A Profession in Piano; Christian McCann’s Practice as Dueling Pianist and Piano Professor

5 05 2010

by Tracy Weber

McCann playing at a neighborhood party. Provided by McCann.

Years ago, eight-year-old Christian McCann began the challenging process of learning to play the piano. With time and practice, the challenge turned into a passion for the 88-key instrument. Now, at 26, he gives lessons and plays at piano venues with Chicago Dueling Pianos. Two pianos are pushed together for a dueling pianos show, but the players actually enhance each other’s sound instead of rivaling. The duo take turns playing while patrons sing along with them, making the players the life of the party. I first met McCann six months ago, and was surprised to hear that he plays the piano… I thought, “Isn’t that something you learn for two years and forget, like a high school foreign language class?” So I met up with him to find out how he stuck with it, and how he’s turning his talent into a career.

How did you get into playing the piano?

My dad is the biggest reason. We had this orange piano in the basement…it came with the house. It was from the ‘70s and all the keys were chipped off and somebody had written with marker where the keys were. I remember summer days with the sun coming through the little windows and I could hear my friends having fun outside. And my dad was like, “All you gotta do is practice this, and then you can go. I don’t care how long it takes you, just get through it.” And I would diddle around down there forever…

Did you practice every day?

Yeah… [my dad] wouldn’t let me [get] up until I got it done, so eventually I’d do it. I used to hate it. Every day was like that. Just hated it.

But then, there was a girl at school who could play [piano]. I saw the way that people would want her to play and how people would sit and listen while she did it. And I was like, “Well, I kinda like that idea; that’s not bad. I kinda want to do that.” Entire rooms of people would stop what they’re doing and sit and listen. So that’s actually why I started trying to get into it. And then before I knew it, I was doing that—the whole room would be listening to me play. After that, I thought I’d stick with this. I wanted to do it. I’d actually sit down by myself and my dad never pressured me to practice again.

So now you teach piano.  How often do you give lessons?

Once a week on Sunday. There are two little girls: one’s three, one’s seven. The seven-year-old… she’s pretty good, she knows some of her scales now and she’s learning some songs. The younger one, the three-year-old, has an attention span like a humming bird. Any little sound and all her attention is there and it’s hard to get her back to “Okay, you gotta be paying attention to this.” It’s kinda frustrating, but she’s coming along too. You just have to have a lot of patience with the little kids.

How do your beginning piano lessons compare to the way you’re teaching now?

I remember taking lessons [at school] in second grade. But later I took lessons with a guy, Steve, and he taught me how to play. Then, I took lessons with a lady, Pam, and she taught me how to read music. She had to start me all the way at the beginning again and I was so frustrated with it—this was like in the seventh grade. But I was really glad she did that because now I can do both, play and read…it would be pretty bad if I’m trying to give lessons and I don’t even know how to read music.

So with this girl that’s seven, I’m trying to get both things in there, but it’s too early to teach her how to read music. So I want to teach her the scales first and then say, “Now this is what you’ve been playing.” [Then,] she can look at it, see the black dots go up, and she’ll already know what’s being played.

I’m hoping to snowball off that, because these little girls are in school so they’ve got friends, and their parents might say, “Hey, I want lessons too.” I’m hoping to start networking, and set it up every week so I can knock out eight hours of lessons in a day.

The lessons seem like a nice supplement to piano gigs. Did you always want to do dueling pianos? How did you get into it?

McCann performing at Sluggers over St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Well, I knew I wanted to make my living by playing the piano. I wasn’t really sure how. I didn’t know who to talk to or how to get into that… It was around Christmas time and I was on the train between Chicago and Buffalo. I brought a bottle of vodka with me and thought [that] if I met some people, I’d share it with them and see how that goes. I went to the dining car and this lady’s like, “Look at this guy, he’s got a bottle of vodka.” So I ended up sitting with this couple and we poured some drinks and played some cards. We got to talking and they asked, “Would you ever do anything like dueling pianos?” I said, “That’s so weird! I was trying to audition when I get back to Chicago.” And they said they’re good friends with this family who owns a place that does dueling pianos and knows the director of Chicago Dueling Pianos. So I got back to Chicago and gave them a call. Then I called up the director and he said, “Yeah, why don’t you come up and sit in.” So I went up for the first time and sat in…

So your first time playing for him was in front of a bunch of people?

Yeah, at Sluggers. He had never heard me play. He just sat me down at the pianos and I took requests. And he asked me to come back. So I kept sitting in every single chance I got. Things were going well; I was getting better every time. I was playing at Luxbar not too long ago, and I was asked to play a solo show at Hugo’s Frog Bar in Naperville. It’s 8 to 11pm and only $150 plus tips, but I said, “$50 an hour is alright with me.” So I just got hired by them.

With dueling pianos people give you song requests. Is this what you usually do? Do you ever have to think of songs yourself?

The first half of the night you’re thinking of your own stuff, because people haven’t drank enough to get up the courage to go up to the pianos in front of everybody and request a song. There are requests and there are suggestions. Suggestions are a piece of paper; requests are a piece of paper with money attached to it. Those will probably get played. Suggestions? Probably not, unless you’re bored and know the song. But if somebody gives you $5 or $10, even if you don’t know the song you’re going to fake it. You’re going to do it well enough to make them happy so they think they’ve heard it. As long as you know how the song kinda goes and you know most of the words, you can mumble into the microphone…usually get it pretty close. As long as it sounds like it, they’re playing the song along in their head so they think they’re hearing it.

Kinda like a placebo affect…

Exactly, it is a placebo. But it works because they’re happy and I’m happy.

What are your favorite songs to play?

Every week it’ll change. But one I’ve really stuck with when I sit down is “Lady Madonna” by the Beatles just because I love how the bass line never stops going, so your left hand is constantly doing something. Now I can play it in my sleep. It’s just a lot of fun because you can do something different every time. I really enjoy playing solos from some songs. I love to play the Boston “Foreplay” organ solo because people always seem to enjoy that. I’ve never heard anyone else play that at a bar. And the solo from “Call Me the Breeze” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (link is of McCann). As far as whole songs, almost anything Beatles—that’s my favorite band.

McCann gathering folks around the piano at a retirement home. Provided by McCann.

How often do you practice?

Everyday for at least an hour. If I have the time in a day I’ll do three hours.

You probably don’t even keep track, do you?

No, because there’s a lot of sporadic times in the day I’ll just sit down because I want to. And I’ll play a couple of songs. I never try to play too late anymore because I have this neighbor downstairs that complains nonstop, but she hasn’t made a peep in a long time and I’m wondering if she moved or gave up… or maybe I started playing songs she likes, who knows.

…She starts slipping requests under your door.

[laughs] …Yeah.

Once you’re playing shows full time and giving lessons… can you live on that?

Definitely. What these piano players do is just stack up gigs; they’ll have two or three a night. The pay is very good. The only downside of the pay is that you have to pay 15.3% at the end of the year on top of your income tax because you’re self-employed. But if you spend that 15.3% you can write it off as a deductible. So I can go out and buy myself a new keyboard, or if I buy sheet music, I can deduct it. The piano players I’ve met so far live pretty comfortably.

Where is this profession going to lead you?

[Chicago Dueling Pianos] fly their piano players to Cancun…all sorts of stuff. [The director] is putting people on cruise ships. He just sent someone to France and someone else to Holland… that’s what I’m looking forward to maybe in a year. Right now I’m the newbie, but the other piano players have been really nice about it.

Now that the Cubs’ season has arrived, they’re going to need more [piano] players, because after every game there’s a show at Sluggers. This is just the beginning, and it’s really pretty fresh as of right now.

Visit Chicago Dueling Piano’s website for venues, and go see talented players who stuck with the piano lessons everyone else gave up in seventh grade. Maybe you’ll catch a show with McCann…I’ve seen him out a few times myself.

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One response

2 08 2013
jamie black

I have been playing rock style piano my whole life and am fairly advanced. I have an opportunity to audition for a dueling piano bar and I would like to know the best way to prepare for my audition.

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