With twenty-six releases and well over a million recordings sold, Sally thrills audiences internationally with her passionate and entertaining piano appearances. Her formal training from age four through her Master's Degree, plus being on a university piano faculty does not stop her from her antics on stage. Sally parodies classical music, tells wild stories and plays beautifully woven melodies of her own with grace, passion and virtuosity.
Sally has been joined on stage and in studio with many musical giants, but actually she prefers her bass-playing husband, Frank Gruner. Together, they have done two national concert tours as well as thousands of appearances in the Portland area and abroad. Their DVD was aired on public television. Sally has also played steadily in the New York and DC areas for politicians, ambassadors, sports teams, marathoners and dignitaries including the Vice President, also in Sweden for the King and Queen.
You can find her on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Youtube, Pandora, and Sirius XM Radio.
How long have you been playing piano?
Since I was four years old.
What made you choose piano?
My older sister took piano from a very handsome teacher, so I wanted lessons too. I was only three years old at the time; too young for lessons, so on my own, I would learn all of my sister's songs by ear. My parents found me a teacher when I turned four.
When did you get serious about it?
When I was ten my parents had me play for Stewart Gordon, an internationally known concert pianist and educator. He accepted me and my sister as students. We were his youngest students. Most all of his other students were in college or graduate school. I studied with him for the next thirteen years, earning a Masters Degree in Music.
Did your parents make you practice?
Of course! I was just like any other kid. Yes, there were many times when I would rather have been playing with my friends than practicing piano, but I'm glad my parents reminded me to practice. As a child I mostly practiced one hour a day. In high school and college many times four hours a day. But also, after working on my "formal training" assignments, I played around on the piano all the time. I played anything I heard and liked, improvised with friends, and composed.
You play with such joy and feeling. How is that?
From early on, the piano for me has been my emotional outlet. No matter what goes on in my life, playing piano expresses that, and always puts me right with the world.
What were your influences when growing up?
Growing up in Washington D.C., There was great art, music, and theater everywhere. My parents took me to museums and to everything that came to town. Many well known musicals came to D.C. before they became Broadway hits. I saw almost all of them. We also went to the symphony every week for years. As a teenager, I got into folk and pop, listening to James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carol King, Cat Stevens as well as lots of classical music. In college I was introduced to jazz and learned some of that language. Travel was another thing-our family went to Europe a lot, where I saw fantastic art, and some plays in London I'll never forget. Those experiences inspired me to pursue art and drama as passionately as music.
Why did you happen to pick music as your career?
During high school it was a struggle for me to choose between, piano, acting, and art. I had a big time passion for all three, which I still have. I was in many theatrical productions and I studied painting and drawing. I sorted it out by the time I went to College. I realized early on that musicians work more than actors. As far as art goes, I could still pursue that. But I guess music won out as it had been with me the longest, and when I got a taste of performing and teaching, I realized that would be the best route for me. Also, when I play music, I think about the context from where it came. For example, if the piece is from a movie or musical, I can create a role for myself that reflects the drama of the show, which helps me put more emotion in my music. All of my acting experience has been really good for me. I think it's helped me to get up in front of a few thousand people and know how to project and reach everybody.
Is it difficult to create the album covers and music?
They go hand in hand. When we start a project, I think about both simultaneously. I try to make the art dovetail with the music. Sometimes when we're through recording an album, I'll switch gears, grab my paints and knock out art for the cover.
What are you current musical influences?
Among others my husband Frank, who is a jazz bass player who grew up listening to swing, Jazz, pop and influences way different than mine. Frequently in my office you'll hear Mozart, while in his you'll hear Miles Davis or other funky stuff. My music now is a marriage of these styles. He got me into playing more jazz, adding rhythm sections and playing time. I listen to David Benoit, BIll Evans, Vince Guaraldi, Gene Harris as well as Claudio Arrau and Andre Watts.
When did you start performing for people?
Besides playing for my friends and family, I played for my high school in the ninth grade. After getting a standing ovation and then a marriage proposal from one of my class mates, I thought, "I like this." That was one of the deciding factors in my career.
What is your favorite type of venue?
When I was getting my Masters Degree, I had to do classical concerts. I liked the music but I didn't particularly like the pressure and the competition. I liked smaller, more intimate types of venues. There, I could improvise and have more fun. I love being around people and entertaining. I like that "one on one" feeling that happens in smaller rooms. There were a lot of great clubs in and around DC. I used my classical training to do arrangements of popular and most requested songs that everybody liked to hear. Since we've become distributed all over the US, Canada, and Taiwan, I've been asked to play more concerts. So, if I treat a large audience with the same attitude as I treat a smaller audience, I can to get that same intimate feeling.
What is your inspiration for your original music?
Sometimes every once in a while I get a gift from above, and that gift is a song. Songs like that are the result of thinking about something for a while, maybe worrying or just being really glad about something or someone close to me. I'll sit down at the piano and here it comes. Usually my daughter and husband are at the top of my thoughts. They are very supportive of my music. Frank is a bass player and graphic designer who plays on most of our albums. Some songs come in as ideas that get developed over a period of time into an arrangement. Sometimes I'll come up with a phrase that I really think is cool and I'll want to include it in an arrangement. I'll keep trying to squeeze it into one arrangement or another. Finally it will fit.
How did you arrive at your latest instrumentation for your last three albums?
From listening to different recordings and hearing penny whistle for the first time. Also wanting to expand and play with other instruments. I've recently discovered the joy of playing with other artists. It's a great creative situation to feed off of each other. I've found a new interest in arranging for other instruments besides piano, and learned from some excellent musicians. That's why I've expanded my sound, although I still love to play solo. When I go out to play concerts, sometimes its solo, sometimes Frank plays bass with me, sometimes its the whole band, depending on the venue.
What made you expand to piano orchestrations for your solo piano arrangements?
I've discovered the joy of playing with other artists. It's a great creative situation to feed off of each other. I've found a new interest in arranging for other instruments besides piano, and learned from some excellent musicians. That's why I've expanded my sound, although I still love to play solo. When I go out to play concerts, sometimes its solo, sometimes Frank plays bass with me, sometimes its the whole band, depending on the venue.
Out of all the cities you've lived in, Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, OR, your present home, which one do you like the best?
As a musician, they are all very stimulating, but as a mother and a family person, I really think Portland is the best of all. It's a medium size city with all the great qualities of a small town and the advantages of a larger city. It's friendly and safe, and a great place to raise children. There is also tremendous talent up here. When we do an album project, world class musicians and engineers are here to help us.
Not only from audience requests, but because my husband, Frank says "I've still got it." The stars and planets all lined up perfectly as we were asked to play in the brand new Red Skelton Performing Arts Center in VIncennes Indiana to a sold out house. So why not film it? The DVD so beautifully captures the excitement of the evening that it will be shown on Public Television in the Midwest. And who knows, if someday our great grandchildren can figure out how to operate an antique DVD player they can find out about us.
How was it doing a 36-city national concert tour in 52 days, two years in a row?
Together with Frank, I felt part celebrity, part gypsie, part roadie, part survivalist and never felt more alive.