Andrew Bishko is a 25+ year veteran piano teacher, university adjunct professor (on such topics as music appreciation, song writing, and opera), published author, and father of three. Andrew has delved into a number of different musical styles throughout his career, including Native American flute, Klezmer, jazz, and many other popular styles. His current projects include HeartWinds (acoustic world music and jazz), Thru the Wall (a Pink Floyd tribute band), The Ozarks Klezmer Orkestr, and music minister/songwriter/composer in an all-original church music program.

Andrew is the Content Editor for Easy Ear Training and Musical U, running publishing on EasyEarTraining.com as well as writing articles himself, and helping edit and develop new training material inside Musical U.

A Bit of Background

Musical U: Hi Andrew, and thanks for joining us for this interview! First of all, please tell us a little bit about your musical background.

Andrew Bishko: When I was 5, I wanted to play guitar. My parents translated that as “piano.” Piano was difficult for me: it took ages for me to read through a piece and much repeated practice. Still, I kept up lessons into high school and played some beautiful Chopin pieces for my recitals. I would spend a year learning my recital piece, give a great performance, and forget it the day after the recital. At that point, reading or playing fluently didn’t happen – more like each piece was a really good trick.

We had a beautiful baby grand in the house. My sisters and I would play for hours – “Chopsticks,” “Heart and Soul,” “Thunder and Lightning,” strumming on the strings inside. Exploring sound. My parents were supportive to the max – they never ever said, “Stop banging on the piano.” I loved improvising on the piano, but didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Most of my improvisations sounded like scary movie soundtracks.

When school orchestra came along, I wanted to play upright bass. My mom and piano teacher decided that that meant “flute.” At 10 years old,  I didn’t want to play the “girls’ instrument.” But when I arrived in high school, I was very grateful!

I had lots of allergies and respiratory issues, so the flute was very therapeutic for me. But I was always looking for some way to make it “cool.” I went to the public library – this was 15-20 years before the Internet – and looked for Jean-Pierre Rampal records. At the library, I discovered world music. I took home any record with flutes on it – African, Hindustani, Irish, and Latino. Then I stopped caring whether there was flute or not. That’s where I discovered Bob Marley and the Wailers.

When I went to undergraduate college, I left music behind. Fast forward six years. I’m in Italy, running out of money, and I don’t want to go home. I started playing my flute on the street, paid to practice. Everything was by ear, and I strapped bells to my feet and danced around quite a bit. I learned that as long as I could play music, I could eat. I was hooked.

When I returned to the States, I discovered reggae clubs and went dancing every night until I found myself in Satta, a reggae/world beat band. An awesome mixed up crew – black, white, rich, poor, male, female. A very creative bunch. We traveled incessantly and had many great opportunities: playing with the Wailers in NYC, Department of Defense tours to Europe and Asia. After four years, though, it wasn’t fun anymore. All that potential squandered for partying. I left the band and moved to Alaska.

I wanted to be better at communicating my musical ideas to others, so I decided to continue my music education. By some miracle I was accepted into the ear training-based Third Stream program and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. There I played lots of jazz and free improvisation. I studied the Lydian Chromatic Concept with George Russell, and microtones with Joseph Maneri. And I was required to sing, sing everything. After 30 years of not singing, that was huge!

But Klezmer became my musical obsession, and would remain so for fifteen years.

I was the “klezmer flute guy.” I did a lot of teaching, recording, workshops, and weddings with The Alaska Klezmer Band and The Alaska Klezmer Duo. At the same time, I began teaching piano, flute, saxophone, and accordion lessons.

When I began teaching piano, I discovered everything that I had missed the first time around. From observing and working with my students, I explored new ways of integrating the kinaesthetic experience of playing piano with hearing and reading music. Soon I found myself sight reading, improvising, composing, and playing beyond anything I had ever been able to do in the past, with much less practicing.

I have learned more from teaching than any other aspect of my life. While I have a large knowledge base to pull from, I love being in that space of discovery with my students, when we are all zinging off each other and coming up with new ideas that work.

Klezmer music brought me closer and closer to the Jewish community, especially to the Hasidic rabbi and his family. They put the spiritual first in all their lives, and their music expressed their connection to God. I was inspired to make this choice in my own life. At that point, I met a healer who introduced me to a spiritual path that held even more truth, and wound up joining the Community of Light in Missouri, a little over ten years ago.

My teaching continues, and I branched out again in my musical styles, which are now imbued with the intensity I found in my 15 year concentration on Klezmer. Songwriting and music ministry figure prominently right now.

MU: Who are some of your most inspiring musicians?

AB: Of course that answer will vary moment to moment. Tito Puente, with his most profound understanding of rhythm. Look up his timbale solos. Herbert von Karajan conducting Beethoven – he furnishes the symphonies with an almost Stravinsky-like energy that to me truly reflects Beethoven’s intentions and always moves me to tears. Klezmer clarinetist Shloimke Beckerman bubbling through an old Yiddish dance. John McLaughlin and Shakti exploding with pure joy. Gambian kora player Pa Bobo Jobarteh’s driving energy, bursting with light and love.

Most of all, these days I am inspired by my friends and HeartWinds collaborators Robert and Jill Stadler. They write the most beautiful, simple and moving songs that give me a place to open my heart and spirit. One of my favorites is “Paradise,” written by Robert.

Interests in Eclectic Sounds

MU: What initially drew you to Native American music? Klezmer? How did these genres influence you as a musician?

AB: After a reggae gig with Satta in Logan, Utah, a mountain man – beard, furs, the whole bit – introduced himself to me as ‘Crazy Coyote” and invited me to go with him. He took me to a dark house, where we stepped over sleeping bodies to a back room, where he handed me what looked like a broken stick and whispered, “Blow in the pointy end.”

When I observe other highly trained musicians, they have this quality which I call “magic.” They seem to go into another world as they play. I imagined what it would feel like to be “there.”… I realized that I had the magic, that I had “made it.”

The Native American flute jumped in my hands. The instrument was so alive! After that experience, I always had it in the back of my mind that someday I would have one. Maybe 17 years later, I was burning brush in my backyard in Alaska. A friend called me and said he wanted to give me something. He came by and handed me my first Native American flute. Before that, I had no idea that he even played music.

We sat by the fire and played our flutes. The birds sat on the branches and sang with us. I’m not kidding! It was like a Disney movie! I knew there was magic in there. I began teaching Native American flute, and eventually wrote First Lessons Native American Flute: How to Sit on a Rock, published by Mel Bay.

First Lessons Native American Flute

Andrew’s book, First Lessons: Native American Flute: How to Sit on a Rock

Klezmer led me to a intense discipline in one style of music. In the process of producing the nuances and phrasing on the flute I’d heard in all my listening to clarinetists and violinists, I developed a much deeper understanding and command of my instrument. I carry this discipline with me now in everything I do.

I also composed quite a bit of klezmer music, especially focusing on generating melody. This understanding of melody serves me well in everything from songwriting to classical to jazz improvisation.

MU: Tell us more about your current projects – HeartWinds, Thru the Wall, and The Ozarks Klezmer Orkestr. They all sound really intriguing!

AB:  HeartWinds is my blanket name for a variety of difficult-to-categorize acoustic projects. My buddy Randy Buckner – who teaches across the hall from me at Hoover – is a phenomenal guitarist and mandolin player. We perform with a repertoire of gypsy-jazz, Brazilian choro, classical, and Irish music.

Currently, HeartWinds is rehearsing as a quartet with Robert and Jill Stadler and my wife Rachael for a Native American-themed wedding. We’re exploring a fusion of our original songs with powwow music and Native American flute. While we are not Native Americans, we have a deep respect and love for the culture and the earth which is finding spiritual expression in our music.

HeartWinds

The Ozarks Klezmer Orkestr

I never thought of myself as a rock musician, but I am gaining a deep appreciation for the beauty and thoughtfulness of prog rock as I play saxophone and keys for Thru the Wall, a Pink Floyd Tribute band. And with The Ozarks Klezmer Orkestr, I have returned to performing Jewish music at local events with wonderful musicians. I am playing accordion in this group and loving being the accompanist. Playing Klezmer accompaniment is so interactive, like classical chamber music with more room for improvisation.

Music and Passion – One and the Same

MU: What do you love most about teaching – both at the university level and with your private students?

AB: I have had a good education. But I have learned more from teaching than any other aspect of my life. While I have a large knowledge base to pull from, I love being in that space of discovery with my students, when we are all zinging off each other and coming up with new ideas that work.

Andrew Bishko lessons

Andrew with one of his accordion students

MU: What sort of “habits” do you have when composing and songwriting? Are there any specific things you always do to get into the “right” mindset?

AB: Melody comes first. Most of my ideas come when I’m driving and singing. I have hundreds, thousands of videos of my steering wheel, recording ideas on my phone. I also vocalize the instrumental parts. Then when I sit down at the piano, it’s like, “Oh no, what did I get myself into?!”

Starting with melody, I come up with chord progressions that are much more interesting.

As far as mindset, the music always plays in my head. It’s mostly a matter of me giving myself the time and attention to do it. That’s why the car works so well for me – I become my own captive audience.

MU: Did you ever think about quitting in the past? How did you handle it? Why didn’t you quit?

AB:I did quit for six years after high school, and devoted my undergraduate years to exploring my wide interests in the humanities and science. But once music came back into my life, it never left.

I’ve certainly had long periods of non-musical day jobs and I have only relied on performing as my main income for very short periods. In a way, not depending on performing frees me up musically to do more what I like, rather than being guided by any kind of market.

MU: Would you say you still practise? What’s the hardest part about staying motivated?

AB: A lot of my technical practicing happens when I’m working with students. Otherwise, I am practicing for a specific performance, or when I’m composing or songwriting. This happens mostly when I have a break or cancellation between students. Then it’s me alone with my instruments in the teaching studio, no distractions.

Wise Words for Fellow Musicians

MU: When did you feel like you really “made it” as a musician?

AB: When I observe other highly trained musicians, they have this quality which I call “magic.” They seem to go into another world as they play. I imagined what it would feel like to be “there.”

A few months ago, I was showing one of my students – who, at 11 years old, already accompanies singers at her Romanian Pentecostal church – different alternatives to expand her chord playing to support the melody and movement of the song.

Many people equate “honesty” with criticalness. They are not the same thing. If you are truly honest, you must be as honest about everything that you are doing right as you are about the things you wish to improve. Fully appreciating yourself will bring you along faster than criticalness every time.

She asked me, “How do you do that?” I started to explain about the chord inversions. “No,” she explained, “How do you get so emotional?” That’s when I realized that I had the magic, that I had “made it.”

MU: What advice would you give aspiring musicians?

AB: There’s a place I go in my mind where I am hyper-aware of every detail, everything I want to improve. Yet at the same time, I am totally into the music and enjoying it tremendously, and also aware of shining my love and light into the music. I love this place because I am totally objective, not only about what I want to improve, but about what I am doing well.

Many people equate “honesty” with criticalness. They are not the same thing. If you are truly honest, you must be as honest about everything that you are doing right as you are about the things you wish to improve. Fully appreciating yourself will bring you along faster than criticalness every time.

MU: What is your favorite part about working with the Musical U team?

AB: Musical U is an awesome project. Christopher is clarity personified, and exudes a perfect blend of supportive, encouraging, respectful and exacting—much like the picture I expressed in the last question. Marisa and Stewart are fun-loving and very serious musicians. And we all laugh a lot.

 

If you’d like to learn more about Andrew’s musical projects, you can check out Ozarks Klezmer Orkestr, his book First Lessons Native American Flute: How to Sit on a Rock, or his personal work site, Napasha Music.

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