Saturday, April 30, 2016

32 Contestants!

It's getting to be that time again...when ragtime musicians and their supporters gear up for the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival. And this year, the plot thickens.

The reason: After four decades of the event taking place in (as things turned out) four cities in Illinois (Monticello, Decatur, Peoria, and East Peoria), old-time piano's biggest competition (well, at least on American soil) begins a new chapter...on and around the campus of the University of Mississippi. This year's dates: 5-26/30-2016.

I won't get to go to Oxford, MS this time around. And the culprit is the cataract in my left eye. (It's going to have to be removed later this year or early in 2017, depending on when or if I'm able to receive a bonus from the plastics factory that currently employs me. And the eye-care clinic performing the surgery wants $1,500 up front- and the retina surgery I underwent on 12-14-2015 completely paid up- before an ophthalmologist can touch my left eyeball again.)

You bet I've got health insurance through my place of work.

It's just that, with its $1,500 deductible, the insurance is worthless when the staff at the eye clinic you trade with tells you: "We're going to have to shoot a laser into your eye."

Result: I've decided to retire from OTPP competition and focus on performing here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area.

I came back to this area on 3-29-1997, and as a result, I couldn't make the trip to Decatur that Memorial Day weekend (hadn't racked enough vacation time at my then-new gig as a data storage technician for an infotech firm).

So...I made gearing up for OTPP '98 one of my goals.

The 1997 Decatur experience featured an eighteen-player field (fourteen in the Regular Division and four in the Junior Division) in which Brian Holland grabbed the Traveling Trophy for the first time...and Noah Harmon beat out Mindy Dunkle on technical points for the JD title. 

The next year, Noah, Mindy, and their fellow 1997 JD competitors John Clark and Neil Blaze had to fight off seven new younger contestants: Kara Huber, Peter Segrist, Joe King, Katrina Kappes, Noah's younger brother Zack, and two names we'd hear from during the decade to come: An Illinoisan named Harrison Wade and a 12-year-old Marylander named Adam Yarian. 

Meanwhile, the adult field saw a 50% increase in size over its 1997 counterpart. First of all, Patrick Kelly, Theresa Milhoan, Bruce Walker, a Tennessean named Michael Stalcup, and a Kentuckian by the name of Allen Dale (maybe you've seen Allen's YouTube offerings) entered the OTPP wars for the first time. And then Mimi Blais, Will Hahn, and I came back after a year's absence. (Gale Foehner, Arlene Stoller, and defending RD finalists Adam Downey and Steve Kummer were no-shows this time around.)

To top it all off, Floridian Dorothy Baldwin came back to C&F competition after a nine-year gulf...while Noah's and Zack's dad (and Linda's hubby) John ended an eleven-year sabbatical from going after the Big Loot. 

Not since the Kaizers in the middle 1980s had a whole family tried to grab the top OTPP prizes. As it all shook out in '98 for the Harmons of Winneconne, WI, it was Mother and Oldest Son Know Best. (Noah lost his Junior Division crown...but he still outplayed Zack. What's more, Linda snared a place in the Reg Top Ten...leaving John behind.)

With Mimi back to perform her brand of sorcery on the contest piano ("Moby Dink," a Weber upright built in 1883), she and Brian made it a two-person RD race. And Theresa (a teacher from Illinois) initially looked like a Top Five pianist. 

As Theresa flamed out in the Reg Division semifinals, Mimi broke a preliminary-round tie between herself and Brian to take a one-point semifinal lead...that evaporated when Brian aced his RD finals test, thanks to killer versions of "I've Found a New Baby" and "Handful of Keys." The Man from Indiana stood tallest again, while Mimi, Marty Mincer, John Skaggs, and Bill Edwards rounded out the division's money winners. 

The biggest news in Decatur that May came in the JDs. Neil was hoping 1998 would be his year...but it actually was the year old-time piano fans found out about Adam Yarian's greatness. 

A new force had emerged. 

Instead of 32 pianists (the record-setting 1998 total; the old mark was 31 in 1984) duking it out, 25 showed up in the Holiday Inn Select's green room on 5-29-1999. Of the previous year's newcomers in the RDs, only Michael and Bruce came back for 1999 in their quest to prevent Brian from becoming the fourth pianist to get three straight Reg championships. In addition, only one newcomer enlisted in that division: Tom Cortese. And Marty Sammon (the JD champ in 1994 and 1995) made it into the ranks of the RDs this time around- his first contact with OTPP pressure in four years.

By contrast, the Danville Connection made its debut in the Junior Division bracket.

"The Danville What?" Well, a Danville, IL pianist and teacher named Bev Wolf started getting some of her students into OTPP; the first ones were 1999 combatants Ashley Leverenz, Erin Long, and Marcie Hunt. 

Fellow Illinoisans Jerry Ailshie and Amanda Benoit joined Marcie, Ashley, and Erin as contest newcomers in the JDs for the last (or next-to-last, depending on your point of view) year of the 20th Century. 

Jerry outpointed all the other newcomers (Tom included!), but it just wasn't enough to keep Adam Y. out of the driver's seat in the younger division.

Meanwhile, the 1999 Regular Division race was looking like the one from the year before...except that Mimi was clearly ahead of Brian during the first two rounds. (There'd be no stopping her this time, and she'd bring the $1,200 top prize back to Montreal, QC.)

"Oh, yeah?" said Brian.

With another nearly flawless final round (it included "Dallas Blues" and Scott Joplin's "New Era Rag"), Brian put his name next to those of Dorothy Herrold, Mark Haldorson, and Ron Trotta.

He closed out an era and became, at 27, the youngest three-time undefeated RD champ ever.  

And so, the next question became: "With Brian Holland retiring unbeaten, who's gonna rule the Regular Division now?"

Stay with us and we'll find out.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's Wrong with This Picture? How'd We Get Here?

Out of the 127 total artists on Billboard's Power 100 List for 2015, 15 of the acts were female. (Never mind that Lana Del Rey made the cover of the magazine the very week the list was published.)

PRS for Music found out that out of 95,000 composers and songwriters, just 13% were born female.  

Less than 5% of established engineers and producers in the music industry are women.
When it comes to people in said profession making at least $30,000 per year, 22% of men in the field get to bring home that kind of bacon...but only 6% of women do.

And according to Creative & Cultural Skills, men have 68% of all the jobs in the music industry, women the remaining 32%. 

All the jobs...and that, of course, includes Del Rey and other recording artists. 

Seems as if, since the 20th Century came to an end, the percentage of women placing their tunes on Billboard's various US music charts has dwindled...even with Taylor Swift, Beyonce Knowles, Carrie Underwood, Iggy Azalea, and some other big names joining Del Rey at the top. 

It's not just in rock or country or hip-hop/R&B [with hip-hop/R&B having a long history of being more paternalistic than the other aforementioned forms of music...which, in part, might be understandable when you consider the great lengths America's biggest social-and-cultural leaders (and leaders of other kinds) have gone to ever since the early 17th Century to treat African-American males as less than human beings, let alone as adults, in addition to denying any manhood in African-American males]. 

That's another can of worms in itself.

Anyway, I've noticed how the percentage of female performers competing in the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival (this year's event takes place in Oxford, MS, next month) has been evaporating since the current century got under way. (In 1999, seven female contestants went at it, at a time when the Holiday Inn Select in Decatur, IL, was the contest site; the next year, six did.) Thus far this year, only one woman- first-time Regular Division contestant Anita Malhotra, from Gatineau, QC, Canada- has pledged to go after the Big Money. 

Last year, the final Illinois (East Peoria) OTPP iteration saw five female pianists- four in the Junior Division- step up to the challenge. And the Reg Division would've been a fraternity for the second straight year if contest coordinator Faye Ballard hadn't signed up to join JDs Nina Freeman, Megan Jobe, Mia Yara, and Amberlyn Aimone.

Besides being in a ragtime club here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area, I'm in the local chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society. When I joined the River City Theatre Organ Society in late 1984 (and subsequently got involved in ATOS, too), several women were concertizing all over at least the United States on Mighty Wurlitzers and on competing brands of theater pipe organs. 

Since then, only Donna Parker and Patti Simon Zollman are still out there
...having outlasted equally-outstanding organists like Melissa Ambrose and Candi Carley-Roth. [In addition, death robbed the world of Edna Sellers (in 1989) and her daughter, Barbara Sellers Matranga (who passed away in 2014). And those deaths sandwiched that of Rosa Rio (in 2010).] 

Been thinking about all of this for the last few days, and I've got just one question about all this:

"What in the world happened to put more women and girls on music's sidelines?"  

Even with YouTube, Vimeo, and other video-oriented sites right here on the Web, the playing field (no pun intended) is still lopsided. 

One of the factors skewing the whole situation came into prominence in the early 1980s. 

That's right: Music videos.

Eventually, things got to the point where, if you wanted to sign a recording contract (especially if you were born with a vagina), you had to be some kind of attractive before given the chance to have something to say. 

TV shows like American Idol haven't helped, either. On that now-deceased series, the judges found room for NFL-sized (and enormously-talented) Ruben Studdard, the show's 2003 champ. 

Two years later, Missy, Mandy, and Erin Maynard tried out for the show...but Simon Cowell labeled the threesome as "too fat!"

Result: In today's music industry, there's no room for the Cass Elliots and Spanky McFarlands anymore. (Remember what happened to Carnie Wilson? Remember how she was treated, especially by video directors?)

Last year, Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper put out a Twitter call that went like this: 

The responses came by the hundreds.

I read every last one of them.

You talk about infuriating!     

More often than not, this is what greets you if you're female and want to become a musician and/or vocalist. More often than not, some you-know-whats are going to tell you that you just don't belong...regardless of what you've got to say.  

If you've ever been the parent of a daughter, what was your reaction when she told you that she wanted to play a musical instrument...especially one usually associated with boys? 

If you're a music teacher at an elementary school (or at a middle school or a high school), if you've discouraged any female students from taking up the axes of their dreams (especially the instruments usually associated with male students), then you're part of the problem. 

Admit it. Don't kid yourself.

If you've ever said or written "Girl bands suck" or "Chick bands suck," you're- let's face it- part of the problem.

It's long been time to encourage people who want to sing and/or play...regardless of gender. We need to hear as many voices as possible, and we need to take their efforts seriously.

Roughly half the people in this world are female...and music, among other activities, loses when women (and other marginalized people) aren't allowed to be heard. 

After all, good is good.

You can find Hopper's Twitter call at And you're invited to visit, where Gabby authored a fine post, "Editor's Essay: Women in the Music Industry," where I got some of the info found on the post you've been reading.