It goes without saying that we all miss being around one another.
Whether it’s enjoying live entertainment or simply going to a bar with friends, one of the most detrimental effects of the pandemic has been the way it has stripped us of our ability to come together. As a result, during the incredible challenges set before them, many live performers have (understandably) opted to slow down and wait for the pandemic to subside. However, even with overwhelming odds, there are those who were able to pivot successfully.
One particular team who managed to adapt to the online world are dueling pianists Cody Fenwick and Joel Lightman. As the voices behind the Great Canadian Dueling Pianos, Fenwick and Lightman have managed to turn their in-person performances into a bi-weekly online show. Backed by a supportive community, the two men have continued to build relationships with their followers and bring the gift of live music into people’s homes. Looking back at how this journey first began, Fenwick recalls a visit to a raucous piano bar.
“The first time I saw dueling pianos”, Fenwick begins, “I couldn’t get in to the venue because it was so rammed full of people. There was a line up and I said, ‘Man, there’s something going on here.’ This was about 10 years back. With ten years of doing this under my belt now, I know it’s the interaction between the pianists and the crowd and the fact that we’re doing nothing but requests that draws people.”
“We realized that we could take this to corporate and party audiences all over Canada, because there aren’t really any other companies here that do it,” says Lightman. “So, we started Great Canadian Dueling Pianos. Within eight months, we were flying all over the country. Within a year, we’d started our own dueling pianos club in downtown Toronto. It was a bit of a whirlwind and then, of course, the last year has been even more of a whirlwind.”
With the move to virtual performances, the most difficult challenge has been maintaining their connection with a live audience. Even so, the two men have done everything they could to make the best of the situation.“I suppose when you’re doing stuff like Guns ‘N’ Roses, we often rely on the fact that we expend so much energy playing these songs,” Lightman says. “They’re so rocking that, when people are in the room, they can feed off that. Doing that to an empty room with just Cody and I in it is different. There’s always that element of sterility when you watch something on a stream. I think we’ve definitely worked very hard to try and transcend that.”
“We really had to say ‘How do we do the same show with the same energy when it’s just us two?’ There’s always a synergy between performer and participant, right? They give us the energy and then we return that energy and we all play off one another. Then, when you take the audience away and just put us in a room with a bunch of cameras, we had to learn how to pretend that the audience was there. It’s very easy just to sit there and play – almost like piano practice. That’s the biggest mistake I’ve seen in other people’s streams – not treating it with the same enthusiasm as you would a real live show. We’ve definitely gotten better at it over time!”
“When this whole thing started at the end of March,” Fenwick says, “we started streaming as an experiment. We had no concept as to whether or not it would actually work. We also didn’t know how long the pandemic was going to last.”
“We did the first show and partnered with the Daily Bread Food Bank.” Lightman says. “we made a fairly astonishing amount of money, and we thought, ‘If we can keep this going, this is a way of surviving. And we’ve actually thrived. I believe that consistency was key to our success. The fact that we do this every Wednesday and Saturday has built a community of people who expect us to be there and are excited to come and share music with us. The most important thing that we’ve done is build a community.”
“We’re also doing corporate shows.” Fenwick says. “We have a wonderful client base and before this all started, we had a full calendar. Everything initially just disappeared when COVID began, but the ability for us to actually keep playing these events by appearing virtually is priceless.”With each online performance, Fenwick and Lightman continue to build the dedication of their audience.
Due to the flexibility of the online world, they have found that their following are willing to bring the two pianists wherever they go, including on vacations.
“It’s pretty amazing. We definitely have a core of about a hundred people who will come at least once a week,” says Lightman. “We’ve thrown some of our profits back into advertising and making sure that new eyes see the shows. But there’s definitely a core of people who like the concept, love coming and listening no matter where they are. We’ve had people who’ve taken us camping with them and people listening in their hot tubs. We’ve had people send us pictures of themselves, sat on the dock of their cottage, listening to the music. It’s amazing how far our reach has jumped.”
“We accepted an invitation to go and play a block party right in the middle of COVID last summer,” Fenwick says. “We packed the pianos up, went out there and they had invited the entire block. So, we played the cul-de-sac with each household out on their porches. The organisers invited us back, and we decided that once we’d made $2,000 for the food bank, we’d return and do a show in full drag, which was a first for me. Every opportunity that we’ve had to play, we’ve tried to capitalize on and do it safely and responsibly.”
At first, it may seem odd that there would be such demand for live piano music at a time like this. However, there remains something universally profound about the nature of music. Asked what it is that they believe affects their audience so deeply, Lightman argues that it’s the incredible human connection that they maintain with their viewers that keeps bringing people back.
“I’d like to think that we’re very honest about what we do,” he explains. “So if you ask me for a song that I may have heard 20 years ago, then I will happily give that a go for you, but it’s not going to be the most rehearsed thing in the world. There is definitely something very human about us saying that we will rise to any challenge you throw at us. You see a band and they’re absolutely perfect. That’s awesome. I play with a bunch of bands like that, but that is not dueling pianos. You’re not coming to see a choreographed performance. You’re coming to see two people who are very talented try and do anything that you could ask of them. I think that’s what really resonated with people. It’s very human because there have definitely been songs that I have started and, within a minute, have certainly regretted.”
“We both have. It’s just one of those high wire acts. That’s part of the human connection that you’re talking about,” Fenwick says. “People like to see that. All musicians know the benefit of music in people’s lives, especially when things get really difficult. It’s a mental health issue. But I think it takes some people by surprise how important live music actually is to them – because they’ve never had to be without it before. It’s a great testament to the human spirit and it was quite a surprise to both of us.”
Of course, despite the fact that the show focuses on requests from its audience, both men have their favourite songs that they love to play as well.
“One of the crowd pleasers that I really like is Bohemian Rhapsody,” says Fenwick. “That really works well because people love to sing along and are often surprised that two people can create the necessary wall of sound to pull it off. Of course, we also have the ubiquitous requests. The tunes you know are going to be requested night after night. But I love playing longer tunes that have a more pianistic approach to them. That gives us a chance to stretch out and gives us fresh opportunities to get the audience involved.”
“I’m a child of the 90s so I grew up listening to rock music,” Lightman says. “If someone asks me for Sweet Child O’ Mine, Nirvana, Sublime or any of that stuff from like mid-90s, that stuff makes me incredibly happy. I like nothing more than stepping behind my instrument and screaming my head off. It’s very cathartic. Actually, I think it has kept my mental health on a good path during COVID. Just being able to go and release all that stress by singing my socks off and playing the piano like a monster. I want to expend as much energy as possible behind the piano so that when we finish the gig, I can go home and like fall straight to sleep.”
As vaccinations begin to take hold and venues begin to open up, the obvious question remains whether or not they will continue to offer online performances. Although they can’t wait to get in front of an audience again, they have also discovered the importance of maintaining these online relationships.
“We actually have corporate work scheduled all the way through the end of October for streaming events so I don’t think it’s going away. So many people have gotten used to the fact that now there should be entertainment at the tip of your fingers. I’ve seen other piano acts in the States who are still streaming their in-person shows now that they can do them again. I just don’t think we’d stop. It’s such a useful extra revenue stream. The fact that there are people in senior’s homes, hospitals and other places who can’t get out to enjoy shows anymore, and that we’re able to entertain them and provide them a lifeline is fantastic.”
If you’d like to hear Lightman and Fenwick perform, you can hear their live broadcast every Wednesday at 7:30 and every Saturday at 8:00pm on Facebook Live. You can find the link here.