Interview with Frank Winkler: Chicago’s Versatile Pianist, Conductor, and Teacher

As I mentioned in a previous post, Contrapuntist and I are beginning a series of interviews entitled “Musical Career Profiles”. We’ll provide an inside look at different careers in music for prospective musical job-seekers and those of you who are just curious about learning about life as a musician. We’re kicking off our series by profiling Chicago’s musical jack-of-all-trades, Frank Winkler. From conducting, to teaching, to playing piano with some of the biggest names in show business, Frank has done it all.

Frank has performed with jazz artists such as Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Peggy Lee, and Buddy Rich; and classical artists including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Royal English and Bolshoi Ballets, and Kathleen Battle. An accomplished composer and arranger, Frank has written music for numerous National Radio Theater presentations on PBS. In 2000, the Symphonic Pops Orchestra of Chicago, under Frank’s direction, performed in Taiwan to great acclaim. He made a cameo appearance as the orchestra conductor in the movie Home Alone II and has also led orchestras at Harper College and the Music Institute of Chicago. Currently, Frank is a faculty member at the Music Institute of Chicago.

My first opportunity to work with Frank was when I was 11 years old and he was the conductor of the City Youth Strings (the junior orchestra for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra back in the 1990s). As a grown-up, I joined him as a faculty member at the Music Institute of Chicago. Contrapuntist and I were even lucky enough to have Frank play piano at our wedding reception. Special thanks to Frank for speaking with me about his fascinating career.

Viola da Voce (VV): You’ve worked as a solo/collaborative pianist, conductor, teacher, composer, and arranger. What inspired you to work in all of these different fields rather than choosing just one?

Frank Winkler (FW): Circumstance. Chance. I began conducting my first show when I was 17 years old. I did a community theatre production of Wizard of Oz.  And that led to other shows that I was conducting. In those days it was like theater-in-the-round because it was conducting from the piano.  So I had done that and had done some classical music lessons, obviously, before then.  When I was 18 years old my freshman music theory teacher said, “Frank, I want you do some conducting.”  So I wound up conducting the Alessandro Scarlatti Stabat Mater, just as a theory assignment.

So all of a sudden I am in with my peers conducting a dozen voices to sing a cappella.  It was things like that I hadn’t necessarily planned, I didn’t decide to become a conductor, I just wanted to become a musician. As I began more college studies some other conducting opportunities presented themselves, but also some other accompanying opportunities presented themselves. And I found myself playing a lot of jazz, but continuing a lot of classical music. They weren’t necessarily in conflict with each other.  The both presented their own unique challenges and opportunities.

I began to studying composing. I was encouraged to do more composing at the graduate level, and I found out for me it wasn’t as gratifying as conducting and arranging. I enjoyed enhancing other people’s music than trying to say something original. I never felt I had an original bent whereas the people I was admiring were the people that enhanced other people’s arrangements, especially in popular music.  Some people like Nelson Ritter were to arrange something or Billy May were to arrange something for Frank Sinatra, I would say, “Oh that is wonderful.”  Whereas, to hear a second rate composer, which is what I saw myself becoming, didn’t interest me. But becoming a first class arranger, that was like hmm, and I felt a little better about myself and the forces I could manipulate within my own abilities, my own ears, my own pen and paper.

VV: Is there any area that you wish you could devote more time to?

FW:  Oh I think perhaps all. I think more conducting. I am not conducting much at all these days and I miss that.  I chose to leave it when and where I was, almost for political reasons. I loved the conducting, I loved people with whom I was making music; I didn’t like the business aspects of it. I didn’t like having to beg for money each year, players and performance opportunities.  I left more than several positions and since I don’t have them, I miss them. But I am busy doing other things.  I am busy teaching, which I have always done.  I’ve always loved being a teacher. I prided myself on trying to become a good teacher and making my business to stay a good teacher and stay aware of performance media and printed materials, new compositions, new arrangements.  Even when you were a little girl when we met in the youth orchestra, I always made it my business to feature contemporary music; alive, living composers.  For some reason that has always been a lifelong dedication of mine and even my piano students now, they don’t just play Brahms and Bach, they play things that are hot off the press and things that are by living composers and arrangers. So I am dedicated to what and with whom I am still working, so that is very gratifying for me.

VV: You were doing a lot of active gigging, so what are the rewards and challenges associated with working as a gigger in Chicago?

FW:  The rewards are I loved being one of those musicians. I enjoyed making music with the others musicians. I enjoyed the opportunity to perform, to be in big performance venues.  I never necessarily planned to play with Frank Sinatra or with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I just wanted to get good and rub elbows with people who were good.  So the rewards were the high level of musicianship near me and that I was swimming in those waters.  Again, some of the performance venues, playing at Orchestra Hall; playing with the Chicago Symphony; being on the stage with the London Palladium; playing on the stage where Johannes Brahms conducted in Vienna was mind-blowing for me, that’s something I had never planned for.  But I was travelling, I was touring, I was performing, it was all very gratifying. I felt good sitting behind the piano.  The challenges were that it was phenomenally lonely. I was in Europe making music, you know, functioning during the evenings, and just miserable lonely missing my family at home.

VV: When was this?

FW: This was during the seventies, basically through ’78, ’79 and 1980. And I spent a lot of time on the telephone talking to the wife and kids more than several times a week being very jealous of a man walking with his wife down the avenue, or seeing somebody with children similar to my children’s age.  And saying, “hey, why am I here and they are back there?”  That was kind of difficult.

Some of the musical were their own gratification because the struggle to get good and stay good was kind of fun.  I remember, not to anecdote you to death, but there was a contractor in town who offered me a weekend to play with Benny Goodman and Mel Torme down at the old Grant Park Band shell on Labor Day Weekend.  This goes back, I want to say, 1977. And he called me and offered me the entire weekend, and I am thinking, “Hey, that is a couple of good bucks and those are couple of my heroes.”  He calls me two days later and says, “Oh Frank, I’ve got to ask you to make a decision”.  Well, generally when hear those words from a contractor you’re thinking, ”You are gonna cancel me and I’m gonna hate you and I’m gonna hear the infamous last words, ‘I will make it up to you, kid.’”  And I was thinking, “Oh God, okay, let me hear what you have to say.”  He said, “Well, you can continue to work with Benny Goodman and Mel Torme for Labor Day weekend or I’ll give you a week and a half playing piano with the Bolshoi Ballet?“  And I am thinking, “Whoa, take a week and a half, number one it is more money, but it is a little bit more prestigious. And maybe I will be able to get to work with those guys elsewhere at a later time.”  So I took the Bolshoi Ballet and the next time they were around, I played with them again.  Which was funny because about 35 years later my son, who is a violinist, played with the Bolshoi Ballet with the same conductor.  So I am thinking, “Good Lord, what goes around, comes around.”

Benny Goodman died, never had an opportunity to play with him, but I did get to play with Mel Torme thirty years later.  So I told him this story, and he says, “You know, Frank, I think you made a good decision; you did the right thing.” And here I figured he’d make fun of me and say, “Oh, Frank, you should’ve stuck with me both times.” But no, he was honest enough to say that it was good thinking.

But you are always fraught to make decisions, like I can go here or I can there or I can take this opportunity, but by taking this opportunity I am turning my back on another opportunity.  So some of the business challenges that you’re confronted with, that you are always doing guess work on: “Am I making the right decision?”

You take one theatre job, it locks you in. I was playing Chorus Line for about a year and a half down at the Schubert Theatre. But what was nice was like I was the relief man there.   They had three different piano chairs; three different piano parts to play.  And I basically played piano chair two and three because the first piano chair was the travelling accompanist.  And it was nice because by playing the alternate things, I never played for more than a month to six weeks at a time. So I would play for six weeks and then go play at another theatre and then come back and play for another six weeks.  It was a nice variety for me and it allowed me to be professionally involved with other performance opportunities; and again, with the teaching, the conducting, etc.  I did a lot of classroom teaching, so I chorus director for a lot of years before I became an orchestral conductor.  Now I am spending 100 percent, all of which are very gratifying to me and none of which I never necessarily planned to do with my life.  But it’s valid, hands-on involvement for me and each brings its own challenges and

VV: One of the challenges of working as a freelance musician is finances. What advice would you give aspiring freelancers to help them stay afloat?

FW: Try to make a lot of friends, which sounds hokey, but make a lot of acquaintances, get to know people, try to be visible.  I was fortunate; I joined the musician’s union when I was 14 years old or something like that.  The fact that I am 70 years old and drawing a union’s pension every month is an outgrowth of me having done reimbursed engagements like ballets or theater.  You don’t get a residual or a FICA donation if you are playing a Saturday wedding, or something like this, but theatre work and negotiated contract work, you do get some residual benefits. I find that a lot young people, good, talented people aren’t in an environment where they need or recognize the benefits of union labor.  You and I have done some union contract jobs together, you’ve got some money that you won’t recognize the benefit of until 20 years from now. All of sudden you’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t realize I had any retirement money at all paid in.”  So, I think that that’s important.  I think to make yourself marketable on several different ways of making music is beneficial.

VV: What type of educational background and qualifications do you need to work in your field?

FW: You know, I never planned to go to college.  I was adamant against going to college. I was just going to be a jazz musician all my life. I was going to finish high school, join the Coast Guard and come back and play jazz.  My father begged me.  He always wanted to go to college and never had the opportunity.  So I went for one year and I was like, “wow, I am in love with college, I am in love with learning and the kind of high power music demands.”  I was fortunate that I did have a college degree.  I was fortunate that I went on to an advanced degree.  I think had I realized some of the conducting opportunities could have made the difference and perhaps I could have gone on for a doctorate.  As a young boy I often thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be a doctor in music. And 20 and 30 years ago a doctorate in conducting or a doctorate in orchestral music would have been beneficial.  To be a conductor, you need more experience as an orchestral musician.  A string player has a much better chance of securing a conducting position, with the exception of a piano accompanist who makes it his business to really know how to accompany opera scores.  So even Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and Leonard Bernstein, pianists, but orchestral pianists and opera pianists, and that is a different kind of accompanying.  And I guy who can do both, the operatic accompanying and the Broadway theater accompanying, that’s a guy that is going to be very valuable.  So that is can and should be part of his education.

VV: Speaking of education, what is the one thing that you didn’t learn in music school that you now wish you had learned?

FW: [Laughs] You know, there is a lot life experience and there is a lot of writing and composing.  When I was dabbling with arranging, you don’t have as many opportunities to hear back what you have written. And the guys that do it on the computer now, they can hear it back, but it’s not a true, valid source  of aural, ear experience, like hearing a real oboist play.  I mean I write a tuba part and I can write Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee, but that doesn’t mean it’s a logically written tuba part.  So I wish I had learned at an earlier age where to put instruments and how to be a better arranger, a better transcriber and maybe a better composer too.

John Paynter, one of the men I most highly respect over at Northwestern University, and I never studied ear training or music theory with him, but I did study conducting with him. I think learned more about conducting from him than  almost anyone else.  But he used say: “Theory isn’t what you just recognize on the page. You can learn all the theory exercises in the world, but if when you stand up in front of choir, a band or an orchestra, and you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what is wrong and who’s wrong or how to fix it; what’s the bad note.  In other words, you can play a C triad on a piano and all of a sudden someone plunks something against that and you don’t know how to address, then it doesn’t make you that functional.

I became fortunately functional at a relatively early age, and it always served me in good stead.  But John Paynter was right, they don’t teach you what is wrong.   I think all of us need to be more aware of that an earlier age.  And you know, the fact that I have stood in front of enough string orchestra, and coached string quartets and piano trios and things like this. It made me more empathetic with the needs of a string player, with the needs of ok, the strings are playing this, but the trombones are playing that, should I be balancing the trombones down a little bit.

I wished that I had studied more strings at an earlier age. Having a good ear is one thing, but strings players who have a good ear have the best ear of anyone.  They make the note, whereas I can hit a B-flat falling out a bed in the morning, and it will always be a B-flat if I hit that b-flat on the piano. You’ve got learn the intervallic relationship.  And, as a result, when I teach all my students, I don’t care if they are 7 or 8 years old, I am talking intervals, ‘cause the relationship is what’s important.  It took me a while to learn that because I was fortunate in knowing that I had a good ear. But having a good ear is only part of it, in terms of how you communicate the needs of people standing in front of you.

VV:  You’ve worked with artists including Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peggy Lee. Do you have any interesting stories?

FW:  Oh, too many.  Liza Minelli, when I began working her, she and I were doing on a couple of numbers.  I asked her, “What keys do you want to do these in?”  [Minelli] said, “Frank, keys is what I used to let myself in through the front door.  Hit a note and I will let you know if it’s too high or too low.”  She was wonderful.

Peggy Lee was the worst rehearser I had ever met in my entire life, but she gave of herself so wonderfully to the audience.  She communicated like I couldn’t believe.

Frank Sinatra was the most skilled rehearser I had ever met in my life.  He knew the orchestrations as well as the guy conducting, maybe even better.  When you were with him, everybody was on the edge their chairs just trying to be so perfect.  He was also the least affected by his wealth.  If you didn’t know that he was Frank Sinatra, you’d say he was Joe the truck driver.  He was just so natural, and just so pleasant and so congenial with everybody. But once the rehearsal began or once the performance was on, there was Mr. Perfection.  It was also very gratifying.

Another one that you didn’t mention was Kathleen Battle.  I felt so good, I was in this world premiere of a piece that Andre Previn had written for her.  We did it up at Ravinia. And I didn’t realize when I took the job that I was doing a lot of one-on-one solos with her because it was half jazz and half classical.  It’s what we used to call in those days, third string music.  She was doing this piece called “Honey and Rue,” and I was right next to her.  So I got solo bow before she even acknowledged the conductor. 

There are other stories like that.  There are names that are long before my time, much less your time.  There was a singer who I just recently picked up a recording of her doing the Brahm’s Requiem with Arturo Toscanini, and I had worked with her in the 60’s and 70’s, Vivian della Chiesa.  Brilliant operatic singer who began doing crossover concerts and Hollywood bowl performances back in the 60s when I was a young man learning the trade.  Thrilling for me, “You’ve with Toscanini and I’m sitting behind the keys with you” and I am like, “My God!”

Playing with the Bolshoi Ballet, playing with the Royal English Ballet, meeting and knowing Rudolph Nureyev; I went to ask Rudolph Nureyev for his autograph and I was in the orchestra pit when he was on stage.  I took my wife to see him, and I like, “I’m playing with Rudolph Nureyev this weekend.”    So he says, “What instruments do you play?” And I say, “Piano.”  This is was again one of those third string jazz pieces, and he says, “Then we are collaborators. You are doing the month of February.”  It was this piece called, “Jazz Calendar,” so he autographed my program, “To my collaborator, from Rudolph Nureyev.”  And I’m like, “WOW!” Things that you don’t dream of when you are kid studying and playing, and aspiring to be here doing anything.

There are a lot of stories like that.  Again, being on the London Palladium.  After we left the London Palladium with Sammy Davis, Jr., we took the strings from the London Palladium with us.  At every town we hit, they would bring their instruments and they would have a rehearsal, if they had a morning off. They would always play the Mendelssohn Octet with several bottles of wine.  It was always good, but you didn’t want to hear the later movements.  The wine had flowed too freely by then.  But they were wonderful musicians and wonderful colleagues, and when the moment came to make music, everybody was on the edge of their chairs.

VV: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

FW: Just the fact that I’m 70 now, I’m older than perhaps I thought…  You know, when you are in your twenties, everyone over thirty is ancient. And now that I am 70, I’m thinking, how did I get here?  I’m thrilled to have had the life I’ve had.  Someone asked me when I was in my thirties when I was doing a lot of theatre work, “Hey Frank, what are your fears as you grow older?”  I used to genuinely fear that there won’t be an outlet for my musical skills as I age.  And I am 70, and I am still making music, and I am still sharing a musical life. I am not walking with the stars anymore, but there are other people doing it and they should be doing it. The fact that I am still making music is a joy.

It has been a joyous journey. I am feeling good about it.

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3 comments on “Interview with Frank Winkler: Chicago’s Versatile Pianist, Conductor, and Teacher
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  2. I was so elated to read this interview. Having grown up with Frank, I know well of his incredible talent and difficult choices he had to make in such a challenging career as music. The article presented Frank the person and the educator. His advice is golden, and young people should pay attention to the words he says to better understand the business and its challenges.

    • Hi Dick! Glad you enjoyed the interview. I absolutely agree with you that young people should take Frank’s advice. He knows this business inside and out, and he’s worked with an incredible range of artists. I feel fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to work with him. He’s a consummate musician and extremely nice guy.

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