Despite an engaging smile and quick, self-effacing wit, Greg Presley was, by his own account, a shy youngster.
So when he was invited to an all-city banquet honoring high-school scholars, Gonzaga Prep’s valedictorian worried that he wouldn’t know anyone.
“It turned out I knew almost everyone there,” Presley said, “because they were all musicians.
“I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg,” he said. “A friend of mine thinks bright people are attracted to music because it uses so many parts of the brain.”
For evidence, one need look no further than Presley.
Music took him from Spokane to Yale, Juilliard and Florida State University before health concerns – his own and his parents’ – brought him back home 17 years ago.
Since then, Presley has distinguished himself as both a piano teacher and guest musician, most recently performing at the Spokane Symphony’s Labor Day concert in Comstock Park.
He discussed his eclectic career during a recent interview.
S-R: What was your introduction to the piano?
Presley: My mom, Margaret Presley, is a piano teacher, so I grew up with a piano in the house. She taught me and my six siblings how to read notes by first grade. It’s very hard for parents to teach their own kids, so I learned on my own for a few years. When I was in fourth grade, she realized I was serious about playing the piano and found me a teacher.
S-R: How much did you practice when you were young?
Presley: Probably 30 minutes to an hour a day.
S-R: What role did music play as you approached adolescence?
Presley: By then I was performing a lot and winning competitions. We lived in Las Vegas until I was 13, and I won a Nevada state competition when I was 12. After we moved here, I started winning awards at Music Fest and in Seattle.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Presley: Lots of them – particularly my teacher here, Margaret Ott. I started lessons with her my freshman year.
S-R: When did you first consider a career in music?
Presley: I probably never really considered any other career. I studied a lot of different subjects at Yale and didn’t find them difficult. But the possibility of being a lawyer or a doctor didn’t speak to me. After I graduated, I returned home for a year to save money, and then went to New York to study at Juilliard.
S-R: How did that go?
Presley: I arrived in New York too late for that school year, so I got a job as a registrar at the Martha Graham School (of Contemporary Dance). Then I started filling in as accompanist for dance classes there, and fell in love with that. I worked my way through Juilliard playing for dance, and after I graduated I became known in New York for my ability to improvise. I was recruited to join the faculty of Florida State University, and was there 12 years.
S-R: What brought you back to Spokane?
Presley: My parents were aging, and I was going through a little period of ill health. So I thought it would be a good move. Shortly after I returned, my mom became disabled and I decided to stay.
S-R: Did you experience culture whiplash going from Spokane to New Haven to New York to Tallahassee, then back to Spokane?
Presley: Very much so. It was a particularly hard transition going from New York to Florida. My job and my life became much easier, in a way. But it was such a slower pace that I thought, “What have I done?” Eventually I realized if I wanted to do things musically in Tallahassee outside my job, I had to make them happen.
S-R: After you returned to Spokane, what direction did your career take?
Presley: Most professional musicians here are like me – we cobble together livings from a variety of different sources. Since I don’t have a doctorate, full-time academic jobs in classical music are not available to me here.
S-R: If you were to list all the jobs you do in a year, what would that include?
Presley: How much paper do you have? I’m an adjunct with Gonzaga University’s music department, and usually have 12 to 15 students there. I teach privately at home, and have a dozen young students and five or six adult students. I also teach at Holy Names Music Center. As far as gigs, I play with the Spokane Symphony and do a lot of accompanying for singers and instrumentalists, including visiting artists such as (trombonist) Kurt Ferguson. I play both formal concerts and background music in private settings. And this year I’m also president of the Spokane Music Teachers Association.
S-R: Is it a seven-days-a-week schedule?
Presley: I try not to let it be. But between the end of January and the middle of May, I usually don’t have any days off. Teaching becomes more intense because kids are preparing for competitions. Often there are symphony concerts during that period. And I adjudicate competitions across the state.
S-R: Are you compensated different amounts for different jobs?
Presley: Yes. A one-hour lesson is $45. If I play at a wedding for two hours, that’s $200.
S-R: Is applause a sort of compensation, too?
Presley: I guess so, although I don’t think about it very much. When I’m taking a bow, I’m usually thinking about all the notes I missed and other things that went wrong.
S-R: What does live music add to a celebration?
Presley: It brings a feeling – an energy – that recorded music can’t. People participate in live music as spectators, versus passively letting it wash over them.
S-R: Of all your jobs, which is your favorite?
Presley: It changes all the time. It’s exciting when a student suddenly makes a leap. And when you’re performing, there’s tremendous satisfaction in knowing you’ve brought pleasure to an audience – even if it’s so scary that you feel like you’re going to throw up while you’re doing it.
S-R: Do you have a favorite composer?
Presley: I love Ravel, Chopin and Debussy.
S-R: How does Spokane’s cultural scene compare with that of other cities our size?
Presley: It’s much more vibrant, at least for classical music. This is a very German city when you look at the demographics, and music is an important part of German culture. Looking back 100 years, there were lots of Friday music clubs here that fostered support for classical music.
S-R: What, besides talent, does it take to have a successful career as a classical musician?
Presley: Persistence and luck. But you also need to try things outside your comfort zone. In my own career, I’ve accompanied choirs, dancers, composed, played popular music and taught. When I was at Juilliard, many of the students only prepared to be concert performers. When they graduated, they found the public wasn’t clamoring for them, and in some cases they ended up leaving the profession.
S-R: What’s the secret for getting youngsters to practice?
Presley: Finding a piece of music they fall in love with and want to learn.
S-R: What advice do you offer parents shopping for a starter piano?
Presley: A lot depends on their budget. But the piano has to be tunable, all the keys and the pedals have to function, and all the notes should sound evenly.
S-R: Do you have a favorite piano?
Presley: I own two Mason & Hamlin grands from the 1920s that I’ve had rebuilt. Of the pianos being made today, I think Steinways are the best.
S-R: Do professional musicians ever retire by choice?
Presley: Most play until they drop. But some have such performance anxiety that they’re grateful to finally give it up. I can’t imagine turning 65 and putting the piano away to play golf the rest of my life. Not that I could afford to.
S-R: When you show up at a party, are you routinely expected to play?
Presley: No, and I don’t come prepared. But if people insist, all musicians have a dozen pieces they have locked in forever, and they can always sit down and play one of those.
S-R: Some people see music as a glamorous profession.
Presley: Hopefully this will dispel that notion. (laugh)