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Meet Danny Holt in San Fernando Valley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Danny Holt.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I’m a classical pianist, percussionist, composer, and educator. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Sheesh. Well, I do wear many hats. The biggest juggling act for me is finding a balance between performing and teaching: I’m so passionate about both, it’s very easy to over-commit myself!

I’ve been a musician for most of my life. I started piano lessons at 7, and gradually picked up other instruments along the way. My love of John Williams’ film scores (especially Star Wars) eventually led me to arranging and composing. At 15, I was already a pretty serious young musician, and I left home to attend Interlochen Arts Academy, the nation’s premiere boarding arts high school. Interlochen changed my life: it was magical being in a place where I was encouraged to push myself and become the best I could be.

After Interlochen, I got degrees from Hampshire College, Smith College, and CalArts. Throughout college and grad school, my biggest challenge was juggling my diverse interests, from performing and composing to studying ethnomusicology, anthropology, and music cognition. I’m so grateful for the amazing teachers I had, and the opportunities I had to develop critical thinking skills and explore so many different interests. Those eclectic educational experiences inform my creative work to this day, and I’d like to think they make me a better artist and teacher.

Now, as a professional musician, I work hard to inspire and educate folks whether it’s in one of my concerts, or a lesson or class that I’m teaching.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Being a freelance musician isn’t like most jobs. I guess with the rise of the “gig economy” more and more people realize what it’s like to fend for yourself in this economy. It’s a challenge, but it also has its rewards. I’m thankful every day that I don’t have a 9-5 job, and I’m never stuck in some office cubicle. (That said, I admit I’m jealous of my friends who are employed and have health insurance and other benefits provided by their employers!)

Although having a career as a musician isn’t easy, there are many great opportunities if you have a diverse set of skills and you’re willing to work really hard. Having a positive attitude sure helps, too! Unless you’ve got a full-time university teaching job or a job with a major orchestra (both of which are increasingly rare career paths these days) you end up doing a little of everything. Thankfully, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. When I was fresh out of grad school, I taught 7 days a week, juggling several part-time teaching positions, gradually building my own private teaching studio, and always looking for better opportunities. All along, I continued the rigorous daily practice that’s required to maintain a performing career, and worked toward that goal as well.

Over the years I’ve been able to be more and more discriminating about the teaching and performing work that I accept. That’s a real luxury. I realized years ago that I would be miserable simply being a “gigging” musician–having to accept whatever work came my way. By balancing teaching and my own creative work, I maintain 100% creative control over my performing and recording projects, which is so important to me!

Now I’m at a point where I aim to position myself to be traveling and performing more often, as my teaching commitments evolve away from a grueling weekly schedule toward something more flexible: residencies, visiting lectures and workshops, etc.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Danny Holt – what should we know?
I’m first and foremost a classical concert pianist, dedicated to live performance and also to educating the next generation of musicians. I’ve mostly made a name for myself as a champion of adventurous new music–collaborating with living composers and bringing their music to life. One of my signature projects involves an elaborate setup where I play piano and percussion simultaneously. I’m especially proud of that project because it not only pushes me to explore the limits of my own creativity and technical skill, but it also challenges composers to think outside the box and do something truly new. Audiences appreciate seeing/hearing something unique, and I love to be able to provide that.

When I’m not playing crazy contemporary music, I like to shine a spotlight on lesser-known repertoire from the 18th & 19th centuries. One of my current projects features works by the relatives of famous composers: the sons of Bach and Mozart, Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn’s sister), and Clara Wieck (Robert Schumann’s wife.) There’s so much wonderful music hiding in the nooks and crannies of the classical music canon, and I really love exploring that repertoire! Audiences consistently tell me that they love hearing this unfamiliar music, and that gives me hope about the future of classical music: maybe we don’t need to just keep playing the same old pieces over and over again…?

My other life is as an educator: teaching piano lessons to students of all ages and levels, teaching college-level music classes, and being a visiting scholar at several area high schools. I also help run a summer music program at The Oakwood School, called The Academy of Creative Education. We provide a conservatory-level music education, giving students the chance to study whatever kind of music excites them–pop/rock, jazz, classical, etc. It’s an absolute blast, and one of the highlights of every year for me.

Teaching is so rewarding and fulfilling…I love the surprising connections that will come up between my own practicing and something I’ll teach one of my students. Or I’ll realize that something that happens in a lesson with a college student is connected to something I just taught a 5-year-old. So many unexpected and fascinating things to contemplate! It’s so stimulating. Never boring. Although some of my students have gone on to pursue music professionally, I recognize that’s not everyone’s path. And that’s fine: I’m just thrilled to be able to work every day with people who are intellectually curious and eager to learn. If I can help someone build and nurture a meaningful connection to music in their life, that’s awesome.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Even as a young music student, I was exceptionally self-motivated, focused, and hard-working. There’s absolutely no substitute for hard work: to be a great musician requires thousands of hours of practice. The dedication musicians bring to practicing is akin to the work that professional athletes do, and it also sometimes resembles a meditation practice.

Aside from a solid work-ethic, I think most of my students, colleagues, and friends would say that I am eternally optimistic, and I have an enthusiasm and passion that is infectious.

People often come up to me after a concert and say “You look like you’re having so much fun!” I can’t imagine it any other way. It IS fun, ridiculously fun!

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Image Credit:
Main photo: Kat Nockels Photography

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