Pianist Rich Ridenour was a fifth-grader playing Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk in the school’s talent show when he realized his inspiration to pursue music – fifth-grade girls.
I just remember being petrified because none of the guys, my friends, knew I was playing piano. My teacher told me, you can do this, and she was right – I started a whole new thing. Once my friends saw me play, everyone wanted to play, Ridenour says. Girls started talking to me, and that’s what did it. I knew I could get used to this.
He will accompany the Fort Wayne Philharmonic on Saturday at Foellinger Theatre for the second summer series concert, I Love A Piano. Ridenour, who created the program, says that he wants to excite people into playing piano as adults, as well as encourage their children to play the piano.
I Love A Piano brings the music of Rachmaninoff, Gershwin and Elton John under one amphitheater roof. It also includes piano player favorites such as Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther and Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy from the Peanuts cartoons.
It’s all great music. It’s hard to find that kind of variety in today’s world. I just bought this Sirius radio and I can’t find a station that gives me a little bit of everything, Ridenour says.
Everything is segregated on the radio and on TV, and most people like it all, but it’s hard to find it all in one package.
Ridenour says that this will be his first time performing with the Philharmonic, and he’s looking forward to the collaboration. Although, he is known for his sharp wit and showmanship, Ridenour says the concert’s focus will be on the instrument, not the player.
I’m trying to construct the program around people who have never had piano lessons. The piano was once the entertainment center for a family, he says.
I want people to have a renewed interest in the piano. Times are changing, and people are moving to digital keyboards, but there’s just nothing that beats a great piano when you can feel the strings vibrate.
Before the native of Grand Rapids, Mich., could perform with orchestras across the country, Mexico and Guatemala, he had to be forced into his first piano lesson by his mother.
He says she loved music and thought the piano would give the 8-year-old a taste of culture.
Ridenour wanted to be a baseball player, but the only runs he made were with his fingers moving up and down the piano’s scales.
My mom just wanted me to love music, and she thought piano was a great introduction, he says. The problem with studying piano as a kid is the isolation. Besides one recital every year, you’re just practicing by yourself.
Encouraged by his talent show success, Ridenour says piano players such as Vladimir Horowitz and especially Liberace became artistic inspirations.
Liberace, known for his grandiose concerts and renowned showmanship, provided the sort of entertainment Ridenour tries to bring to his performances – minus the candelabra and fur coat with a 16-foot train.
I was always amazed how he was able to smile and wink at the camera while playing the way that he did – he was quite the showman, he says. Some people have gone on the road trying to imitate Liberace, and it hasn’t worked. It was the ’50s – it was art for what it was. It’s hard for anyone to put a candelabra on a piano and make success out of it.
Ridenour pursued music throughout school, receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree from Julliard School of Music.
He has been a music instructor for several Michigan universities, and he continues to conduct the annual pops concert for the Dearborn (Mich.) Symphony.
He lives in Florida with his wife, Stacy, who had to relocate from Michigan when she became the executive director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in 2008. Also a formally trained pianist, she is the director of development for the Sarasota (Fla.) Opera.
In 2011, the Ridenours started the Jacksonville Keys Projects, a piano street project that enlisted local artists and sponsors to design and house refurbished upright pianos that are available to play or practice inside or outside in downtown public areas.
The program now has six pianos, and Ridenour says children continue to rehearse for recitals outside Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in Jacksonville.
We are trying to send the message that music is universal, he says.
Ridenour has also been instrumental in music outreach programs for children and adults, working as the education director for the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich., and developing Camp Gilmore, Keys Fest and piano education programs in public schools and juvenile centers.
Ridenour says that reflecting on his experiences practicing piano alone as a child, he wanted to develop programs that makes the piano more inclusive and accessible.
I’ve always incorporated group lessons because then we’re performing for someone – we’re sharing music, Ridenour says.