We all know the story: a young child enters piano lessons at the insistence of their parents, hates it, quits piano, and never touches the ivories again.
Or do they?
After Michele McLaughlin realized that traditional piano lessons wouldn’t work for her, she quit lessons and took matters into her own hands, developing her own style of playing and composing with a heavy emphasis on playing by ear and improvisation.
Years later, Michele has enjoyed much success in the world of contemporary piano, releasing seventeen albums and receiving numerous nominations, awards, and very positive reviews – even appearing on the Billboard charts and winning the People’s Choice award in the One World Music Awards.
Musical U interviewed this inspiring pianist and composer on her early and deliberate career beginnings, her intuitive, aural approach to composition, and a typical day in the life of a professional musician who is continuously exploring new musical avenues.
Q: Hi Michele, and welcome to Musical U! Before we get into your piano accomplishments, let’s backtrack and learn how you got there – how did you begin with music?
I began playing when I was around 5 years old. I would play music by ear, learning to play my favorite melodies or songs I heard in school, or on TV.
My mom put me in lessons when I was 7 years old, and I hated it. I stopped after just a few lessons because I didn’t want to play classical music, and I felt that it took the fun out of playing. I much preferred to just play by ear and learn on my own.
I started composing when I was 8 years old, and from there I preferred to just write my own music rather than figure out how to play other people’s music. I started improvising and making up melodies and songs that made my heart sing. Back then my music was very basic and simple, but it was a great beginning that has turned into something wonderful.
I released my first album many years later, when I was in my late 20’s.
Q: So rather than quitting altogether, you took your learning into your own hands – amazing, especially at such a young age.
Who are your greatest influences? Please tell us more about George Winston.
George Winston was my biggest influence when I was little. I learned to play many of his songs by ear before I started composing my own music. I listened to his music all the time, along with Mannheim Steamroller and various artists from Windam Hill Records. Later, I was inspired by Jim Brickman and Paul Cardall. Currently, I’m most inspired by Ludovico Einaudi, Chad Lawson, Doug Hammer and Neil Patton.
Q: Please tell us more about your compositional process.
I love to compose in the morning after I get up for the day. I like to spend at least 30 minutes just playing and improvising at my piano, seeing what comes out based on how I’m feeling.
I record a lot of what I improvise on my phone so that I can refer back to it if I improvised something particularly interesting or appealing.
Once a song starts to develop, I will focus all my effort and energy on that piece until it’s fully formed. Once I have it memorized and under my fingers, I’ll work on the development of it until it’s a finished piece. This process can take minutes, or days. Usually it’s very fast.
Q: Fascinating. So you’ve been composing since a very young age, and have since developed a compositional approach based on feeling and intuition.
How did you begin recording? How did it grow and develop from there?
My first album was recorded using a digital piano and a tape recorder, and I released it on cassette tape. It was extremely makeshift, but it was intended for gifts for Christmas for friends and family.
After that release was so well received, I bought a Yamaha Clavinova digital piano and recorded my albums via MIDI, which I had mastered in my uncle’s home recording studio. I released 6 of my albums this way, on CD. From there I recorded 3 of my albums live in the studio on a Yamaha C7, and after I bought my own C7, I recorded at home.
I currently still record at home on my Fazioli F212 with my own home recording studio, and have my mastering engineer do all the post work for me at his studio.
Q: How did you move from recording to performing? What was that like for your own personal and musical growth?
Recording and performing are two separate things for me. My first live performance wasn’t until 2007, when I shared the stage with Gary Girouard when he came to Utah to perform and invited me to be a guest performer.
I slowly began doing shows in the years after, and my first full length tour was in 2012 with Scott D. Davis. We did a second tour around the entire US in 2013. After that I did several tours with other musicians, and in the last couple of years have reduced the amount I tour to work on other musical projects.
I also run my own in-home concert series at my house in Utah. I do about 8 concerts a year out of my home. As of today, I’ve performed in over 250 concerts around the US.
Q: Over the years, your audience steadily grew, and so did your touring schedule. When and how did you come to be a professional musician? What kind of shift did you make in your mind to make that happen?
It started as a hobby, really. I made albums for my friends and family as Christmas gifts each year.
I put my music on iTunes in 2003, and it started selling a lot better than I expected. In 2005 I became part of Whisperings Solo Piano Radio, and in 2007 I had my first performance. By that time I was making enough money with music sales to cover my bills, and as a leap of faith, I decided to pursue music full time. I quit my day job in June 2007 to follow that dream, and have been a full-time professional musician ever since.
Q: Many professional musicians these days wear several hats. Your musical career has moved beyond just playing the piano. Please tell us about the components that make up your “day on the job”.
I worked in Project Management before I quit my day job to pursue music full time, so I have a background in administrative work.
Running a music business is a lot more of the administrative side than it is the creative side. I spend most of my day in my office handling customer service, social media, engagement, advertising, marketing, bookkeeping, music releases, and streaming.
I spend a few hours at the piano most days, but there are other days where I don’t touch my piano at all. And, as a business owner, I work way more than I ever did at an 8-5 day job.
Q: Let’s talk about your aural approach to playing and composing. At Musical U, we help people find their inner musicality through learning skills like playing by ear. How important was playing by ear in your own musical development?
It was instrumental and the sole way I learned how to play. Even now, I memorize and play my own compositions by ear. If I can’t remember how to play something I wrote from a long time ago, all I have to do is listen back so I can remember how to play it.
I can’t read or write music. I hire a transcriptionist to transcribe my music for me, and a proofer to make sure the transcriptions are correct.
Q: Wow. So we can finally put to rest the ridiculous theory that you need to be a master sight reader to succeed in music!
Improvisation is another key musicality skill you use often. How did you start improvising?
Improvisation is the key element in how I compose. I improvise at the piano daily, and if something catches my ear as particularly wonderful, I’ll turn it into a song for release. My improvisation is largely emotion based – I just play what feels good in the moment.
Q: Sounds like a natural extension of your play-by-ear approach. What advice can you give those in our audience who want to begin and improve their improvisation?
Stretch outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to mess up. Sometimes it’s those “mistakes” that produce the best music. Improvisation is about exploring the keys and finding a story in the notes. Let your emotions and imagination drive it… pay attention to what you’re feeling or thinking when you improvise. Use the keys and notes as your canvas as though you’re painting a picture. Practice improvising daily and make it a part of your practice routine. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Q: Your mastery of expressive range – and the pianistic technique that accompanies it – place you in the forefront of contemporary piano, certainly evoking what George Winston brought to the genre in the early days, but intensely personal and individual. What advice do you have for others who want to achieve that depth of expression?
Play from your heart. Use the piano as your tool for expression, creativity, therapy, and release. Write music because you love it, and it’s part of who you are, not because you’re trying to make a career out of it. When you make music for you, and you alone, because it’s your therapy, and creative release and outlet, that’s where the magic happens.
Connect to it, feel it, love it, be part of it. I often joke that the piano and my music is similar to that scene in the movie Avatar, where they connect their braids together. For me, that’s what playing is like. I connect to the piano and I let my heart and soul out through the music.
Q: You’ve been nominated for multiple awards in the One World Music Awards, an organization that recognizes the accomplishments of independent artists. Please tell us more about that.
One World Music is a great group of people who play and support independent musicians in the New Age, World, Ambient, and Contemporary genres. They do a lot to support us and our music, and help us gain exposure.
They have an awards ceremony each year to honor their best albums of the year. I was nominated in the Best Solo Piano album category, as well as the People’s Choice category. My friend Shoshana Michel won the Best Solo Piano Album, and I won the People’s Choice award. It was very exciting and I was honored to be included in this years awards.
Q: Congratulations! Now that you have multiple nominations and awards under your belt, what’s next for you? What are your upcoming projects?
Right now I’m focusing on releasing singles. I’ve released 4 singles this year, and a couple last year. I released my third Christmas album last winter, and when I have 10-12 singles completed, I’ll release them on an official album.
I just got home from a week long cruise with Audiosyncracy At Sea, where I was a guest performer. I’ve got several concerts in my home concert series coming up, the next one is on July 14th with my guitarist friend, Lance Allen. I’m also working on some official video releases, and special YouTube series too. Staying busy and always working on new ideas and projects.
Fantastic! Michele, thank you so much for sharing the story of your inspiring beginnings, the secrets of your compositional process, and your daily life as a professional musician. Your success as a musician who emphasizes ear training, improvisation, and expressivity is incredibly inspirational.
We’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with your body of work, from your ballads, to your Celtic-inspired work, to your Christmas albums. Please keep us posted on your future releases – we are eagerly anticipating hearing more from you!
You can learn more about Michele, listen and stream her music, buy sheet music, and get her upcoming concert dates at her personal website.
Playing and Composing – The Aural Way
30 seconds into listening to any of Michele’s compositions, one thing becomes very clear: this is music written with feeling, spontaneity, and expressivity. The fact that Michele does not read or write music has clearly not hurt her – rather, it has made her an intuitive, mesmerizing player who is free from reliance on transcription and sheet music.
The key to her success is music education’s best-kept secret: a focus on ear training, aural skills, and playing by ear. These skills make for more musical performances and a deep connection between the composer and their music.
Developing your ear training skills is something you can easily incorporate into your music practice. Try playing out the melody line of your favourite song, or learning to recognize intervals by ear using solfa, or challenging yourself to play your favourite piece of music as expressively as you can, rather than as flawlessly as you can.
Ear training is an integral part of anyone’s music education – and the more you can apply it to your learning and practice, the more natural and musical your playing will become.