Behind the piano: Emma Paunil

Behind the piano: Emma Paunil

Today we go Behind the piano and get to know the composer and piano player Emma Paunil a bit better!

Where are you from? And where do you live?
I grew up on an 80 acre farm in the desert of Casa Grande, Arizona. As of right now, I’m currently back here in Casa Grande enjoying the colder months before we shall flee from 110+ degrees again next June! 

How long have you been playing the piano, and do you play other instruments as well?
I have been playing the piano for about 20 years now. This year, I started teaching myself the viola, as well as the harmonica, but I would not say I am performance ready for either, yet… may be in a comedy show! 

Tell us about how you started playing music.
For nearly a decade, I answered this question as, “I was put into piano by my mom,” as if it were some prison sentence. The truth is, as with most children, I didn’t understand the life changing benefits and lessons in self-discipline that come as a package deal with most things parents “make us do.” I was classically trained through a very well-put-together curriculum by Ashley Hendrix and the Arizona Study Program, where I was to memorize pieces in every era (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary) and play them in front of a judge. Even though I was often stressed by the piano throughout the program, I still began playing the piano as an emotional escape around age 11.

How long have you been making piano music?
Playing another composer’s songs is one thing… making music didn’t start with me until much later in life. In fact, the first piano solo I composed, “The Lighthouse,” was about 3 years ago: never officially released, but publicly performed at the Tempe Center of the Performing arts. I didn’t really seriously start looking towards my piano for anything other than recreational playing until COVID 19.  I’ve had a history of trying to please others (as many of us do). Prior to COVID-19, I had just gone from struggling through the never ending battle of, “what do you do for work?” I went from heavy pursuit of the veterinary sciences, virology, dabbling in education for middle schoolers, working at the zoo, all the while battling this little artistic “demon” inside of me I wanted to keep away — concerned it would take away from my “science-side.” I finally reached a point once a global pandemic hit that I decided to stop my mind from worrying, and turned to the piano. During this time, I have now released three “Transformative Piano” albums, Triple Point of Water, Ataraxia, and Spirit Animal.

Tell us something about that moment you realized you could make songs yourself!
I actually can’t give the credit to myself in realizing I could make songs. I had another musician friend basically peer pressure me into improvising piano during my first jam session. I was so nervous at first, because I couldn’t hide behind sheet music anymore. As I sat there trying to figure out what to do, my hands were shaking, and it felt like the keys all fell together into a mess of a pile. “Just play; stop being worried about what you think I’m thinking. I don’t care what you play, just play something,” I was told. Just like that, my brain seemed to switch to the key of C# minor, and I just went for it. It was bumpy at first, but it was the best feeling in the world once I got the hang of it. After reading and memorizing music for so long, improvising felt like stepping into an entirely different brain wave, or jumping into another electron orbital… whichever is more relatable! To this day, C# minor is still my favorite key in which to improvise.

What are your favorite artists in this “piano genre”?
I absolutely love George Winston, and I’m happy to say my father actually got me interested in him! “Longing/Love,” is one of my favorites in his album, Autumn. I also enjoy David Nevue and Michele McLaughlin. “Treasure Falls,” and “New Light,” are my two favorites from each of them, respectively. 

Is there one song which you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano? Your own or someone else’s?
Yes, I most definitely have a go-to song: “Waltz in B minor” (Op. 69, No. 2) by Frederic Chopin. A few years ago, I realized that the implications in the development of a “go-to” song for me signified the first time I started using piano as an emotional release. When I was about 8 years old, I ended up with my first dog, Moon — a chocolate lab. Moon was the unwanted runt of the litter, and she grew to be an athlete running free across our 80 acres of ranch-land. As a child, she felt more like a friend to me than a dog I, “owned,” and we ran through the desert together searching for wildlife, rabbits, and make-believe adventures. As an 11 year old, I was heartbroken when she ran off one day with her best-friend (Rottweiler named Bear), and never came home; a farmer found her, and called my parents to tell us she had drowned. At that young, I didn’t really understand the feelings that were going through me; the only solution I could come up with of how to escape those feelings was to run to the piano and play that “Waltz in B minor.” Fast forward a bit: throughout highschool, every upsetting day was followed by playing that song. It wasn’t until later in life in college that I began realizing this as a pattern of emotional release. 

What rules (in making music) needs to be broken?
Don’t try to fit into a genre when you are starting out. A lot of times, I notice that is the concern of musicians starting to realize their identity. I really think what has helped me is to, “… just play.” Your style might not mesh with other musicians at first, but at least in the process of getting the kinks out of your system, you begin to notice your own personal tendencies. Don’t immediately jump on that realization and start pushing a genre on yourself. Keep letting the fun and enjoyment of the creation process guide you. I think this would help musicians not become stagnant as well, and could possibly help with writer’s block. 

How do you record your music? Yourself? In a big studio? etc.
I record my music myself through an interface. I use stereo jacks and MIDI for the piano, as well as an XLR microphone for any vocal tracks. I love my interface for recording my piano. There is nothing worse than having a microphone recording my one-shot, improvised performance for a relaxing piano track, and a horse squeals in the background. 

What’s your take on sampled instruments?
Honestly, I have to give them a big thumbs-up. I am all about adaptation to and appreciation of what you are given. I have never in my life gotten to own an acoustic piano; I’ve said many times that when it works out, I would love to have a grand piano. Nevertheless, the same digital Roland piano has been in my life since I started playing, and it has given me so much opportunity. For any musicians and creatives who do not have the privilege of acoustic instruments or a big studio, I think sampled instruments can definitely be utilized as a very valuable resource. Acoustic piano is an absolutely beautiful, rich sound, and I used to hunt down every coffee shop and bar with an acoustic piano just to be able to play them. However, I don’t think the “not having” of something should stop one from creating! Always use what has been given to you. 

Anything else you want to share?
True identity comes from within. Oftentimes, we become too ripped away from who we really are, and who we really can become. We worry about the externalities. We place all our focus on our name, nationality, age, race, genre, what we wear, gender, job, pay rate… category, category, category. Our personal flags don’t represent us anymore, they represent the external shell of society. As artists during this time, and as people desperately needing a cleanse from categorization, take advantage of the inward focus we have the chance of magnifying. What are we, then, other than shells? We have emotions painting our insides that we rarely grant ourselves the opportunity to visualize. I am personally very passionate about emotional intelligence, and want to fully understand these complex energies that pass through us, or sometimes get caught. I believe all art forms, in conjunction with a certain degree of scientific thought, can help us truly know thyselves: What are we feeling, and why? I hope everyone keeps some form of artistic expression in their lives, no matter what! It is essential

The last question is asked by my 6 year old son:
Where do all your songs come from? 
What a wonderful question from a philosopher! There are several perspectives from which this question can be answered. I’ll give a more scientific answer to this question, because I feel that will encompass all of my songs. Simple answer: all of my songs come from a warped version of my survival instinct. First, we shall start with the decision to sit down and play. Something has motivated me to sit down and play. That motivation could have been from a negative source (someone being cruel to me, for example), or a positive one (feeling an urge to create something new, for example). Either way, there was a stimulus that inspired me from within. Like an animal reacting to a stimulus, the memory within my body said, “Hey! *Insert stimulus* just happened… you should sit down and play because that will help you continue surviving.” No matter what the stimulus, positive or negative, making music has become a programmed solution in my mind for “survival.” There is of course a multitude of colorful perspectives with which to answer this question. However, when it comes down to it, even the pouring-of-the-heart out into the keys is a means to respond to the stimulus of emotional turmoil; emotional turmoil can cause such a degree of stress in our lives that it impedes our ability to survive and thrive. Ergo: music = survival of the fittest! 

Thank you very much for this Emma!

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