Regular visitors here are doubtless familiar with Steve Sensenig of Theological Musings. Over the past year, Steve has become a good friend. We have enjoyed some invigorating and challenging exchanges on a number of theological topics.
In addition to being a student of the Bible, Steve is also a very talented musician. I had heard Steve’s Christmas CD and then last December enjoyed the opportunity to hear Steve play in person as he and his dear wife, Christy, ministered to Pine Park Baptist Church.
Steve graciously agreed to this interview and this will be the first in what I hope will be a regular series of interviews with Christian musicians.
HH: Tell us a little about your childhood and upbringing.
Steve: I was born in 1969 in Coatesville, PA. I was the fourth of four children, and the only boy. I was raised in a home that emphasized church attendance and daily family devotions. My father was (still is) a truck driver, although he rarely was gone over-the-road. He always tried to have jobs that allowed him to be home each night. My mother was an elementary school teacher, although for most of my childhood, she did not work fulltime.
HH: When did you first develop an interest in music?
Steve: Quite honestly, I don’t remember the start of my interest in music. It has always been a part of my life. My mother is a musician, and each of my three older sisters were involved in music, as well, so it was a very natural interest for me. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve coming home from church, going to the piano, and picking out the melodies that we sang that morning.
There also was a lot of quality recorded music to listen to in my home growing up. My mother loves classical music, and introduced me to it as a very young child. We had one of those old record players that held 10 records at a time, and I would lay in front of it for hours on end, listening to lots and lots of classical music.
HH: How did you develop your ability?
Steve: Because my mother is a pianist (she was the regular church pianist when I was a child), and my two oldest sisters had also taken piano lessons, there were lots of piano method books and other music books around the house when I came along. I started learning to play at such a young age that I don’t even remember learning how to read music! As long as I can remember, I’ve been reading music and playing the piano.
As a young child, I had a silly (and arrogant!) dream that one day I would be a famous pianist and be able to say that I never took lessons. So, whenever my parents would ask me if I wanted to take piano lessons, I would say “no”. With the help of my mother and older sisters, I basically was self-taught until the age of 11. Somehow at that point, I had figured out that there was only so far I was going to be able to go on my own, and I asked my parents if I could get lessons.
By the point I started lessons at age 11, I was already playing quite a bit, but having a regular lesson and a teacher outside the home caused me to progress more than I would have on my own. That first teacher (with whom I studied for two years) also introduced me to the concept of music theory. I am very grateful for that, because I was able to learn in my pre-teen years what some college music students struggle to learn! That foundation in theory really helped me advance even more during my high school years.
All in all, I studied with four different piano teachers prior to going off to college.
HH: What were some of the early influences on your music?
Steve: In terms of classical music, I quickly fell in love with Mozart and Beethoven as composers. But in terms of hymns, etc., my upbringing in a traditional church (were there any other kinds when we were kids?) introduced me to many of the classic hymns. As a young boy (about 7 years old, I think), I had the chance to hear Dino Kartsonakis in concert. That was a huge influence on me, because he was the only pianist I was really familiar with who played hymn arrangements.
After the concert, I met Dino and got his autograph. I said to him, “Someday I hope to be able to play the piano like you.” He smiled and said, “You will.” As a young boy, that really influenced me. I don’t know if Dino was being prophetic, or just being kind, but in my young heart, I took it very seriously and for many years remembered that assurance that he had given me. It was fitting, then, that when I made my first recording at age 18, I included one of Dino’s arrangements on that recording.
As a teenager, I started listening to George Winston, and his style of playing has definitely had an influence on my current style. Other pianists have been similar to him, as well, and I have followed in their footsteps stylistically.
HH: Your talent has taken you to a lot of places and made a lot of opportunities possible for you. Can you tell us about some of your favorites?
Steve: Wow. This is a tough question. I have definitely been blessed in this area. I would like to preface my comments on this, however, by pointing out the old adage that all that glitters is not gold. Some of what would seem to be great opportunities on the outside were not such pleasant opportunities behind the scenes for various reasons.
However, having said that, there are several memories that I am fond of. One is a trip I took with several other college students in 1992 to Ukraine. Communism had recently lost its hold in the former Soviet Union, and there was an incredible openness to the message of Jesus there. We had the opportunity to sing several hymns and other songs translated into the Russian language. We would stand in front of crowds on the streets and ask them, “Did you ever dream that one day an American would stand here in your country and tell you about Jesus?” Tears would stream down their faces. It was powerful!
More recent experiences that have been positive have been opportunities to play with Phillips, Craig, and Dean. A few years back, they called me to play on their live DVD, filmed up in Virginia Beach, VA. While the process of recording and filming is far from worshipful at times, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to play “When God Ran” live with them in that recording.
HH: Where would you like for your music to take you in the future?
Steve: This is a tough question to answer because the honest answer is “wherever God wants me to be”. I have dreams of my own, but only want them to be fulfilled if it honors God.
I would love to play with other groups like Phillips, Craig, and Dean if the opportunity arose. But in terms of my own music, I have a dream of one day being able to compose the score for a major motion picture. I think that would be an incredibly challenging, but quite enjoyable opportunity.
HH: If you could have a jam session with any composer/musician from any time in history, who would it be?
Steve: Ohhhhhhh, so many here. Obviously, some of the big names in classical music come to mind — Beethoven, Brahms… But I also like a wide variety of styles of music, and would love to jam with Pat Metheny (jazz), Larry Carlton (also jazz), or Michael W. Smith, to name a few.
HH: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Steve: Well, the first thing I would say is that it is very important to learn to understand your talent and craft. By that, I mean, don’t take the shortcut to temporary success at the expense of becoming deeply intimate with the musical talent within you.
Today’s technology allows lots of people to be “musicians” who honestly don’t even understand what it is they are doing. I love technology, and embrace much of it. But the technology works best when it is a supplement to actual craft, not a substitute for it.
With music, that means that I place a huge emphasis on a knowledge of music theory and a variety of musical forms. My son is getting very good at the guitar, and really enjoys playing a rock style of guitar. I have no problem with that (most of the time!), but have also encouraged him to learn how music works in theory and to listen to other styles of music, as well.
It is also important, in my opinion, for a musician to be self-motivated to learn. In this regard, I often discourage parents from insisting that their kids take lessons and practice. If it doesn’t come from a desire within the child, it probably won’t be successful! I am very grateful for parents who understood this and allowed me to develop my own heart and passion for music without it being forced on me.
HH: Your music carries with it a certain pathos or emotion. Even though it is instrumental, the message of the song still seems to come through. Is this something of which you are conscious when you are playing or is it just a result of the passion with which you play?
Steve: Am I conscious of it? Yes and no. You have described very beautifully what I try to convey, though, and I’m encouraged that it is coming across in that way! About 90% of what I play in concerts and recordings (at this present stage I’m in) is improvisatory. I rarely know where the music will go. This results in some very interesting things from a musical standpoint, such as unconventional chord progressions (and structures) and uneven meters. I don’t consciously think in those terms, but that’s what comes out.
Sometimes when I listen to what I’ve recorded, I’m surprised at what I hear! But I view my playing much in the way I imagine a painter views their painting. There is an intangible “heart element” that drives the creation of the art. I have a “palette” — a musical vocabulary, if you will — from which I draw in my musical “painting”, and I choose “colors” that fit the song that I’m playing. It may mean that I’ll camp out on a certain chord or phrase in a hymn for a while, shading it and coloring it in different ways before moving on. Sometimes this is the result of a conscious awareness of the lyrics at that point, and sometimes it’s merely a sub-conscious choice at the time to bring something out.
HH: I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your website and your recordings?
Steve: Worship Keys (http://www.worshipkeys.com) is a site that I’ve put together to introduce my music to people and share a bit of my heart. For me, worship is so much more than just music, and I try to convey that on the website. The name “Worship Keys” is intentionally flexible in meaning. It refers to keys on a piano, since I’m primarily a pianist, but also is meant to coincide with my desire to help people see different keys (important elements) in worship.
I have three CDs currently available (and a new one in process). The first one, “To Worship You”, contains modern praise and worship songs, but played in the intimate styling that is currently my “trademark”. Even songs that usually are more loud, such as “Shout to the Lord”, are brought into a very intimate interpretation. One of my favorite tracks on that CD is the last track, called “Ivory Worship”, which is a 16-minute free-flowing improvised worship without any pre-existing melody or song in mind. It is me just sitting down at the piano and playing from my heart.
The second CD is called “‘Tis So Sweet” and taps into the rich heritage of hymns from my youth. This CD is presented as a continuous flow from one song to the next. This was another way in which I was influenced by Dino from my youth. He once did a record that flowed from one song to the next in continuous worship. Of course, back then, it was only about 20 minutes per side of an LP, but the idea captured my attention. On “‘Tis So Sweet”, I literally just sat down at the piano with a list of possible hymns, hit record, and began playing. As I would near the end of a particular hymn, I would look at the list and pick another one, and flow right into it. The result is about 62 minutes of non-stop music (although indexed by hymn as separate tracks on the CD, there is no pause between them). During the recording process, I did actually stop two or three times to rest (and to click “Save” on the computer, so I wouldn’t lose what I had played!), but I always did it by leading up to a cadence that I then picked up from when starting to record again, so as not to break the flow of the music.
My most recent CD is “Christmas Solitude”. As I explain in the liner notes of that CD, I intentionally chose Christmas songs that focused on Jesus and avoided the more generic “holiday” songs. I wanted this Christmas CD to be a worship experience focused strictly on our Savior. An added delight on this CD is a song written and sung by my beautiful wife Christy. This track, a lullaby sung from Mary’s perspective, is a wonderful vocal oasis in the middle of all of the instrumental music.