Throw out what you know about dueling piano acts – Huntsville’s own Dueling Pianos is an act unto itself, taking the traditional formula of two pianists battling it out with duets and crowd-pleasing classics and twisting it on its head.
Huntsville’s Dueling Pianos consists of Newt Johnson and Stephen Johnson on piano with Claire Johnson as the host and coordinator, a three-person act that is part dueling pianos, part game show, and all fun.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Claire on a chilly, windy Thursday at Stovehouse, where we talked about how she and her groupmates – one of whom, Newt, is her husband – formed Dueling Pianos and how it’s evolved over time.
“It started as standard dueling pianos where they were going back and forth, but it quickly became something else – this themed game show where the guys would play and we’d have trivia questions, we’d play games, we had prizes. It became this whole other thing. Now we always tell people, ‘this isn’t your typical dueling pianos show.’”
And she’s right.
Traditional dueling pianos shows involve two pianists playing duets, taking requests, and indulging in piano ‘battles,’ oftentimes at designated piano bars. Think the Big Bang bar in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the south’s most famous dueling piano bars. But Huntsville’s Dueling Piano group has taken this formula to the next level, incorporating games and prizes and finding ways to pull the audience into the show beyond just taking requests – and, despite all odds, they managed to keep this going during COVID.
I ask Claire how they pulled that off, and her tone is humble and grateful as she places credit for their success where she feels it belongs – with the people of Huntsville.
“During our very last show before [the initial COVID shutdown], we had a feeling that everything was going to shut down. And we had this audience that would always come out – we call them our family – and we thought you know, we want to be able to keep doing this, we want to still provide something.”
It was this desire to continue providing entertainment to a loyal fanbase during a time where, arguably, they needed it most that motivated Claire, Newt, and Stephen to figure out a way to keep the spirit of Dueling Pianos alive via a virtual platform.
“We set up our usual setup in our basement and we changed the format to be entirely virtual. Where people would usually fill out their paper trivia forms and hand those in, we built an online form they could use to submit their answers and suggestions. We took all of the audience participation games like Spin the Wheel and Name that Tune and created online versions [by building] this landing page with the games and the song request list that all came directly to us so we could perform the show on Facebook live.”
And their prediction was right – their usual fanbase did turn out to support their favorite local piano show from the comfort of their own homes, and they brought friends. I ask Claire if she felt Huntsville was supportive of this new format, and her answer is a resounding, unhesitant, “Yes.”
“The amazing thing is not only did we have our regular fans [supporting us] but doing it online opened [the show] up to so many people who couldn’t come before. Say they had kids at home, or it just got too late for them, or they had other activities that were going on; all these new people got to experience it for the first time. We saw our numbers grow.
Plus, we started to see people tune in from all over the country. We’d have our friend from South Huntsville say, ‘my sister-in-law is joining us from Destin and my brother’s in New Hampshire’ and we’d just have all these people – I mean, my mom watched from New York! People were tuning in and saying, ‘hello from Dallas, hello from wherever’ and we’d be just like, ‘oh my gosh, this is so cool’. To be sitting in our basement during a pandemic and getting to have a shared experience with people all over the country and playing along with us.”
Claire’s face brightens as she speaks of the support they’ve received from their fans, old showgoers and new alike. It’s clear that she feels passionate about this project – and not only this project, but the community that supports it. When I ask her about what she thinks of the music culture in Huntsville, she considers the question for a moment before answering thoughtfully.
“I have seen not only so much growth what with so many incredibly diverse different acts, but [also found] they’re all so supportive of each other. When you go to a local gig, whether it’s our show or concerts in the park or a brewery on the weekend, you can almost always find two or three local musicians in the audience supporting them. Or sharing [the gig] on social media and saying, ‘hey, I can’t make it out but y’all should go to this.’ And that’s one of the things I really love about [the Huntsville music scene] – it doesn’t feel overly competitive, it’s very supportive and very nurturing of its own.
With so much growth in the city through all the new restaurants, venues, bars, grills, outdoor spaces, everything – there’s more and more opportunity there [for musical artists]. I think if you just look for it, you’ll find that there are not only opportunities but a lot of support. And a desire for it.”
It’s this passion and dedication that we at HuntsvilleMusic.com believes makes Huntsville’s Dueling Pianos the prime example of #iHeartHSV’s Heroes for Hospitality recognition, since they found a way to take the difficulties of 2020 and create a silver lining to provide entertainment and a little bit of joy to our city when it needed it most. Congratulations to Stephen, Newt, and Claire – we can’t wait to tune in to your next show, and to come out in person to support this local talent!
Grace is the Content Director of HuntsvilleMusic.com and lives in Madison, AL, which really isn’t that far, guys.
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