Studio Visit: Faye Ballard
Studio Visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, Melissa Merli chats with Faye Ballard, a ragtime piano player from Champaign.
Q: How did you first get into ragtime?
A: This may be a long story. I started taking piano lessons when I was 7. When I turned 10, my father asked me to learn this ragtime piece, "Piano Roll Blues," and he wound up taking me to a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Decatur for my 10th birthday.
There was a guy there called Les Cripe; he had played piano for the old Harry James band. He wound up being a mentor to me. He let me go up on stage and play. He gave me some pointers — he taught me how to do my first serious rag, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf."
Q: From then on you were interested in ragtime?
A: Absolutely. Ted Lemen, the World Championship Old Time Piano Playing Contest founder, asked Les to come and play in the contest. Les didn't want to, so Les turned Ted onto me. I actually went and competed at 12 years of age.
Q: And did you compete every year after that?
A: Pretty much, basically up until I went to college. I got away from it a little bit then, but after I graduated, I got right back into it.
Q: What do you like about ragtime?
A: The fun thing about it is it's a challenge because you have to have classical training to do it right. But you also have to be able to improvise. So it's the best of both worlds. It's just fun music to play. You can't play good ragtime music and not be happy. It makes you feel good.
Q: Who are some of your favorite pianists?
A: Oh, let's see. Some of the old-timers. Johnny Maddox. I'm a major Scott Joplin fan. I also love Fats Waller. You can't go wrong with Eubie Blake.
Q: Do you ever go hear Paul Asaro at the Blind Pig?
A: Actually I'm taking lessons from him. He's been kind enough to pass on some lessons on my stride. Paul is absolutely a favorite of mine. In fact, he's agreed to be one of our rag judges in 2014. He's extremely knowledgeable about this style, and he's been a real gift to me to help me improve my playing.
Q: Didn't you study piano at the University of Illinois?
A: Yes. I have a bachelor's degree in music education, and I am currently finishing a master's degree in piano pedagogy.
Q: With whom do you study?
A: My main professor is Christos Tsitsaros. He is one of the main piano professors in the pedagogy program.
Q: What do you hope to do with your master's degree?
A: Of course, the contest keeps me busy, being its coordinator and everything. I'm also a church pianist at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Champaign. After I retire from the UI, hopefully I can work at a community college, like Parkland or Danville, and continue to give private lessons.
Q: Where do you work at the UI?
A: I am employed as an office manager at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. I've worked for the UI for 26 years. I just started this job this past October.
Q: Do you play piano around town?
A: I've gone to nursing homes. I've done Krannert Uncorked and various shows. Right now for "The Entertainers," (a documentary on the Old Time Piano Playing Contest) we are getting ready to do a showing, sometime during the week of Oct. 13-20, tentatively at the PianoForte Foundation's new facility in Chicago.
I'm also getting ready to do a show on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat — a two-hour dinner cruise on Oct. 19 and an overnight trip to Starved Rock on Oct. 21 and 22.
Q: What do think of "The Entertainers"?
A: My personal opinion is that it is fantastic. They put so much time and effort into doing it and showing who we are as people and contestants and about the contest itself.
Editor's note: The next World Championship Old Time Piano Playing Contest will be May 22-26 at the Sheraton Four Points in Peoria. For more information, visit oldtimepianocontest.org/. For more on the documentary, visit http://www.theentertainersmovie.com.