Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor. His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit musician, sideman, composer/arranger, middle school teacher, and even a brief stint as a… lawyer(?)!
Willie: What got you started on the piano?
Paul: My grandfather was a very good pianist, mostly self-taught. He told stories of how he used to get wheeled through the hospital wards on a little rolling stage that could hold a small piano and bass player and would play for the injured veterans during World War II. He appreciated the arts and wanted his grandchildren to have the opportunity to take music lessons (my sisters studied flute and violin). Once a week he would drive us to our music lessons with the promise of ice cream as a reward. Of course, my parents were also instrumental (pardon the pun) and huge supporters of our music education, as well as both loving music themselves and exposing us to everything from Kenny G to Kenny Kirkland.
Willie: What was your training like?
Paul: I started playing the piano when I was about 8 years old, taking private lessons weekly at the Performing Arts School of Worcester. I eventually moved from years of classical lessons to jazz, but I was not a focused music student. It was not until high school that I started to take music more seriously and focus on real practice. Ultimately I decided to pursue music at the university level, but when I got to college I got my butt kicked (musically speaking). I listened to some of the upper-level players and knew immediately that my playing was far behind their advanced comprehension and abilities. But I thought those advanced players were so cool! I desperately wanted to be in that group, to know what they knew, and to be in all of the top ensembles. I decided to give everything I had to music for one year. That year was some of the most intense practice I’ve ever done – I practiced every hour I could stay awake. My teacher told me I had advanced two to three years in the space of one, which was a great feeling and compliment that pushed me to practice even harder. And from that point on I was hooked.
Willie: What happened after college?
Paul: I figured out that all the great players were in New York City, so I moved to New York. I actually did my final year of college in New York because I was in a rush to get there. I played a lot of very different gigs, but had a bit of a “jazz snob” attitude. I considered pop music and other kinds of music to be beneath me. This was was wrong, immature, and short-sighted (I got my act together pretty quickly, though). Once I became more open-minded, my musical opportunities and networks expanded (big surprise, right?) and I also became a more versatile musician. Suddenly I had more gigs, more things to practice, more musicians to play with, and more of an understanding of what I needed to practice in order to improve.
Willie: What about professional work? What kind of things have you done professionally?
Paul: I’ve definitely played a lot of gigs, but a couple experiences in particular stand out. I worked as a musical director and sideman for Princess Cruises, playing in the production shows and cabaret theaters and travelling to Tahiti, Bora Bora, New Zealand, Alaska, and throughout the Caribbean. I also toured with some of the singers from the NBC TV show “The Voice,” including the season 1 winner Javier Colon. I toured the U.S., Central, and South America with Maroon 5 and Javier, including a performance in São Paulo, Brazil in front of 35,000 people! Now that I have a family and teaching commitments I stay a little closer to home, but I continue to play in Boston and throughout New England and New York with various bands and ensembles.
Willie: Do you enjoy teaching?
Paul: I love teaching! I love talking to students about music, sharing what I love, sharing what I know, sharing what mistakes I made and helping them avoid those mistakes, and introducing ideas that are exciting and stimulating and inspiring. I’m very excited to be working with JazzEdge again, largely because of the incredible instruction and technology tools that are part of the site. Online instruction has been very exciting because it allows for strong, effective learning with so many various resources instantly available. I also enjoy being able to teach in a variety of environments – classroom instruction, private instruction (in-person and online), and directing ensembles. Keeping up with my own performance calendar also informs my teaching. Gigs help motivate me to practice and learn more. I’ve also occasionally taken advanced students on gigs with me so that they can see the ins-and-outs of professional musicianship.
Willie: What’s this “lawyer” thing I heard about? Are you a lawyer?
Paul: Yes, in a moment of temporary delusion (which lasted three years) I did in fact successfully graduate from law school and pass the bar exam. In many ways I’m not sure it actually happened, although my therapist tells me that it’s common for the human psyche to repress emotional scars. Kidding of course. My first love is music, but I’ve always had a deep interest in law and the formation of legal precedents, and I actually really loved law school. I worked briefly as an attorney for a small intellectual property firm outside of NYC, but something about the practice of law did not appeal to me. I have worked as an attorney and consultant for other musicians and agencies and continue to do so in small part, but my primary focus is teaching and playing.
Willie: What advice would you give to players trying to get gigs and establish a musical network in their community?
Paul: I always tell students that, as a musician, everything is an audition. So even if you’re graduating from Julliard, the person hiring you is always going to want to hear you play. And then there are the auditions that you don’t even know are happening. Everytime you play with new people, you should assume that they are listening critically to what you do as a player, so approach gigs professionally because it could lead to you getting hired in the future. To me, being “professional” means a few specific things: be on time, dress well, be courteous, and have a great attitude.
And above all, be prepared to play the music as best you can, regardless of your personal opinions of the music. Practice. Be ready. You only get one chance to make a first impression. There are lots of great players but the great players that I hire regularly are the ones who are prepared musically and also know how to respond to emails, voicemails, and texts in a timely manner, are punctual, dress professionally, are respectful, and are a “good hang.” One last thought – being prepared is often more important than being the best player on the gig. I have often been the most prepared, but far from the most talented, and I’ve noticed that matters more and gets me repeat-hired.