAGES MANY PARTS OF THE BRAIN AT ONCE, WHETHER YOU ARE PLAYING OR JUST LISTENING. THAT MYSTERIOUS AND WIDE-RANGING CONNECTION IS ONE OF THE THINGS THAT FASCINATES JOSH GROBAN ABOUT MUSIC.
“Music has been an extremely transformative experience for me,” says Groban. “It’s been so therapeutic to me. I can go on and on about the studies about music therapy in general, and how music is able to reach people on a medical level and a psychological level. People with speech disabilities, people who have given up in so many different ways, music can pull them out of that. There are the people who relearn how to speak after a stroke, based on the idea of the inflections of singing. There [are] people who have been struck by lightning—who didn’t have a musical note in their body—who all of a sudden were writing orchestral symphonies and have no idea where they came from.”
Groban has felt that pull of music his entire life, beginning his exploration of piano early, thanks to parents who kept the house filled with music. “I just was introduced to it at a young age, which was a great gift,” he says. “It was a combination of that and kind of going through school feeling a little lost—feeling a little socially inept and trying to find my voice, in a way, combined with the fact that when I would listen to something, I could play it. I realized early on I could play by ear. My parents had a piano in the house, and so after school, if I was having a real crap day or something, I’d go and sit down at the piano and I would just improvise. I would just play stuff. I didn’t know where it came from. I didn’t know why I knew where my fingers needed to go, I just did. So I’m kind of self-taught that way. I took maybe two lessons in my life and was, like, ‘I’m going to do it the other way,’ which is a blessing and a curse because you know what you know, and you don’t know what you don’t know. You’ve got to figure it out.”
Once his voice changed, the world shifted, he explains. “I went from being, ‘Every kid sings kid songs,’ to ‘OK. That’s a beast of a voice you’ve got there.’ You realize you’ve got something.”
As those around him realized that Groban had an exceptional talent, they encouraged him to seek to develop it. “It was the teachers,” he says. “It was my parents that put me in the environment to appreciate music—[this is] one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of music education, because without that push … sometimes you don’t know. I was a super-shy kid, so I wouldn’t have known it. I would have always loved music, but I’m not sure I would have thought I could go into it professionally if I didn’t have those teachers to say, ‘Why don’t you try this? Why don’t you try and fail at this?’ You need to know what your thing is. It was the combination of getting the bug, just enjoying how music made me feel and then being able to use that as a form of communicating. Then being really intrigued and surprised in the best possible way at how that made other people feel when I made myself the vessel for that [feeling].”
Don’t think that Groban always takes himself quite so seriously, though. When asked about a favorite musical instrument, after a moment’s thought, he says, “My dream is to learn how to play the bagpipe. I want to be at the top of a Scottish mountain with sheep and the wind blowing through my hair. It’s the loudest instrument. I think there’s more room for bagpipe in popular music today. I may be alone in that.”
Dreams of piping in a Highland glen aside, his principal devotion is to the 88 keys of the piano. “For some reason, the keys just felt like a place for me to live, a place for my hands to go,” he says. “And I’ve used it as a tool. Sometimes I love playing and singing. Sometimes I just play for my own amusement, but it’s a great writing tool. When I started writing, I realized that all of the exorcizing of demons I was doing on the keyboard every night, or when I was stressed, or at 2:00 in the morning or whatever it was—that was writing. ‘Oh, OK. Improvising is writing.’ You can structure that and figure out what’s your chorus, what’s your bridge, what do you want to say lyrically? It’s a great tool. I’m happy that I know how to play at least well enough to get thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I play them on stage, too,” he adds, grinning.
His keyboards of choice have been Yamaha—a C7 grand refit with MIDI output that he uses both in the studio and onstage, as well as the Motif workstation. “The Yamaha pianos I love because they seem to have blended the perfect, happy medium of touch response, warmth, but you still need an edge that cuts through,” Groban says. “There’s a sound and a style that is all Yamaha’s that is, for me, the perfect studio piano, the perfect live piano because it’s so responsive. It can be that warm bath or it can be the kind of thing that Elton John [does]. It’s all Yamaha, but it’s the way the artist plays it. Anytime you have an instrument that really is there for you, depending on how you want to reach people with a particular song that particular evening, it’s a great thing. It becomes a part of you.”
“The synth stuff—they just have such incredibly natural sounding sounds on their synths. It’s unbelievably versatile. It’s easy to use. It’s a perfect combination of the screen and then the buttons and the things you need to push in real time when you’re doing a concert. The styles of music that I have to play, you have to go between a lot of different things at one time. That allows them to do that in a live atmosphere. I’ve always felt like Yamaha keys have always just been the way for me to get what I’m feeling out of my head.”
One of Groban’s biggest concerns, and a issue that he feels a major stake in, is the disappearance of music and arts education from American schools and schools around the world. “My parents would take me to see music, especially the orchestral stuff. I would listen to it,” he says, “and I would go, ‘How do I get in that? How do I find myself in that world?’ I got education. I got music. I asked them, I pleaded with them to let me take theater lessons, voice lessons. Put me in that world. I needed to do that, and they did that for me. They gave me that opportunity and so many kids, in this country, especially, don’t get that chance to do that. I was one of the lucky ones. It’s a cool thing. But, yeah, I owe my surrounding of that to my folks.”
Wanting to share those benefits is one of the keys behind his foundation, Find Your Light. “Arts education in schools is getting cut at such a drastic rate,” says Groban. “It’s being viewed as a luxury and not a necessity. It’s being viewed as something that is for entertainment value and not for anything else, and they’re wrong. It’s not just for the kids like me, who maybe would never have become a professional musician. It’s for the kids that need the outlet in general. I needed the outlet. I really needed the outlet. I was shy. I was kind of antisocial. I was not having the best time and I needed music to help me find my center of gravity. Every time I’ve seen the arts, in general, whether it be theater, dance, music, visual art, whenever I’ve seen that thrown into a kid’s life at that age, which is the age where I became really, really connected to it, it’s a different look on their faces. You can see them, inside, growing as a human being.”
With a new record in the works, Groban is buckling down, as suits his reputation as a studio perfectionist. “The next record I’m going to make right now is a labor of love for me,” he says. “It’s the album that, when I was signed at 17 years old, I said, ‘I really can’t wait until I have the ability and the experience to record this record.’ I’m going to make an album that is all of my favorite stage and screen songs done in a total classic way—that full orchestra feel where I can just really relax into the interpretations of the songs and just find the greatest songs, greatest melodies, use my voice on them and just sing my butt off.”
As with his previous records, this won’t happen overnight. “My records are complicated to make,” he says. “There [are] oftentimes a lot of very large, moving parts. A lot of my stuff has full symphonies. It’s not the kind of thing where you can just jam in the studio and press a record, ‘Now we’ve got that track done.’ There’s a lot of blueprinting involved, there’s a lot of finding. With my kind of voice, it’s important to really make sure [to use]trial and error. You find stuff that you love, you play around with it. Some stuff sucks. You throw that out, try new things.”
With hosting duties for a new TV show, ABC’s Rising Star, a new record in the works and tours coming up, Groban seems to be accelerating. What keeps him going, as always is the music. “Both playing music and listening to music for me has been a total escape and a total way of rebuilding and recharging my soul,” he says. “It’s probably the one thing in my life I couldn’t live without. It’s something that has meant so much to me, and it has meant a lot to me that it has meant so much to my fans.“