A Q&A with Emmy Winning Composer and Pianist Lisa Downing

  1. Tell us about your background — how did you get into music?

    I was a year and half old the first time I ever saw a piano. I remember reaching up above my head and pressing the keys down. I was surprised and delighted when it made a sound — it felt like magic! I remember wondering why everyone in the room didn’t seem mesmerized by this incredible object! I was truly obsessed with the piano forever after that. We didn’t have a piano until I was 10 years old, so before that I kept trying to make a piano out of cardboard or cigar boxes, but, of course, you can’t really tune a pretend cardboard piano!

  2. How does being poly-ethnic play into the music you compose and perform?

    My poly-ethnicity really affects every aspect of my life, including my music. In my life experience, I have often felt like I was “other”, as if I didn’t really belong anywhere. Not White enough to really be part of the White community and not really Black enough to be part of the Black community. It felt to me as if there wasn’t really a place for me to stand, or sit, or just BE. Some of my compositions express that “falling in between the cracks” space, and some pieces are about Self Acceptance. Acceptance of my bi-racial identity and my related eclectic tastes in the music I listen to, my wild hair and my fashion preferences. I hope to create my compositions so that they are a clear expression of whatever life experience I’m trying to communicate.

  3. Are there any other aspects in your life that influence your music?

    There are so many aspects of my life that influence my music! Really, anything and everything from the cottonwood seeds blowing past my office window, to my Father’s death, my thoughts about the Universe and spirituality, to my imagining the feeling freedom of my great-grandfather  must have had when he knew he wasn’t a slave anymore, the romance of meeting my husband, Pete, to the Dragon that I feel inside me that carries me forward as I move through this life and this career in a world that tends to not favor women.

    My second album, “A Delicate Balance,” has a lot of compositions that were influenced by raising my son, Andy, as a single mom. Songs about how I felt after he was born, songs about his childhood curiosity and his teenage indecisions, and a profound composition about the time he ran away from home.

    I’m so grateful for the joy of creating music as a catharsis for the experience I call my life.

  4. Can you talk a bit about your composition process, and where do you find your inspiration?

    I believe that there is music happening continuously in our infinite Universe, and sometimes I can kind of “hook in” to it, grab a “piece of music” and then bring it into physical reality with the piano. Sometimes it feels a little weird to say I created a song when I’m really just capturing something that already exists beyond what we generally think of as our senses.

    Powerful personal situations tend to bring the music more to my immediate awareness.  Sometimes, I’ll just be goofing around on the piano and like the way the keys feel under my fingers when I play a certain way. That can also spark the beginnings of a song.

  5. How did you get involved with the Great Colorado Women Film Series, created by the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and currently airing on Rocky Mountain PBS?

    I have a really good friend, Jill Tietjen, who was on the board of directors for the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, and one day we were having coffee and brain storming together about how to bring more awareness to the Hall. I suggested that I could perform in a fund raising piano concert. Jill ended up organizing this amazing event and it was filmed by Enchanted Road Productions here in Denver. We submitted the film of my performance for a regional Emmy® Award and actually got nominated! We didn’t win that year, but that performance introduced me to Betty Heid, who had a vision to create documentaries that would tell the story of each woman who has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. Rick Higgins and Bill Ranshaw of Enchanted Road Productions asked if I would be willing for them to use my music in the films and of course, I said yes!

    Since then, my music has appeared in most of the GCW films. I’ve won 3 Heartland Emmy® Awards and been nominated 7 times! The Hollywood Music in Media Awards has also nominated one of the Great Colorado Women Films, “Carlotta LaNier – a Civil Rights Activist Since Age 14” this season. I feel that the Great Colorado Women Film Project is such an incredibly important endeavor that finally helps bring awareness to the incredibly powerful, visionary and courageous women that have been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. I’m so honored to be a part of Betty’s vision.

  6. Alongside composing, you’re also an in-demand pianist, known for your solo performances worldwide. In your opinion, what makes a great performer?

    I think the most important thing in any performance is vulnerability and openness while sharing what is truly the most intimate part of oneself — personal emotions. In my opinion, that is ultimately the only thing that matters to the audience, but also to the performer. Like an athlete, every performer has to prepare for every performance, but if you don’t connect at a basic, honest and human level with your audience, really — what’s the point?

    This is actually the thing that I struggle with the most as a performer. I often want to be flawless in my performances and that really gets in the way of being vulnerable. The moments where I get lost in the piece and my emotions are pulling the music toward the audience are so incredibly precious. I think as I practice doing that in my regular life, it’s more likely that I can bring that to the stage.

  7. Over the years, you’ve earned 3 Emmy® Awards, and 7 nominations, as well as multiple HMMA nominations among other awards. In fact, your piece Mischief is currently nominated for Contemporary Classical Composition at the HMMAs. Congratulations- these are truly incredible achievements! What more are you hoping to accomplish in the future?

    Currently, I am diving into the world of orchestration. I’m admittedly a novice at working in the digital world of music, and as much as I love composing for acoustic solo piano, I’m finding really deep satisfaction in expressing all the music in my head with every instrument that I hear. Hopefully this new skill will enhance my ability to create beautiful film scores and stand alone orchestrations for future recordings. And I hope to rest more often. I definitely think I need to take more naps.

  8. Do you have any tips for musicians who wish to follow in your footsteps?

    My advice would be to be present and aware of the opportunities to create opportunities. I used to think that opportunities were somehow outside myself and that if I blinked and missed one, I would never have another chance. What I’ve learned, however, is that most of the time I’ve invented opportunities for myself by just brainstorming and thinking giant thoughts — not just “out of the box”, because sometimes being “in the box” is where I might actually find something I don’t even know I’m looking for!

    Interview by Nami Melumad

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