Questions about Rufus Wainwright’s technique

April 16, 2006

I am a somewhat regular member of the Rufus Wainwright Message Board, hosted by Dreamworks. This group has been a tremendous help to me in researching my book. I’d like to share a few recents posts.

One of the strings I posted was “Does Rufus read music?” I asked because of the thousands of pictures I’ve seen of him, there is not a single one where he has sheet music anywhere near him. Many people pitched in trying to help, but not until this week did a member called “pes” find an interview that has helped answer my question:

In his own words from an August 2005 interview in The Pitch (

In reponse to the question, “There’s been some talk about how the term “classically trained” may be overused in describing musicians, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to Alicia Keys. To you, what does it mean to be classically trained?”

“I was actually classically trained — I was badly classically trained. I never ever practiced piano. I can still hardly read music. I actually failed out of music school when I went to a conservatory. Saying that, though, I very much appreciate and cherish my experiences in that world. I mean, even if you’re not particularly good at the music, to still be around some of those dedicated musicians and some of those great works of art, it has an impact. Even just to be around classical music, even if you’re not being trained in it, is very important for the mind.”

Child playing pianoI have to say I relate to Rufus’s situation as it is very similar to mine. I grew up having a really good “ear” meaning I could pick music off of LPs without the sheet music. I suspect Rufus has always had that gift as well.

Many “classically trained” musicians just can’t do this, they need sheet music in front of them in order to play. Playing by ear and improvisation is not always taught or encouraged in music schools. I came late to reading and writing down music, so as a result, I’m not very good at sitting down at the piano and just playing anything put in front of me. Musicians like Rufus and me develop a great ability to memorize to compensate for this lack. Danny Elfman is someone who, at the beginning, had absolutely no ability to notate music. Critical film composers in LA love to trash him for this “deficiency.” Elfman surrounds himself with a whole crew of assistants who notate his improvisations or unnotated music. To me, this does not diminish a composer’s talent at all. I never had classical piano lessons as a boy, but played the piano all the time — and guitar. Who knows what Danny’s reason was. Rufus very likely learned a great deal from his mother BY EAR.

Sooooo, if Rufus ain’t so good at notating music, he better get better or he’ll have to pay a fair amount of money to notate his opera, which evidently he had to do when he played with Pops orchestras a couple of years back. I’m also hoping that they are saving money by using Judy Garland’s original charts for his upcoming Carnegie Hall show. You can be sure that Rufus will not be making them!

My primary Rufus genius is known as Rhapsody, who posts on this blog as well, asked my the following question:

How confusing….he says he never practiced the piano, yet he says he likes to spend hours a day composing at the piano (confirmed in Martha’s song about Rufus, Laurel & Hardy–“plays the piano till he swoons…”). I wonder if his definition of “practicing” is highly specific to practicing written music, rather than practicing playing the piano itself (if that makes sense). I don’t see how anyone could play the way he does (singing at the same time) without practicing for hours and hours.

So….Roger….does this mean he would also not be able to notate? Can you understand music theory and composing/writing music without being able to sit and sightread piano pieces?

When someone studies piano, part and parcel of it is practicing scales and arpeggios. Can you imagine Rufus finding that boring? He might be assigned a Bach 2 part invention: ok, but fairly far from Rufus’s aesthetic. Or a Beethoven piano sonata, or a little piece by Schubert, or an intermezzo by Brahms, or a Mozart sonata or…

Well, you see? Rufus is not really an instrumental composer. I don’t ever expect him to write a set of Preludes (although I’d LOVE it if he did), or piano sonata or concerto, or a Symphony. Songs, of course; song cycles, stay tuned, I’m sure he’ll embrace that as he gets older; cantata, maybe; musical or opera — a natural but Rufus has zero experience in creating large scale forms like that. He’s a song writer. He says the melody always comes first. So what that would mean to me, is that he could sit for hours at the piano working out his ideas, over and over. Because he likely doesn’t write it down (I’ll bet he records many of his improvisations), he plays it till he memorizes it. Scales and arpeggios? Yuk. Guaranteed to help technique in a young pianist, but boring to a young songwriter.

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