by Michaela Preiner | Nov 1, 2019 | Begegnungen
Playing the piano means much more than just pressing the keys
Peter Bence is currently filling concert halls around the globe. Like hardly any other pianist, he has experienced a meteoric rise within a short period of time. After the release of a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, his video went viral on social media channels and reached millions of likes within a short time. The likeable young pianist from Hungary didn’t really expect this. Although his career was cleverly planned, at least in part. As the “fastest piano player in the world”, he broke the previous record in 2012, playing 765 strokes in one minute. What was not artistic but purely technical was, however, noticed by millions of people and thus the first step on the way to international fame was climbed.
In the last few years, he has posted a number of videos online in which he can be seen with the songs he has arranged himself. He always uses new locations, with different pianos. The passion with which he plays has become his trademark. And the use of a loop machine, which he also operates during his playing. Rarely do you see pianists with such an intense use of their bodies, and rarely does the spark of joy that he has while playing jump over to the audience as quickly as it does with Peter Bence.
Today, he no longer trains the speed of his fingers to compete with others for the Guinness Book of Records. Instead, he treats his audience not only to the well-known hits, but also to his own compositions. A CD with these songs is to be released soon, which Bence sees as another important step in his career.
We conducted the following interview in October 2019, a few days before his performance in Graz.
Peter, you just came back from the USA, do you still live there?
No, I lived there for 3 years while I was studying. My current tour to America lasted 1 week and I gave 4 concerts there in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Next year there will be more.
Your career is very interesting because you originally had classical piano lessons.
Yes, that’s right. I started learning piano very early, at 5, and stopped when I finished high school, at 18/19, which means that I’ve been learning and playing mostly classical music throughout my life so far.
Are there musicians in your family?
Yes, my parents studied music and play it as a hobby. My great-great-grandfather was a violinist and the founder of the local music school. An uncle is a percussion teacher. My father’s cousin is a piano teacher. Music was always everywhere in my home.
I often hear that the music you listened to as a child had a big influence on your later career
Yes, I can underline that very much. Also in terms of taste and forming the brain to be open to music, it’s very important what and what kind of music you listen to in your early years. There it is the parents who form you with their taste in music. That has a big influence on your own development.
How did the turn towards pop music come about?
When I was a teenager, I started listening to film music, especially that of John Williams. I was a big fan of Star Wars and listened to a lot of music by the composer. Film music gave me a different perspective on many things. At that time I also started listening to Michael Jackson. He inspired so many people and had such a big influence that I thought: maybe I can use the great foundation of classical music. But I wanted to experiment a bit and also try to find my own voice – as a composer, as a performer. I knew that there are so many classical pianists who are extraordinarily talented and the competition is enormous. There is very little room to be outstanding, because mostly you play the same pieces over and over again, maybe with a different interpretation. But I wanted to be completely different.
Your career seems to be very well planned
On the one hand, of course, it is planned. I knew early on what I wanted to do and I stuck to doing it.
What does early mean in this context?
I wanted to be a film composer because I was so inspired. That’s why I started studying film music at Berkley, Boston, and I had a career in mind in that direction. But something happened when I was 22, 23 years old. I had to go back to Hungary. I had a scholarship, but it was extremely expensive to live in Boston. For that reason, I needed a little break. That was the time when I started working on some videos here. I also met my manager. I was in a kind of crisis at that time. I didn’t know exactly what to do. It seemed impossible to me to have a career just in music, to be able to make a living out of it. I hadn’t finished Berkley yet, so I was working on these videos. After about 2 years – it was 2015 when the arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” went viral – the publicity really took off.
How many followers did you have back then?
Not many, a few thousand on FB, that was it, and maybe 1000 subscribers on Youtube. The growth happened very quickly, overnight and it grew exponentially. I had 100,000 at the end of November and now we have 7.6 million.
Didn’t you have a “wow!” effect there?
Yes, of course! I never expected that. Of course I made the videos to reach more audience, but it was really a wow factor. But you get used to things and my mindset is such that I’m always thinking about the next project. What are we going to work on in the next weeks and months? And that’s why my focus is always on what’s coming.
How many people work on your videos?
You won’t believe it! There is no big crew behind it. Most of the videos are produced by just the two of us, Sebastian (Peter Bence’s manager) and me. Of course, it takes us hours to position the light correctly and to figure out how the video will look then, and so on. But we deliberately wanted to keep most of the videos very simple. However, we still have some projects coming up and are experimenting a lot. You may have seen the Beatles cover on the boat, that was more elaborate.
You use different pianos in the recordings. Why actually?
We are always looking for new locations to record. I don’t always want to do the same thing, it gets boring quickly. For “Thunderstruck” we found this nice blue wall. I immediately had the feeling that it needed a nice white piano. Then we had the challenge of finding one. Most of the time we rent the pianos for the shoot.
That is, you choose the pianos for aesthetic reasons.
Yes, although we keep the videos simple and they often consist of a single take, we still want to make them appealing.
Which songs do you choose for your cover versions?
The most important thing for me is that I really love the respective song, that I am really in love with it. That has to be the case. Then it has to be a song that can be transformed. The arrangement can be a challenge, but at least the song should be translatable into the language of the piano. There are so many songs – for example by Bruno Mars – where you say I love this song very much, but it would be impossible to adapt such a song for piano. The structure of the melody and the rhythm and the arrangement itself makes it impossible to play something like that on piano. It’s usually a process where I ask: does this sound good on the piano? That’s my main goal. It just has to sound brilliant on the piano.
You have a very special sound, because it sounds like you’re a whole orchestra.
I didn’t want to limit myself and it’s an interesting challenge as an arranger and composer for me. That’s why I came up with the idea of “The awesome piano” – the album that will come out. What you hear there are 100% Pioano sounds. Of course there is technique involved because you have to mix sounds to make it sound really good. Then I also use a loop station to build up the sound. But the idea is: playing the piano is much more than just pressing the keys and I wanted to show that the piano is a totally cool instrument. This is something like a mission for me. It should be more popular and not boring. It makes me very happy when people write me a message that children are learning the piano because they think it’s so cool.
But making percussion sounds with the piano or integrating loops is not something you learned in your studies.
No, not at all, not in a single lesson! When I was little, I wanted to learn drums, but I didn’t have the time. But now I also use the percussion element.
Have you already written film music?
No, just something very small during my studies, but I honestly haven’t got around to doing anything more yet. Maybe if the opportunity comes up in the future to do music for a film, sure, I’d love to do that. But my philosophy is: I do what I love every day and see where it takes me. I don’t have any big plans anymore, like I might have had 2 years ago. I just do the things that I think are right.
Are there challenges or goals with certain songs that you would like to cover, but also have not yet done for certain reasons?
Many people want “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but I can’t do that. If I were to actually do it, I wouldn’t be able to add anything new. It’s already perfect. I would only ruin it with the piano.
What are you practising right now?
Mostly I’m practising new songs and working on the finish for my own album. It will have a lot of songs from me and that’s very exciting for me. I haven’t released any of my own music yet – well maybe 1 or 2. I hope I can make the transition and that my followers and those who like what I do will love my own songs too. I will play some of these songs in the concerts. People who come there will hear these songs before anyone else.
How many songs do they have already?
Too many, maybe 100! But I will only take 10 that I value to be included.
Do the compositions come easily to you?
Yes, I do. But usually I still have to work a lot on these ideas. Some sound almost classical, some in a mixture of classical with a little jazz, others with looping and percussion.
I studied a little jazz. But that’s not my language. I tend to stay away from it.
Do you actually still play classical music yourself?
Yes, for myself it is. I mainly play Bach to keep my brain fresh and fit. I also listen to a lot of classical music and like to be inspired by it.
You can find Peter Bence’s tour dates here:
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