“Never forget that it takes only one person or idea to change your life forever.”
- H. Jackson Brown Jr.
Most people knew Barry Nease as a creator of music for Olympic Gymnastics teams worldwide for 40 years. His clients included dozens of Olympic medalists. When I first met him in 1978 he was, to me, just an incredibly talented pianist, playing in a local restaurant.
Barry Nease inspired me to pursue the piano. He had a huge influence on the way I studied the piano — shaping my exploration of music and my approach to playing and composing. This web page has my recollections of Barry: how I first heard him and eventually took a handful of lessons from him back in the late 1970s; some of the content of those lessons; and pictures of many notes he made for me. Sadly, I lost touch with him after 1979, and while planning to finally reach out just last month (to share some recordings he made for me during a lesson), I learned of his passing in 2019. — Frank Leister, July 2020
I first heard Barry Nease playing a baby grand piano at a restaurant called Dante's, near Harrisburg, PA. It was 1977 or 1978, I can't remember which. Dante’s was “underground” so to speak. At the entrance to the building, on the first floor, was a pizza place; so you’d go down a flight of stairs to arrive at Dante’s. It was elegant, spacious, and quiet — ideal for the sound of a piano in the background — unlike so many noisy and packed restaurants today.
A tradition in my family was that my parents would take us out for dinner to celebrate our birthday each year. I have 3 sisters; but these special occasions were reserved for the birthday child. While my wife and I were still dating, she accompanied me to one of these special dinners in September 1978 (my 20th birthday). We went to Dante's at my request, because I had been there once before and heard the wonderful piano music. My wife and I both remember that I approached Barry during one of his breaks and asked him a couple questions.
I was simply enthralled hearing and watching Barry play the piano at Dante’s restaurant. He would play wonderful arrangements of pop tunes and old standards. At the time, I pondered whether or not he was improvising. Later, he explained that he actually worked out each arrangement in fine detail.
What I heard appealed to me immensely. This was not the typical chord and melody jazz improvisation. Within the space of seven octaves, Barry embraced the whole circumference of an orchestra. His ten fingers rendered the harmonies of a dozen musicians. In a single phrase, he "did it all."
I, too, wanted to "do it all.” At the time, I had been recording demo tapes of my songs, where I played all the instruments and recorded everything using a couple of multitrack tape recorders. But, after hearing Barry play, and despite being a fairly accomplished guitar player, I began to focus exclusively on the piano thanks to his inspiration.
I remember him playing "Make It With You" at Dante’s, which was one of my favorite pop songs. And when I approached him during a break (he was eating popcorn at the bar) and asked if he could play “If” (a song by Bread), he hummed the verse of the song and asked, "Is that the one?" I nodded; but said he didn’t play it. It was then that I realized how short he was. (I was 6’3” tall. He might have been 5 feet. We made quite a contrast.)
I also remember him telling me, at the bar, that “the quality of my playing depends on my muse.”
So, I think it was late in 1978 — after becoming determined to pursue the solo piano — I called him on the phone. I probably called Dante’s and somebody there told me he no longer played at the restaurant and had moved to Boalsburg, PA. So I just looked him up in the phone book. In those days, people were (for the most part) in the phone book. So, you could look 'em up — or call “directory assistance” — and simply ask for a phone number.
I called him and told him that I really admired his playing and I asked if he could give me some lessons. He said he was “very flattered“ and he agreed to give me a lesson. Then he gave me directions to his house. I remember him saying, "just come all the way up Route 322 until... Lord... I think it's the first traffic light you come to!... then turn Right." I still have the note where I jotted down his directions and address.
So, I traveled from Harrisburg to Boalsburg one Saturday and arrived about a half hour early. He was practicing; I could hear the piano outside when I got out of the car. He came to the door and said "I'm not ready for you." Then he took my watch off and instructed me to "walk down the street about a block, and rest near a brook... then come back in 30 minutes" when he’d be ready for me. Clearly I interrupted his practice routine and he wasn’t gonna end it early. While I was traveling to the brook, I actually witnessed a car hitting a bicycle, upending the bicyclist, who was OK but visibly shaken. I’ve never seen that happen before or since. Anyway, I returned and eventually my first lesson began.
He and his wife had a very small house. And Barry had a little baby grand piano with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and microphones set up. He also had a spinet piano in his blue van! (Ya just don't see that everyday.)
I had about a half-dozen lessons. They happened once every month or two, and were not like the traditional one-half hour, somebody-before-you, somebody-after-you routine. In fact, he told me he had “fired” all his other students for that very reason: because everybody wanted to visit once-a-week, like traditional music lessons. He did not approve of typical music teachers, describing them as mostly incompetent, and he disliked the weekly lesson scheme.
So the impetus for each lesson was a simple phone call from me to him. And the lessons took place in his living room/studio in Boalsburg, PA. The lessons lasted about five hours each, with no break. That may sound dreadful, but it was OK, given the hour+ travel time. (I was a junior, at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA.)
Lesson content was somewhat random. We listened to recordings, examined compositional structure, talked about composers and discussed aspects of technique. Typically he did a lot of playing and frequently talked to his dog.
At one lesson, he was eating a bowl of cereal when I arrived. At one lesson, he took a shower upon my arrival.
Barry told me he was currently studying piano with Franko Richmond, who was a protegé of Earl Wild, the famous American pianist from Pittsburgh. Barry had a master’s degree from the Univ. of Pittsburgh.
At the first lesson, we jumped in his blue van and traveled to State College to buy the Schmitt piano exercise book at a music store.
He told me to structure daily 3-hour practice sessions as follows: 1/3 for Schmitt technical exercises (playing them 1-note-per-second with a 2-year timetable to complete number 1 through 170); 1/3 for working on individual tunes (some of which he'd specify) and 1/3 for playing — improvising or performing.
He made a list of scores that I should buy and commented that “it looks like you don’t have a problem with money.” I ordered each book the following week. Still have most of them.
He told me to buy the “urtext” editions of scores (meaning “original text” in German) because he loathed the markups and interpretations (expression, volume, tempo, etc.) that editors would add to scores. He only wanted to know what the composer wrote. Nothing more.
I called Barry sometime after my first lesson to proudly proclaim my rigorous, 2-hour daily technical practice schedule consisting of 1 hour Schmitt exercises (which Barry had prescribed) and 1 hour of Hanon exercises (which was my idea). It was the first time he yelled at me! In a not-so-polite manner he told me to "throw those lousy Hanon exercises out the window... don't you remember what I told you?"
During my Fall 1979 semester at Susquehanna University, I had a business class called “Human Relations.” For one assignment, I wrote a short paper describing my relationship with Barry. That paper provided some of the recollections you're reading here. But most of what I remember are other tidbits, generally falling under the category of stories, anecdotes, and advice. Here are some I recall, in no particular order...
• Barry said he made $10 per hour playing cocktail piano at Dante’s restaurant. But he'd stopped doing that and was creating music for gymnastic routines. He was working with a gymnastic camp in Woodward, PA and was beyond excited at the possibility of going to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Eventually, they were boycotted by president Carter. I imagine he was furious.
• Barry stressed the "quaternary structure" as the basis of compositional form, both at the micro and macro level. We analyzed pieces (by Chopin, Bach, & Beethoven) and looked for the quaternary structures within each piece. He told me that even when jamming with a jazz band, he’d be thinking quarternary structures the whole time he was soloing. I began to use the same approach, whether composing or wailing away on a guitar solo. (The quaternary structure was the brainchild of Hungarian musicologist Dénes Bartha, who taught composition at the Univ. of Pittsburgh.) Note the examples to the right; in particular the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb" which he used as a basic example of the quaternary structure.
• He loved Beethoven and I credit Barry with introducing me to Beethoven’s music which I eventually studied and enjoy thoroughly to this day. Barry said that if you look at the timeline of music history as a quaternary structure, Beethoven represents the climax of music history. He said that Beethoven composed the entire 9th symphony while “stone deaf” and, when he said that, I remember Barry drifting off... probably thinking about the enormity of that fact. It’s impossible to comprehend.
• Barry used 2 different brands of reel-to-reel tape: one was the highest quality and the other was bottom-of-the-barrel quality. He felt that any project warranted one or the other, nothing in between.
• He said there was only ONE right way to do anything, and that “Man's ignorance allows him to believe there is more than one way to do something 'right.'”
• Once he was listening to me play a simple technical exercise. He wanted me to play it very slowly. As I was playing, I slightly rushed one of the notes. He stopped me and said, “Did you hear that rushing? If you fix it here [in this very slow exercise] it’ll fix itself everywhere else [i.e. when you’re playing faster passages].”
• I attended a concert by a blind French organist and composer, Jean Langlais. This happened at a church in downtown Harrisburg, PA. The organist played a monstrous pipe organ. At concerts, Langlais was known to accept a musical theme from an audience member and then he would improvise on it. I told Barry about this, and he asked me if Langlais's improvisation was polyphonic and I said yes. He seemed very impressed.
• He was a big fan of Thelonious Monk's "Solo Monk" and Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew." Somehow, probably providentially, I had previously bought the Monk album when I first began playing the piano.
• In another strange coincidence, many years later (circa 1995) I worked on Beethoven's Waldstein piano sonata. Then many years after that, while perusing Barry's facebook page, I noticed a post he made in May 2016 where he included a page from the very same piano sonata, complete with fingerings from Earl Wild, whom he described as his mentor and who was one of his teachers at the Univ. of Pittsburgh.
• During one lesson, I played the first song on my recently completed demo tape (recorded in August 1978). It was an original vocal/pop tune where I played and sang everything. He immediately heard the tempo change during the intro of the song. It started too quickly, then settled into a groove. My ears were not yet sufficiently developed to notice, until he pointed it out. Moral: when you’re 20 years old, you really don't know everything.
• Speaking of intros, he told me that “every song needs an introduction” — referring to arrangements of songs played for solo piano.
• He said his physical exercise routine was: once a day, going out into the middle of the street in front of his house and doing jumping-jacks.
• I once asked him if I had too much “nervous energy” and he replied by saying I needed to have “relaxed energy.”
• I remember him saying "I pay no attention to lyrics" (in songs). He was all about the music.
• He pointed out to me that the 1st phrase of McCartney’s “Here, There, & Everywhere” is identical to the 1st phrase in McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”
Barry played and recorded these 4 pieces during a piano lesson in 1979. I asked if he would record a few tunes for me. He started the reel-to-reel tape recorder, played these 4 tunes, cut the tape, and sent me on my way.
The first three pieces were his arrangements of pop standards, which he played at cocktail piano gigs in the late 70's. The last piece was composed by Barry.
Barry never heard these recordings.
An old matchbook from Dante's restaurant.
These are Barry's handwritten notes made for me during my lessons.
Click/tap to enlarge.