It’s Friday night and you and some friends decide to head to a dueling piano bar for some fun and some drinks. You go into the dim lit bar, sit down at a small table, and get your first drinks when the entertainment comes out. Two men head over to their designated pianos and the music begins! You sing along to Elton John, Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, and various other artists as the two men sing with you. They bang on the black and white keys and once in a while make comments that make you and your friends burst into laughter.
That’s their goal; to help you forget the horrible office day, the crazy school schedule, or the argument with a lover. In that room, where music is universal, they make sure you forget your troubles. As you clap to a new set, you focus on one of the piano players and wonder what his story is. What is his life like after the music stops and the bar closes? How did he come to be an entertainer? In this interview, you have the chance to find out. Introducing Geoffrey Paul Cueller the man behind the piano. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Geoffrey play and the atmosphere always changes to a lighter, happier one as soon as his hands touch the keys. I asked him if he would give us a glimpse into his life for those who are curious and those who maybe want to entertain as well. He agreed and his tale is definitely one to be read. Enjoy!
When did you first fall in love with music?
I first fell in love with music when I was very young…maybe 4 or 5 years old. I spent my summers with my grandparents in Brownsville, TX. They owned a restaurant called “The Beacon.” After my tap class (yes I was taking tap at age 5…better to start early in this career!) I would dance on the tables of the restaurant for tips. I knew two routines…”Delta Dawn” and “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree.” I would sing and dance to the music on the jukebox and watch, amazed, as the quarters filled my little straw hat. I was hooked.
Who inspires you musically?
This may sound strange, but it is really difficult to impress me. I am mesmerized by anything that Stephen Sondheim creates. His lyrics are unconventional and brilliant. His music is circular and surprising. He is flawless.
Lately, I have been impressed with Adele. I will probably catch a lot of flack for saying this, but Taylor Swift inspires me quite a bit. She writes relevant lyrics with unusual progressions that keep me interested. I’m certain that she will, as she matures, demonstrate an extraordinary skill in songwriting. I guess the key word for me is “surprise.”
What has your journey been like?
I have attended the school of hard knocks. My mom told me that the life of a professional entertainer is difficult, frustrating and uncertain. She was absolutely right. A lot of my success in the industry has been pure luck. Being in the right place at the right time. I landed the job with The Second City Theatre in Chicago, IL, as an absolute accident. I wandered in to the theatre expecting to look around. Within five minutes I was sitting with the executive and associate producers of the greatest comedy theatre in the world discussing a musical director position that had recently become available. I auditioned right there on the spot and started rehearsals the following day. If I had to choose one word to characterize my journey, it would have to be “preparedness.”
How did you get involved at the piano bar?
I had been performing in cabarets and piano bars all over the USA…Don’t Tell Mama in NYC, The Gentry and Redhead Piano Bar in Chicago, IL, The Briar Patch in Houston. I felt limited in my performance abilities. I realized, mostly by crowd response (or lack thereof) that I was not a very good entertainer. I was a great pianist, but I could not entertain people, which I had always believed was my calling.
I saw that Howl At The Moon was coming to Houston. I had seen the dueling piano show in Chicago and was absolutely blown away at the musicality, repertoire, comedy and skill of the entertainers. I knew I wanted to do that. I also knew that I had no idea HOW to do that! I applied for the job, got an audition with the national entertainment director in Chicago and started training two months later. It was the best training I have ever had. It was intense. Before I was allowed to perform on stage as a dueling pianist for Howl At The Moon, I had to demonstrate that I had a solid 100 songs memorized and performance ready. I thought “no problem…I got that in my sleep.” In all actuality, when I sat down to play, I honestly knew, from memory, about 25 songs. Over the course of the next couple of years I increased my repertoire to over 2500 songs. It takes a lot of commitment and determination.
Do you have another job besides music?
Actually, I am one of the lucky ones. I have made my living as a professional musician for 20 years now without having to keep the proverbial “day job.” So, no, I do not have any other job.
What’s a typical day for you?
I wake up early and go to bed late.
8-10 am: I usually take care of administrative issues, i.e. I answer email, type letters or correspondence, make phone calls, etc.
10 am – 2 pm Then I typically practice or write from 10 – 2…at least four or five hours each day should be spent sharpening my saw, so to speak. Practice is the part of being a professional that many people don’t think about. It is my musical immune system.
2 pm – 5 pm The early afternoon is spent cleaning house, fixing dinner, taking a nap…whatever.
7 pm – 3 am Then, of course, the evenings are devoted to performance. Performance for me over the years has been anything from live performance in a dueling piano bar to musical direction of a show at a dinner theatre.
All in all I typically work 10 – 12 hours each day. I sleep 4 –5 hours, on average.
You’re also a songwriter, what projects are you working on?
I have been writing a lot of soul-searching music lately. My journey takes me to this very retrospective place every once in awhile. Interestingly, it is usually when I produce my best work. I have been writing very contemplative, nostalgic songs. I focused a great deal of my attention on the filming of my promotional video as of late. I wrote several new songs, which were premiered at that performance at Ovations Night Club in August 2012.
Do you have a favorite memory from performing live?
Gosh…that’s a really hard question. I have so many treasured moments. If I had to single out one definitive moment…At Howl At The Moon in New Orleans two years ago, a friend and co-worker had lost her dad. They were very close and his passing was exceptionally painful to her. I don’t know why I chose to play “Proud To Be An American” by Lee Greenwood. I really didn’t know that much about Sylvia’s dad and had no reason to choose that song for him. I dedicated the song to his memory and really belted out a sincere and emotional performance. Before I finished singing, the entire crowd was on their feet, cheering as I sang the last few lines. Sylvia approached the stage. Her face was soaked with tears and she thanked me. Her father, it turns out, was an immigrant to the USA and was so proud that he was able to make a better life for his family. He was truly patriotic and loved the fact that he had a chance to start a new life here. Singing that song for him, and for Sylvia, really meant a lot. It was almost like a send-off and a loud cheer, saying…”Good job! You did it! You made it happen and your family will be ok for generations to come.” It was a one-of-a-kind, unrepeatable moment.
Is there ever a time the audience doesn’t respond?
Absolutely! I call that moment “The Crickets.” (When it is so quiet in the room that you can hear the crickets chirping.) It is usually the result of two things: 1) I have chosen a song that nobody knows or cares about in the slightest, or 2) I didn’t prepare and practice ahead of time, but tried to do a song anyway and it crashed.
What do you do?
Humor is always a good idea. This happened to me the first time I performed Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face.” I was totally faking the song, because it was brand new and I had not committed any time to learn the correct arrangement. When it started to crash, I could see that I was losing the crowd…if you ever lose the crowd, it typically takes twenty-four minutes to win them back. I decided to make fun of the song and perform an over-the-top, flamboyantly gay farce. More than anything, I was poking fun at myself, letting the audience know in a very comical way that I had no idea how to perform this song correctly, but, gosh darn it, I was gonna try. It was a huge success! Comedy, if you have good timing and a quick wit, works every time!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Geoffrey. Good luck with your music! More to come readers, check back.