An Interview with John Mark Piper

By Andrew Richardson for Percussive Notes, March 2017.

When I was an undergraduate, a friend gave me John Mark Piper’s CD Just a Step Away to listen to, and I was hooked. His catchy melodies and rhythmically-active accompaniment style grabbed my attention and have held it for years. After discovering the unique career path he has led for the past several years, I asked him to share his story.

Piper is an author, clinician, composer, and performer and is supported by Musser/Ludwig, Mike Balter Mallets, AKGMicrophones,and Steve Weiss Music.

Andrew Richardson: I read on your website that you studied with Gary Burton. Was he your first vibraphone teacher?

John Mark Piper: No,he was my second or third. Bill Molenhof was my first teacher. He was an excellent teacher and I had him first, then he referred me onto Gary after about a year of studying.

AR: Did you start percussion in grade school?

JMP: Yes. I started playing snare drum, and back then things were a little bit different. We weren’t as well versed as the kids are today. I excelled at snare drum and they actually created a class for me so I could move on because my classmates weren’t moving on, which was kind of nice. From there I went into high school and played snare drum. I was one of the few drummers that could read music in our high school band. Most of the time we were improvising and we were okay.

AR: Was it after high school that you started to focus on the vibraphone?

JMP: Yes, after high school I went to Berklee. I was lucky because they let me in. When I started Berklee, I didn’t know where C was on the piano. So that’s where I was starting. I studied with Alan Dawson, who was a great drumset teacher, then Gary Chafee who is one of my all-time favorite teachers. Then I saw this incredible player named Gary Burton play the vibraphone, and it just knocked me out! Sol started leaning in that direction because they started introducing me to learning more than drumset only. I started getting more involved in the keyboard aspects of percussion and then studied with Bill [Molenhof]. I ended up selling everything I had drum-wise and buying a vibraphone and focused on that. Then they put me in with Gary [Burton]. He was an excellent teacher, but I was such a beginner.

AR: What was your first vibe, do you remember?

JMP: Yeah! A Musser M-55 Pro Vibe. I bought it from Manny’s in New York, and I still have the receipt! It was $850.00 brand new.

AR: What was the beginning of your professional career and how were you able to go about booking performances and gigs?

JMP: Well, the term professional is kind of a gray area. I played gigs in high school. I left Berklee in ’77 and joined a road band, and that led to a contact that led me to being a music director with a comedy show in Las Vegas for about a year. That was fun and very educational. I’d advise students today to keep in contact with everyone they meet in college and along the way. These contacts are critical!

AR: Were you playing and directing?

JMP: Yes. I started off with just a trio. That was in Reno, and then we moved to Las Vegas. It was a six-piece band, and I wrote most of the arrangements. And with that opportunity I was able to go and rehearse the band for The Merv Griffin Show. I got to be on twice and guess who I wrote bass parts for: Ray Brown! He actually tapped me on the head and said, “Good job, sonny! ” I was kind of proud of myself, because I was scared to death.

AR: How did performing and traveling lead to the development of the Piper vibraphone?

JMP: From Vegas, I worked other gigs, always trying to be more of a jazz musician than the other things I had to do to make a living. I would head back to my hometown of Springfield, Illinois and play gigs whenever I could, always trying to focus on the vibraphone. When playing with Top 40 bands, I did so on the drumset. I got married and moved to L.A. in ’81. In L.A., I was again playing six nights a week in Top 40 bands. Finally, I got disgusted with that whole Top 40 thing, so I quit the band and started playing the streets of Pasadena with my M- 5 5 vibraphone. I did great.

I set up my vibraphone and was selling tapes and handing out business cards. I made great contacts; I ended up playing for parties for Tom Selleck and Nancy Reagan. Paul Revere and the Raiders’ Mark Lindsay came by and said, “ Hey, I really like what you ’re doing. ” He flew me out to the middle of nowhere and I played at his wedding, [laughs] We became friends and I got to play on his last album.

Playing all the street performances took a toll on my vibraphone. The instrument didn’t work very well. It didn’t stop notes on the high end, it didn’t stop notes on the low end. I was constantly trying to redesign that M-55. At one point, I drove the vibraphone to Musser. They gave it back in the same condition because they didn’t know how to fix it either.

I started experimenting with it, and l actually saved dryer felt for months and tried to make my own felt that would do a better job, but that never worked. I kept getting these ideas and I’d try them. All the while I was playing in the streets and working on developing a solo vibe style. One day l got so frustrated with having my vibraphone all in parts on the living room floor that I decided to take a bike ride and get my mind off it. So I went out to the garage, got my bicycle, and it had a flat tire! I thought, “ What a day! ” I go to fix the inner tube and the lightbulb went off. The problem with this vibraphone not damping on the ends is that the pressure wasn’t being pushed to the ends. I got the idea of a liquid filled bladder, so I took that inner tube, cut it, put water in it, clamped the ends, and it worked like a charm. That was the beginning of making things work.

From that, I had an idea of making a suspension system. I always wanted to have a shock- absorbing bar-mounting system. I actually took an old bar mount and used a round file to file it into the shape I had in mind. I experimented with some rubber around it and came up with this bar mount, which I now have a patent on. That’s what is on the Piper Vibraphone. And makes all the difference in the sound.

AR: So you came up with a whole new design for the pegs that hold the bar string up and suspend the bars?

JMP: Yeah. The string sits under the top of the peg, and the rubber sleeve holds the string up. So the string bounces on the rubber sleeve instead of on the metal and insulates the two from each other. You probably played with tin-can telephones as a child. The sound travels through string like crazy, so every time you hit the instrument, that thumping sound resonates through the frame. The shock-absorbing bar mounts eliminates all that. The only thing you hear when you strike the Piper vibraphone is the sound of the bar resonating in the resonators. My objective when designing it was to create a “frameless frame” that was completely isolated from the bars. You can still easily remove the bars from the instrument, though.

AR: What was the inspiration for the aluminum frame, as opposed to the traditional wooden rails with metal legs?

JMP: The bicycles again. I loved the machining done on lightweight bicycles. The problem with the original Piper Vibe is that it was so heavy. Wood frames are difficult in many ways. They tend to creak like old wood floors. They also give a lot. When you push the pedal down, the wood rails bend toward the floor by a substantial amount in the middle of the frame. I wanted to use hollow tubing but couldn’t come up with a good way to mount the bar mounts. It’s a very long story and ongoing still. But now, there are many more manufacturing options and I’m working on a new lightweight frame that will be for the touring pro.

The Piper Vibe was only good on a concert stage or in a studio. I think it was misread by high schools and colleges. They thought it was built like a tank and they could take it out to the football field. It wasn’t made for that, but nobody was going to tell them they couldn’t buy it. So I think some people bought it and didn’t like it. The license for the Piper Vibe is up this year and Musser quit making them. The last Piper Vibe Musser made is exactly like the first one I made. I sent them updates, they even paid for updates at times, but they didn’t get implemented. In a factory it’s really difficult to make changes. My personal instrument is completely different. I took 40 pounds off!

AR: I ’m not sure the M55 weighed 40 pounds to begin with! [laughs]

JMP: The M55 is about 65 to 70 pounds, with the bars and everything. The instrument I use probably weighs around 80.

AR: A lot of that is bars, I would imagine. So when you take them off, it makes moving a little easier.

JMP: Right. The instrument I’m working on now will be travel friendly and acceptable as baggage on airlines. I’ve been working off and on for along time but only recently got serious about it. I’m almost finished with it, and it’s called the Piper Flyer.

AR: Musser used to have the ProTraveler break down for air travel.

JMP: They still do. I heard from the engineers that Gary [Burton] came to them and said he needed something he could take with him. He suggested that it be able to fold up. They had a time frame to get it done, they threw it together and, of course, very little has changed since the very first one. If my design of the Piper Flyer isn’t better than that, I won’t bother with it.

AR: I read that in 2007 you decided to step away from a full-time music career and begin training for the fire service. Speak a little bit about that transition and your inspiration.

JMP: I did my CD [Just a Step Away] in 1997, and that got a lot of attention. It really did change some people’s thinking about solo vibraphone. It made a big splash, but I didn’t make any money on it. I figured out through all my years of teaching, traveling, building vibraphones, and so many different things that I’ve got a lot of talent. One of the things I don’t have talent in is making money, [laughs] So that influenced me to not make another CD. It seemed like a waste of money. It was costing me money to have a CD because I wanted everyone to hear it, and if they weren’t going to buy it, I was going to mail it to them anyway. The other part that encouraged me was I felt like there were other things I could still do, and I wanted to do them. One of the items on my bucket list was to see if I could make it through the fire academy. Well, I did it. So at age 521 got hired as a full time, professional firefighter.

As musicians, we all know that what we do is important, we know that it has purpose, but my neighbors don’t know that. My family didn’t know that; many of my relatives and friends didn’t know that. So, after a while, it will wear on you and you start feeling like you want to do something that obviously has purpose. Sol said, “ I’m going to give it a try. ” I entered the fire academy, did well, got hired, and even received the Firefighter of the Year award my second year. I became a paramedic and obtained a lot of additional certifications such as high angle rescue, swift water rescue, confined space rescue, airport rescue fire fighting, heavy machinery extrication. These are all different things that you have to go through training to get [certified] that are above and beyond entry-level firefighting.

I enjoyed it, but music, of course, is who we are. I mean,we don’t choose music,that’s just who we are. That was always a part of me and it kept getting louder and louder until finally, after about seven years of answering 911 calls, I started to yearn for the music again. Two things were happening: my desire to create music was growing deeper and higher, and my desire and ideas kept getting greater,and my patent licensing was running out on the Piper Vibraphone. So I decided it was time to exit the fire service, but I wanted to doit big.[laughs] So what would it be? I’ve always been intrigued with Antarctica. I thought, with all the scientists and researchers that are studying in Antarctica, I bet they need paramedics. I did a search and found a position for firefighter/ paramedic with the Antarctic Fire Rescue, and I started jumping through the hoops and training for it. I ended up getting hired, so that’s what I do now.

AR: Although it sounds like you stopped performing professionally when you became a firefighter, I would imagine you continued to play for your own enjoyment. Speak a little bit about the difference between playing as a profession and playing as a hobby.

JMP: It has to do with how you view what you do. One of the things is that I can see what a musician looks like now from a “non-musician” point of view.

AR: Because you were a “non-musician”?

JMP: Right, I was doing what “ they” do. Very involved with the community, doing things that, as an artist, I was on the outside of, or perhaps in the very center of, you know? So I see you from their eyes and I see me from their eyes, which is an incredible eye-opener.

AR: You got to experience art as the “consumer”

JMP: Yeah, or the non-consumer—the people who think we don’t have a purpose. I can see what they see and don’t see. So [being on the outside] affects how you play your music and, in some ways, it broadens your horizons. It gave me a broader palette for music that isn’t necessarily in the genre that I always focused on. I have more respect for country music, more respect for Latin music, more respect for all the different types of music, and I have a less bigoted mind because there are geniuses in everyone of those genres. That helped me.

As far as practicing, I found that I didn’t like to doit! [laughs] I didn’t like practicing for the sake of practicing. So l didn’t practice much at all; for about five years I probably didn’t touch my instrument more than five times. Then I started missing it, so I booked a couple of gigs. I really enjoyed it, but I had to practice. I found that it’s like riding a bike. I used to practice every day, all day. I would even get up at 2 a. m. when I had kids. For eight years I got up at 2 a.m. and practiced in my soundproofed garage with a monitor so I could hear when the babies woke up.

During the day I was Mr. Mom; between 2a.m. and 7a.m. I was playing music. Then I would do some gigs at night. I went to Antarctica and for five months I didn’t have a vibraphone. I came back here, and a week later I was playing the Oklahoma PAS Days of Percussion, and I think everyone thought it was okay. I did have to practice hard, though. I didn’t just walk up there; I spent hours each day to pull it back together.

AR: Are there any musical opportunities in Antarctica? What instruments did you have down there? Can you bring a vibe and how would you go about doing that?

JMP: I’m working on it. I am going to bring a vibraphone with me this time. That’s what l’m designing and building right now. I’m going to make ten of them and sell them, just frames. I’ll make a batch, sell them, and make more. These frames are just to accommodate bars and resonators that Musser already has out. Musser’s bars and resonators are great; the frames aren’t what they could be.

The other part of your question was about musical opportunities in Antarctica; there are not many. I met an Air Force pilot who played piano well. I met a saxophone player that plays pretty well, but they are amateurs and do it for fun. People who work in Antarctica do little concerts and gigs for each other, but it’s almost all garage-band cover stuff. I didn’t get involved with that and don’t really want to, but I do want to take my vibraphone there because we’ve got a little chapel that has great acoustics and I would love to do some playing for people there.

AR: Did the other workers there know your history as a professional musician ?

JMP: Some of them learned it. Also, I offered music theory lessons. They had all these musicians and they support it great, the problem is that the cap is so low. There were two singers there that were superb! But they’re scared to sing anyplace but Antarctica, and they are as good as any singer I’ve heard. I keep telling them to get out and do it when they’re in the States.

AR: Maybe you could make a recording down there.

JMP: That would be nice because these two singers are great and they have their own style. They sing other people’s songs, but they do their own thing.

AR: You recently completed a new book; what can we expect from that and what was your inspiration for that?

JMP: Almost completed. I have two books called The Shapes and Patterns of Music Vol. 1 and 2. I threw those together because back then the programs to write music weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. I wrote them on free programs, so the notes are there, but they aren’t very user friendly.

AR: I used it a lot for sight-reading; it is good for accidentals and intervals.

JMP: It’s great for sight-reading! But in Antarctica, I had time to pull them together and do a nice revision with added text for instruction. I realized there are a few pages missing at the front of the books that would help. I started writing them and it turned into 75 pages, [laughs] So that became Intervals, an entirely new book. Intervals uses a cool formula that takes every possible way the notes can go. When you stick with the formula, the exercises make sense, and they naturally increase in difficulty as you go through the book.

Intervals begins by working with a single semitone and taking it through the building blocks of music using the following formula. Every interval within an octave is covered by the end of the book.

The first exercise is Exercise 1:1:1:A. (See Example 1.) The first number in the formula represents the predominant interval: 1 semitone.

The second number signifies that the preceding interval will be modulated up 1 semitone until it cycles back to itself. The third number indicates the starting position of that series of modulations. Note that each modulation series has a different number of starting position in order to cover all notes. For instance, if you modulate an interval up by half steps, P4th or P5th you only need one starting position to cycle through all options. That is indicated in the formula with the number 1. If The Minor Second you modulate up by two semitones (a whole step), you will need to start the modulations in two apposing positions, i.e., the whole-tone scale beginning on C to C and then beginning on C-sharp to C-sharp. The second starting position is indicated by a “ 2. ’’ When modulating by a minor third or three semitones, you must begin your modulation in three different starting positions, and if you are modulating by a major third or four semitones, you will need four starting positions.

The letter in the formula represents which inversion. Each interval and modulation combination has a total of four possible inversions. A is first inversion to first inversion. B is first inversion to second inversion C is second inversion to first inversion, D is second inversion to second inversion. Note: C going to C-sharp is considered first inversion. C-sharp going to C is the same interval but is second inversion.

AR: So the new book has a series of exercises. Do they help with technically moving around the instrument or ideas for improvisation ?

JMP: It covers everything; that’s what is cool about it. It uses the actual building blocks of music and sets them in every order, but in a structured, patterned way, which keeps it interesting. It’s not just nonsensical; they make musical sense.

AR: So it has some similarities to The Shapes and Patterns?

JMP: It does, but it is a prerequisite, and it’s more thought out and more fun, I think. One of the reasons I write these books is that I’m a terrible music reader. For the amount of work I put into trying to be good, something doesn’t connect. So I write these books and they have made me a better reader, but I’m still not great.

AR: So students could use it for different reasons: if they wanted to become better readers; improve their technical ability; and to get ideas for composing and improvising all in one book?

JMP: Yes and [improve their] ears.

AR: It sounds like you could use it on steel pan, trumpet, anything.

JMP: Yes, it should work on every instrument.

AR: When do you think this might be available ?

JMP: Intervals is 90 percent finished, and it’s a project l can easily finish while deployed to Antarctica. I have that and three other books I want to do while I’m deployed. Two of them are The Shapes revisions. The third is my method of teaching beginning music. Intervals will definitely be finished by the time I return to the States in June of 2017.

AR: Any plans for recordings ?

JMP: There’s a good chance that I will record a new CD on my own in that little church in Antarctica. It’s going to be all pop songs. I like the songs of my era, the ’60s and ’70s—Joni Mitchell and things like that.. There are a lot of tunes that would lay well the way l play now. I could give a different kind of rendition to them and I would like to do that.

AR: Last March, you were a guest artist for the Oklahoma PAS Days of Percussion. Are there other performances you’ve done recently in the States? What are your current performance goals?

JMP: The most recent performances were at Temple University and the University of Delaware. They were all similar: I presented for them and did clinics. I also have another project going on. I think about where we are as musicians, where are we as local artists. When I became a national or international name back in the ’90s and people would call me to go places, Musser would pay for airfare and I had sponsorship, but I was not a local artist. I never played anything in my area. It’s a completely different kind of game. Coming back and being a local artist, I’m realizing it’s a tough row to hoe and there’s no reason for that to be. For instance, back when I was younger, I played six nights a week and sometimes I could play four nights a week playing jazz as a “no-name.” So why can’t we do that? The reasons are many. Now, entertainment at your desktop or on your phone is beyond anything that any local artist can compete with. What people don’t understand is that, when they do hear someone doing something that he or she had time to work on, it is fascinating and wonderful to see and people love to see it, they just don’t ever experience live music anymore.

I would like to do something that offers local musicians an opportunity to perform their own stuff and get paid well for it. One of the things is taking music to people. Eventually, I’d like to start a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting local artists by offering a nice venue that is funded by local business and educational resources.

AR: How have your experiences asa paramedic influenced your thoughts on composing/

playing / teaching / being a musician?

JMP: I think of it as balance. By having that experience and knowledge of firefighting and being involved in life-and-death situations on a daily basis—watching people die, watching people live because of something I did, watching people not live because things happen, an adrenalin rush on a regular basis. Imagine this: you’re in your bed sound asleep, dreaming, and all of a sudden someone turns on the lights, shakes you, and says “FIRE! ” You slide down the fire pole and three minutes later you’re putting out a fire or performing CPR inside a stranger’s house. Your heart goes absolutely crazy. And this happens anywhere from seven to eleven times a shift—more at busier departments. Doing that and then getting away from it is kind of cool.

Those experiences gave me a real look at music and I realized, “Don’t take it so damn seriously; don’t take yourself so seriously. ’’Music is important, but it’s not the end of the world. You make a mistake on the gig? You move on. The balance is that I can be on the art side and be completely in a kind of fantasy world, and then when I’m in that other world, it’s sometimes out of my control and some really bad things can happen. I think it’s a unique balance. So talking about writing music, it is going to affect how l write and how I play, and how I think of people that are listening to me?

Yes, it really changed in depth.

AR: It also ties in to what you were saying earlier about seeing musicians from the non-musician viewpoint. Now, it's seeing musicians and seeing music as not the end-all/be-all of what you re doing in life.

JMP: That’s right. What makes music important is the artist. The artist has to present it in a way that is important and that creates an effect in people.

AR: What sort of advice do you have for students interested in a career as a vibraphone player, a jazz musician, or even as a firefighter?

JMP: I think of firefighting as my day gig. A lot of people who are musicians teach [as their day gig].

I did that; I didn’t get a degree, so I am limited as to how and where I can teach. I loved teaching when I did it, but then I got tired of it. So I did something else as my day job. Don’t rule out other day-job options; that’s one thing.

As far as advice, it has to be broad. Everybody needs to sit down with paper in hand and figure out what their method [for success] is and then be able to fake left and go right when necessary.

That is the biggest thing: understanding yourself and having the guts to do what you have to do, and then doing it. I think one of my biggest flaws would be the attitude of “I’m going to…’’ instead of “I am doing...”

AR: A friend of mine talks about the “monster.”

JMP: That’s it! All of a sudden you realize, “Holy crap, I’m 45 years old and I’m still saying ‘I’m going to...?” That’s when I realized I need to push ahead.

AR: Anything else you would like to add?

JMP: Yeah. Be creative. When you’re creative as a musician, that’s one thing, but you have to be creative in everything. One of the things is to look at what we have available and then add to it. You can’t do everything, and that’s when you need to include some creative thinking and some “Go get it!” to the plan.

Dr. Andrew Richardson serves as Lecturer in Percussion at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he teaches private lessons and directs the steel bands. Andrew also teaches at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. He earned bachelor of music and master of music degrees from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Oklahoma.