Playing Music for Life

Composer Eric Genuis discusses his approach to music — and life.

Eric Genuis has recently released his fourth CD, “Timeless.”

The virtuoso pianist, composer and performer gives upwards of 100 concerts a year. A resident of Denver, Genuis is on a “Concert of Hope” series to help raise money for crisis-pregnancy centers. He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake while on the road in Texas.

Where are you from originally? Tell me about your family.

I grew up the youngest of four brothers in a suburb outside Toronto, Canada. My parents were born and raised in Malta during the Second World War. They immigrated to Canada. My mother was a nurse; my father was a laborer for the railroad. We grew up in a great environment.

Did you grow up Catholic?

I did. At the age of 11, I became an organist at our parish, St. Thomas More Catholic Church. At that time, I didn’t really understand a lot about my faith. When I was 15, I became a choir director, conducting a traditional choir. I remember thinking, I’m going to all of these Masses. I better take them seriously or stop going.

Was there a real love of music in your family growing up?

No, but my parents supported each of us in what we were good at. They wanted to give us the opportunities that they didn’t have.

How did you first get started playing music?

From the age of 10, I always took piano lessons. I was a late starter, but I loved to play. I played for hours and hours a day. After college, I became a math teacher. One day, in 1993, a young lady who I was courting and is now my wife, asked me if I would do a benefit concert for World Youth Day in Denver. I loved to compose, so I composed and performed some of my compositions, and things just started happening. I told the Lord that I wouldn’t say No if anyone asked me to play, and it just kind of grew from there.

For your last three CDs, you’ve used the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. How did that connection come about?

The conductor, Alan Wilson, was referred to me by several people whom I know. So, on a whim, I contacted him. It was a very different project, because he’s used to working with big studio projects, and I knew that my budget wasn’t what he was used to.

He graciously took on the project and recommended the Slovak orchestra.

Practically, I sent him the music months before. He prepared everything, and I showed up and played with the orchestra. We recorded about 27 pieces in about five days and recorded all three albums at the same time.

He’s become a big supporter of what I’m trying to do. I’m very passionate about my music and the project. At one point, he turned to me and said, “I really want to do something passionate with the rest of my life.” Something in him was very stirred. He gave me the nicest compliment at the end of the project when he said, “This was very beautiful, and it means more to me than you will ever know.”

For the last two years, you’ve performed a “Celebrating Life” concert in Connecticut. Tell me about that concert.

We did a huge concert at a church in Stamford in 2008. Last year, we performed at a concert hall. Both concerts were for a place called Malta House, a home for unwed mothers who have nowhere to live.

Do you have some favorite musicians?

I really love instrumental, orchestral music. There are some composers who are real geniuses, such as Bach. I also love Ennio Morricone. He writes beautiful, accessible music. I’m moved by music like that and am a sucker for a beautiful melody.

What are you trying to convey in your music?

Confucius said, “If you want to know the morality of a nation, let me hear their music.” That speaks to the power and the impact of music. Music has a profound impact on the person. I’m trying to write music that’s beautiful and uplifting. I want to be able to go anywhere, play my music and have people relate to it. I love to make people happy and want to bring true joy.

One of the things I see as I travel is that hope seems to be dwindling among young people. I play in a lot of schools and play for thousands of young people. They seem cynical about life, the future, the country. I try to get into schools and prisons so that I can connect with them. The arts can bring hope because they can move people. I want to encourage them and stir them to something greater.

I remember a story about a man who became a prisoner of war and was imprisoned for years. Someone asked him how he was able to not lose his mind. He said that every day he remembered the most beautiful pieces of music that he had heard, and that gave him hope and joy.

It’s only in the last couple of generations that we’ve reduced music to just entertainment. People have iPods to their ears, but what’s in the iPod? Is it music that is encouraging and builds hope? Or is it music that brings cynicism and aggression?

Tell me about your new pro-life concert effort.

Often after concerts, people will ask me, “If you would have known that your daughter had Down syndrome, would you have continued the pregnancy?” Twenty years ago, no one would have asked you that question. If people can ask whether it’s even conceivable that my daughter should not have lived, what questions will they be asking in five years? I’m worried about the social trend. People’s hearts and minds are following the laws we pass. I’m not called to complain, but have to do everything in my power to change this.

I’m working with Kelly Copeland, a former builder from Tucson, Ariz., to do fundraising and awareness concerts around the country to raise money for crisis-pregnancy centers.

The “Concert of Hope” tour will include concerts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arizona and Florida. We’re trying to set up other concerts across the country. St. Josémaria Escrivá said that “prayer and the sacraments come first, but we must have apostolic work.”

We need soldiers who will rise and join us. It’s time to wake up the sleeping giant and raise money for a great cause.

You’ve also taken to teaching piano online. Tell me about that effort.

I have recorded 10 “Piano Freedom” videos, seven of which are online so far.

Eventually we’ll have a hundred. The purpose is to simply help someone who wants to play a simple Christmas tune or folk song.

If you can encourage people to have a basic understanding of how to get around on the piano, then you’ve given them a great gift, and a gift for life.

Tim Drake writes

from St. Joseph, Minnesota.


Stories Behind Eric Genuis’ Songs
“In Heaven’s Arms” “We have lost seven children, five miscarriages and two who were born but only survived for a couple of hours. ‘In Heaven’s Arms’ is very personal. I wrote it for Joseph Michael, who died in my arms in 1998. I wrote it, performed it, and sang it at his funeral. I sang it later at a concert, and a lot of people experienced something similar. They found it to be a source of healing. It’s a very personal piece of music that I composed for my family after the death of our son. For eternity, my son will see the face of God.”
“No Greater Love” “I wrote that for my wife and sang it as she walked up the aisle on our wedding day.”
“Here I Am” “I composed that for my daughter, who was born with Down syndrome. She wasn’t supposed to survive. I wrote that the day of her heart surgery. It was a love song from a father to a daughter.” “Valor” “I have a special devotion to St. Joseph. When I think of St. Joseph’s sublime relationship with the Blessed Mother and the Lord, I think of the things that define him. Playing ‘Valor’ is almost like a prayer and dedication and honor to St. Joseph. One of St. Joseph’s titles is ‘Valiant.’”
“The Final Battle” “This one is a bit more of an idea. Our faith is a daily battle. When I think of the words of St. Paul — ‘that I could lead many to Christ, but lose my own soul,’ — that’s quite powerful. I wanted to reflect the idea of faithfulness to the end. It reminds me of that line from A Man for All Seasons about ‘What does it profit a man?’ What is it that I value that could jeopardize my salvation? It’s one of my most important works for what it stands for. It’s fast, intense and engaging. It also reflects the idea that ‘Eye has not seen; ear has not heard,’ and that whatever we get out of this life, it cannot compare to the greatness to come in the next."