There are many ways of looking at a life in music, or even just a hobby that involves music. For some it is a form of artistic expression, for others it a means of reaching out to others. Jazz pianist Dan Siegel views the piano, and music in general, as a means of communication that people can share with one another.
Born in Seattle, Washington and raised in the eclectic city of Eugene, Oregon. During Siegel’s early life there wasn’t exactly familial support of music. His father was not a big fan of his interest and endeavors in music, but eventually came around to become one of his son’s biggest advocates. That’s a good thing too, since Siegel showcased his talent beginning at the age of eight and has performed professionally from the age of 12 onwards.
Siegel’s career began at the age 8 with the help of a teacher named Francis Ragozzino. Ragozzino taught him a rather unusual combination of theory and repertoire. Although he grew up in a home with a piano, his older brother played the guitar and for Dan that was his first love. In 1962, Siegel, just 12 years old, started a band with a group of friends using his brother’s guitar. Known as “The Gents,” Siegel didn’t think they were very good, but he always said “We’re available.”
He turned to jazz when he was 18, performing in an ensemble in college. The piano became his go-to instrument, because as he puts it, “the piano is the quintessential musical instrument. Every musician should play the piano.” To this day, he is still learning to master the piano.
Music as Communication
There is often a disconnect between musicians and some fans when it comes to engaging in the same genre of music. For example, some country music fans in the United States have never spent a day in their life on a farm, raised hogs, or worked from sun up to sun down in the fields. Nonetheless, these individuals propel country music performers from opening acts in Nashville, TN clubs to superstardom.
Siegel is a performer who believes that music is all about communication. Listeners should be able to feel the inspiration of the processes behind music and the ideas that drive an individual piece of work. Siegel’s states his own take on the matter:
“Music is about communication. If no one gets it, what’s the point? It’s easy to write something that’s complicated, but the challenge is to write something of substance that people find interesting and accessible.”
For Siegel, bridging this divide means listening to as much music from different genres as possible and to grow into a better artist. As a teaching musician, he constantly impresses upon students the need to experience music of all varieties, especially those they are not fond of, to help cross the cultural divides between different people and feed the creative decision-making process of a successful artist.
Still, he admits that even with that outlook on life, writing good music is a constant and sometimes arduous task:
“To write good music is a challenge. These days, I am not concerned with commerciality. The only criteria I have is that the outcome is something that I can listen to and have pride in.”
The Process of Creation
Some artists are provided with music by collaborative writers and which is performed for the masses. Others take pride in writing and performing their own music. As he sits down to work on a new composition, Siegel tries to put himself in the head of his listeners and compose something that is coherent and compelling. Siegel, like any composer and performer, has his own approach to the composition process:
I try to document an idea whenever it comes. It can happen when I’m driving, walking, or anytime. I will usually use paper and pencil or my phone and record the melody or motif I hear in my head. The first 50% of a song will come quickly. The remaining 50% can take months to finish.
Still, there’s something to be said for the occasional improvisational performance when the mood strikes. During that ensemble performance at age 18 in college, Siegel recalls his own mother analyzing his performance. Although usually extremely supportive, she pointed out that his improvisation was incoherent, lacked melody, and was all around “not very good.”
Despite that harsh critique from a loved one, Siegel believes in the value of improvisation. He’s simply learned in the intervening years how to master his own forms of improvisation:
“To be a good improviser, you must be able to tell a story. Improvisation is spontaneous composition. To do it well requires knowledge, technical ability, and good ears. When you compose, you have as much time as needed to get it right.”
If all else fails during a performance, Siegel admits that improvisation is a key factor. When something goes wrong, you simply adjust and go with it.
Remaining Relevant in the 21st Century
One of the biggest challenges facing any musician right now is the growth of digital music, and the varying methods for consumption among modern fans. Listeners today are constantly plugged into their favorite station or online channel, listening to music on the way to work, in the lift, or while they’re riding the tube.
For Siegel, this means adjusting his perception of music. He wants to give music his full attention when he hears out, not just allow it to exist as the backdrop to his daily routines. The constant flow of music, he fears, could diminish the value of the art form as a whole because of its ubiquity.
Beyond that, it presents challenges for modern artists as they seek to promote their music to a generation of listeners consuming those tunes in a different manner. So, what’s his take on the situation?
“The scenario has changed drastically. For better or worse, anyone can put their music out there. The new paradigm has shifted control from the record companies into the hands of the creator. The problem is that to promote and market your own music takes time and is a distraction from the creative process.”
At the end of the day, Siegel will continue to pursue his musical career, adapting as needs be. He composes and performs music for the shear love of the art form itself, and hopes to be remembered as “someone who made a creative contribution of substance.”