Rebecca Kragnes - Pianist Extraordinaire

As published in the April/May 2001 issue of Stylus Magazine
(University of Winnipeg Students Association)

- By John Iverson

There is a new star on the rise in the world of new age solo piano music. An outstanding musician and composer, her name is Rebecca Kragnes. And she is only a stone's throw away from us in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Rebecca's formal piano lessons began when she was in the first grade and continued through college. Although her three piano teachers helped to broaden her horizons, her greatest pleasure came from composing and playing her own work. At age twelve, Rebecca left the Iowa Braille & Sight Saving School to live with her family, attend public school and play piano for her church.

Although Rebecca had been composing piano pieces for years, they didn't fit any genre familiar to her. In 1988, after hearing some of Rebecca's compositions, a high school band director introduced her to New Age music. She finally discovered her niche when exposed to the music of Mannheim Steamroller and David Lanz.

Rebecca was still struggling to find a job in the counseling field when she met one of her inspirations - pianist David Lanz. She was elated when David promised to critique some of her original compositions. He then financed the studio sessions for "GOLDEN." David's generosity and advice were invaluable.

Rebecca is involved in a variety of community activities and organizations. Her local church is blessed to have her as a pianist. As a volunteer, she speaks to schools and other organizations about blindness and related issues. She was recently elected to the American Council of the Blind of Minnesota board of directors. Rebecca hopes "GOLDEN" is just the beginning of more great things to come.

Here is the e-interview that I conducted with Rebecca:

John - At what age did you realize that you wanted to be a pianist, or that you had a gift for playing piano?
Rebecca - I was three or so when I discovered my gift. I had ambitions to be a pianist as early as age seven or eight. But I learned that it wasn't a realistic goal from some people and that it wasn't the thing for a "good blind person" to do from others. I really came to embrace it only after earning my degree in community counseling and then struggling to find work in the field for two years. I decided I would take a tentative step in the musical direction by showing David Lanz some of my work.

JI - Was your formal piano training primarily in the classical music genre?
RK - Yes, but I have to confess that my goal was simply to translate anything I could from my formal training to the informal training. In other words, chords and fingerings weren't important simply in order to play a particular classical piece, although I excelled at contests etc. But my primary secret goal was to take what I learned and apply it to the latest rock song or my own compositions.

JI - How did you come to meet David Lanz?
RK - I first heard David's "Christifori's Dream" album in 1989 and thought, "I would love to compose things like this!" Throughout my schooling, I collected more David Lanz albums. We attended our first concert a few months after we were married. My husband Phil and I were both unemployed. He was laid off, and I hadn't found a job after at least a year of searching. One day we were talking about the possibility of me going into music. I shot it down. Then we discussed musicians' web sites, and my husband sat down at the computer to find David's. We noticed he was going to do a workshop for piano teachers and students in a couple months in Minneapolis where we live. I knew I had to be there.
The previous Christmas, I made a little tape of 12 compositions to give as gifts since we couldn't afford to do much else. I put a copy in my purse hoping against hope that David might take and listen to it. His publicist saw me in the audience "playing air piano" on my lap. That's something I do in a situation like that to understand how it might feel to finger what the presenter is doing at the keyboard. His publicist made sure I was able to meet David and even encouraged me to give him the tape. I was gun-shy, because I had offered to give it to other musicians and received not only a firm no but an extremely negative reaction. I was therefore on cloud nine when David took it.

JI - When David critiqued your music, what sort of feedback did he relay to you? And did he give you any valuable career advice for the future?
RK - David's critiques have been invaluable for me! He highlighted parts of songs I should strengthen and reminded me about little musical no-nos. The one thing I really liked is that he didn't just tell me not to do something. He offered one or more possible ways to fix it. Another great thing was that if I felt strongly about something and I disagreed with his critique, he graciously tried to see where I was coming from. That hasn't been true of many of my teachers/mentors. Probably the greatest gift David has given is showing by example that nothing in the music business is certain or in black and white. Sometimes I would ask if I should do this or that, and he would respond that it was one choice and then give me more options to consider. I think he knew that if he told me exactly what to do, it wouldn't help me to grow musically and become confident about trusting my own intuition.

JI - Composing music is real challenge for any musician. What methods do you employ to compose your music without the benefit of being able to see?
RK - Composing is a real emotional roller coaster for me. Sometimes I have long dry spells where I begin to wonder whether I've lost the knack. Then one day, an idea will emerge either in my head or in the midst of playing around at the keyboard. I quickly record it onto a tape recorder and then play around some more developing it. I keep a recording of the latest version around for the next session with it. One frustration has been that I'm so busy developing the idea and forget to record it before something else distracts me. Within minutes, the idea is gone! Another frustration has been that sometimes I'm hearing more in my head than I can physically play with one instrument. Last week I saw a demonstration of a piece of software called Cakewalk which allows one to record up to 256 tracks per song. I had played with similar software ten years ago, but there was a lot of inaccuracies in it. It was not usable with the speech synthesizer on my computer. This software is, and I'm excited about its possibilities. In addition to the recording, I may be able to print out the music for others to read and enjoy.
I should clarify that there is such a thing as Braille Music. I recognize the characters from reading it as a student. However, I don't find it nearly as helpful when composing, because I have to play it - not write it. For learning a new piece, I'd much rather hear it then use my hands to read a few measures, memorize them, and then play them. Braille music works well for some, but for me it's cumbersome.

JI - What is your favourite composition from your album Golden, and why?
RK - That's hard. It's like asking someone with 11 kids who their favorite child is. It depends on the day and the state of mind I am in. As a parent loves all of the kids differently, I am proud of all of my pieces. I feel that to pick a favorite might diminish the value of the others.

JI - Is there one particular piece of music that has had a strong influence on your music?
RK - That piece would be Christifori's Dream! I loved the pop of the 60's clear through the 90's as all kids do. I could appreciate the classical music but unless it was a certain section of a piece, it was hard to keep my attention when I was an adolescent. I also didn't want to write long, drawn-out pieces like that which no one but the supposedly "cultured" would listen to. I wanted my music to be enjoyed by people who came from many backgrounds and knowledge bases. Christiphori's Dream showed me that some of the elements of a classical piece that I loved like interesting chording, orchestration, and dynamics could be combined with some of the pop things like simple themes and shorter length. I listened to that song over and over again and it was like an inner part of myself clicked at that moment.

JI - Do you have any future plans to make another recording of your music?
RK - Yes, I would definitely like to. David and I are working on finding a record company "home" for my music, and this would make it much easier to record the next CD. However, if that doesn't happen, I'll take whatever profit from this one the government lets me keep come tax time and put it toward the next album. I have some things written, and I plan to do more writing after the first of the year.

Hear Rebecca's music on Shades of Classics on
Campus/Community Radio CKUW 95.9 FM in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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