Painting pictures and evoking emotions with a keyboard.
Rhys Brigida is a musician/songwriter from Syracuse, NY who enjoys playing all electronic keyboard instruments, and his vintage Nord Stage EX. Still, he says that he always feels more at home creating art on his studio upright Tokai piano. His various projects encompass playing original music and covers in every style.
Brigida’s healthy music career began at a young age when he became interested in music. Inspired by rock & roll, this became his pursuit, through which he quickly learned that — if he let it — there was so much more to discover (in addition to rock and roll). It is this open-mindedness that has kept him working steadily throughout the years in the Syracuse area in bands such as Salt City Chill, The Billionaires, and Windsong. In Rochester, NY, Brigida performs with Soul of the City. Rhys’ influences range from Bill Payne, Marian McPartland, Bill Evans, George Duke, Regina Spektor, and Ray Manzarek.
He attributes his lifelong A-List status to his ability to always be in a state of learning: “I learned something from everyone and every band I’ve ever worked with and from the variety of musical encounters in which I participated.”
Interview with Rhys Brigida
Rhys Brigida was kind enough to take a few moments to share a few insights and chat with Making Music Mag.
Chuck Schiele: You’ve enjoyed a flourishing career. You are able to handle any musical situation with great ease and proficiency. What is your perspective and/or philosophy on the success of all this?
Rhys Brigida: I would attribute any success I had in music to a few things. I learned piano at an early age, studying mostly classical. As I grew, I wanted to play rock & roll. But as the years rolled forward, I performed in various style bands either as a sideman or leader. Rather than specialize in one style, I played whatever music would bring me to a stage. I didn’t want to miss out on anything.
I worked extensively playing music for private clients, did some touring with a show band, session recording for friends or clients, cover bands, tribute acts, and every imaginable type of booking. I found that marketing myself was crucial, and back in the 1970s through the 1990s connections in the industry (agents, management, advertising, mailings, radio) were essential to gaining momentum.
Becoming established as a working musician required a lot of patience and effort, especially in a small city. I never aspired to achieve a recording contract because I had a full musical calendar and felt satisfied with all the things I was doing. The thought of putting all my eggs in one basket, with high probability of being dropped by a record company had no appeal. So, I just kept working at what I did best.
Learning/playing music has been the biggest challenge of my life, but also the most joyful. I get a lot of satisfaction unraveling tunes that appeal to me. I feel compelled to discover why a song resonates, or how it invokes certain feelings of joy, melancholy, and longing. This doesn’t come easy to me, but if I can grab at least a basic understanding of what an artist is “saying” and how he/she “says” it, I feel accomplished. Then, I might collaborate with friends who share the same creative ideas.
I’ve been involved with musical projects and productions with new people. It never fails… musicians who think and work in similar ways reach out after the show, ready to talk about making more music.
I feel successful in everything I’ve done, musically. Even bands that didn’t stay together were learning experiences. I’ll always know my ideas of musical success will most certainly be different from everyone else.
Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?
Rhys Brigida: It used to be my trade and main income, playing hundreds of gigs per year. Then, by the age of 30, my life responsibilities shifted and I focused on working a day job and playing music on weekends. Now, I don’t rely on music for income and the emphasis is all about enjoying it. I like playing for an audience, but I love to sit alone and improvise on the keyboard with no preconceived idea of where to begin or where to end. I use whatever I’ve learned to command the instrument, and always discover I need to learn a lot more!
I listen to other players and know that I’m not searching alone. So many of us are on the same journey. I’ve been seeking out opportunities to play and record music in another city with new friends. My most recent band projects embrace modern soul music, funk, and touch upon jazz. I’ve been learning how to better use technology to obtain virtual instruments and keyboard sounds that were so elusive in the past.
Collaboration with other players is essential, and working out musical ideas at home, alone is quite satisfying. I decided last year to buy a bass. I’m having so much fun with that, and it doesn’t matter to me if anyone else ever hears what I’m playing on bass. It’s more of a gift to myself. Writing and playing my own bass parts helps me understand how a song can be written on guitar. It forces me to think in new ways on the piano, similar to speaking another language.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us about the R&B style of playing the piano.
Rhys Brigida: I’ve always gravitated toward R&B styles of playing. There’s just something about syncopation and adding lush color-tones that makes this style of piano so gratifying. The instrument resonates like a living thing when the strings are open, and because it’s a mechanical instrument, subtleties are something I appreciate. Simplicity in R&B is a virtue. For many modern artists, you’ll hear the keys play a few lush chords, sustained or pulsated, while the rest of the band instruments dance around the soundscape like fireflies. Add some cool lyrics and it becomes pure magic.
Some of the most beloved love songs of all time are R&B. Listen with new ears to an old standard “At Last” by Etta James. The musical arrangement alone, minus any lyric, tells a story of a young girl finding her dreamboat. How did the composer do that with music alone? He proved that music can speak to us. Adding Etta’s passionate vocal and delivery of simple words of love confirms it all.
R&B has such a strong presence all over the world. The style is responsible for inspiring the best bands and creativity we’ve ever seen in the history of music. Listening to R&B opens musical doors to just about every artist imaginable. If you listen to Ray Charles or Dinah Washington, it’s easy to understand why Amy Winehouse or Lauryn Hill found inspiration and went on to win critical acclaim.
For me, R&B music is pure joy, but a benefit of learning to play it was good exercise for my hands and rhythm sense. I found out what a carefully placed left-handed bass note or color-tone can do to your heart. For example, try playing an F major triad, then move the bass note up to A. Do you feel like something is on the verge of getting real? This is but one way a simple chord voicing grabs a listener’s attention.
Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist?
Rhys Brigida: This is a great question. When I play with someone I like, I try to show them I’m genuinely interested in what they’re doing. If I get return signals, then there’s a possibility we can work together. I really appreciate openness, and willingness to share ideas and make things happen musically. Technical playing skill is secondary for many reasons, mainly because the playing field is level when collaborations take place, and participants play within their means.
Everyone learns from everyone else. Every musical project I’ve ever been a part of taught me something, and I hope that I contributed enough for everyone else. I like it when a songwriter leads the way, or if I’m the writer, I can. Great music can come out of artists delving into a well-balanced ‘give and take’ effort. Everyone wins, and it is art, which hurts no one, except for those who seek pain. In that case, there’s plenty of ‘hurt’ in the business end of things, so musicians may as well enjoy the music, and each other.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your piano-keyboard, and the gear associated with it.
Rhys Brigida: My main instrument for 10 years has been a Nord Stage-EX. It’s the second incarnation of the Nord Stage series. There have been a few model upgrades since, and each new one has added more sounds, memory, and functionality. Mine is a basic workhorse, having three voluptuous sections built in for pianos, organs, and synths. The pianos are all meticulously sampled grands, uprights, and spinets. I love the Steinway model D and Bösendorfer samples. Also included are great samples of Rhodes, Wurlitzers, and Yamaha electrics. There are many others to choose from, such as Hohner clavinets, and harpsichords.
The Organ section has a complete variety of classic tone-wheel Hammonds, with all the useful settings including percussion, vibrato, chorus, drawbars, presets, leslie effect, tube distortion, reverb, etc. Also included in the organ section is Vox Continental and Farfisa settings. All user friendly, and 100% authentic-sounding.
The synthesizer section is easy to use, can produce most familiar synthesized sounds, and has hundreds of presets that you can use as is, or manipulate. There are leads, basses, pads, bells and strings, all of which you can control while performing. It uses “subtractive” synthesis, shaped waveforms, and FM (frequency modulation). For anyone who likes making their own sounds, it’s got all the familiar features, and 16 voices, which can be setup on two, separate panels. Fans of the classic synths of the 70s, 80s, and 90s will appreciate what’s going on here. The EX allows you to blend two 16-voice sounds simultaneously, layered or in splits.
I owned Yamaha, Roland, and Korg keyboards. These were all powerful tools, and I found that each keyboard had strong and weak points, making it necessary for me to have a secondary keyboard. This was decades ago and I’m certain those shortcomings no longer exist. I advise anyone looking to purchase an instrument to base their decision on features, feel, and of course price. Piano guys really appreciate good hammer action, and authentic sounds. Piano amplification requires a powerful, clean system. Be prepared to get the best amplifier gear, because you don’t want your piano to sound distorted.
In 2010, I didn’t know anyone with Nord experience. Now, everywhere you go, or whatever concert you watch on the screen, a red keyboard seems to be a fixture on stage. Yet, I know that all major keyboard brands have made huge technological advancements over the past decade. I’m a fan of all keyboards, but for now I’ll keep using what works for me.
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Rhys Brigida: I work full-time as an IT specialist. I’m married 42 years, have two grown daughters, and two grandchildren. We have an empty nest, but a very full life, and I treat music as my blueberry Sunday with peanuts and whipped cream on top.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you take the stage?
Rhys Brigida: I’m always excited and feel so lucky to get up and perform, but I’ll admit I have butterflies. Usually, once things get rolling, the mild anxiety melts away and I’m in the moment. For rehearsed performances, I’m generally confident and the most important thing is giving the audience something to remember. Recently I’ve been walking into open mic nights and I get invited to play songs I’ve never played. Then, it’s time to open up my ears and only play something instinctual that may enhance what everyone else is doing. It’s a cool challenge, but friendly because I usually know everyone there. I’m trying to get better and more comfortable with the unexpected.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?
Rhys Brigida: I’m easily distracted, so focusing on the work at hand is most important. When learning something new, I jot down a basic lead sheet. My first attempts usually reveal spots that need polishing, and for me that means repetitive practice until the muscles obey the mind. Then, repeat again for several days until it feels and sounds right.
I try to use good habits and lessons learned from others. Also, part of my practicing is often trying to play something slightly above my ability or musical taste so that I can broaden my playing and listening skills. I’ve had people tell me I make it look easy, and I always tell them that everything I learn to play takes a lot of work.
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the piano and music in general?
Rhys Brigida: Music, in general, is so good for the mind and soul. It’s fun. Children benefit greatly from learning an instrument. It’s the whole package of knowledge, discipline, practicing/mastering a skill, and social interaction with adults and other kids. My kids grew up steeped in music, and their music teachers were our favorite people, awesome mentors leading them both into fine arts careers.
No matter what instrument is chosen, learning the keyboard is essential. All 88 notes are there, physically in front of you, and not implied. Learning keyboard basics will help anyone have a much better understanding of scales, voicing, and intervals. Playing notes in rhythm on a keyboard underscores the importance of tempo and percussion instruments. Piano is a whole universe. When you major in music (any instrument) you’ll have to take keyboard classes, so you may as well get a head start on the keyboard.
Chuck Schiele: The importance and art of listening. Please discuss.
Rhys Brigida: There is no doubt in my mind that listening comes first, then performing. You can listen, and then understand the way things should sound. If you have a chart in front of you and follow the notes as they are performed you’ll notice changes in volume, attack, sustain, various tone colors and timbre. Your brain literally lights up when you listen. It’s similar to looking at a fine painting, where your eyes gather the light. Your brain processes all the lines and colors, the same as your ears gather vibrations.
The great thing about music is that even as a soloist, an artist will listen to his/her own performance in real time while playing and make instantaneous decisions to achieve good timing and sound. In a group performance everyone should listen carefully to each other, play in time and harmony. Listening for the empty space between notes is equally as important as the notes played. This dynamic interplay between musicians cannot happen unless everyone’s ears are engaged. Throw in a dash of everyone’s personality, a little magic, and you can call it a “band”.