Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 10
Interviewee: Matt Johnson
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.
Jason: Hi, it’s Jason Tonioli here and I am here on the Successful Musicians podcast with Matt Johnson who is a multi-talented piano technician and musician. I want to bring him on the podcast today to just kind of look at another angle of what a successful musician career might be or might entail.
Matt, so glad you could join us today. To jump in, let’s just have you share a little bit about your story. How did you get started with music and now you own your own piano store so a little bit about that journey.
Matt: Jason, thank you, you’re too kind. Thanks for having me. Hey, I’ve been into music ever since I was about eight years old. I remember distinctly before 8, I hated music, I hated instruments, I hated listening to music. I grew up listening to my dad play the guitar all the time and I love it. Something clicked in me when I was eight years old and I was like “Mom, I want to take piano lessons.” And she’s like, “Really?”
And so I did and they were fun and it got pretty good for a 10 year old piano player. When I reached the age of 12, I kind of gave up on lessons. Partly, I think due to the time where I wasn’t very good at practicing. I kind of just thought I was wasting my time and my teacher’s time. I kind of got caught. I got to the point where I thought that I knew all that I needed to know which looking back that’s not true, far from true. There’s still so much more to learn.
But I also got to learn other instruments. I started playing the French horn in 7th grade right when I entered Junior High. Also when I got to ninth grade, I started playing the guitar again. My dad and my older brother were influences for that. After eight years old, I loved listening to them play with so many kinds of music all around and I was in the American Fork High School marching band as well. That’s the way I met my wife but I dabbled with the piano still every now and then, whenever I had some spare time.
Jason: So, you started out not thinking you wanted to do music at all and piano just generally wasn’t even like a big focus for you. Now it sounds like that.
Matt: No, it wasn’t but like I said I would always refer back to the piano. The piano for me was kind of like my gateway instruments. The marijuana of the music world, for me as it were. Sounds like my foundation, like a gateway kind of opened up this whole world of music to me, but I realized when I was a Senior in High School, I took an AP music theory class with Tracy Warby, the choir director at Martin Port High School. It was in that class that I realized that I actually have really good ears, just really great aural skills.
We took the AP test, which gives you the capacity to get college credit for music courses. There are two sections. There’s the aural skills test and there’s the actual theory, the written test or whatever. And I think the lowest you can possibly score on the music theory portion, I think I got pretty close to the highest possible score, the aural skills section so I evened out and passed the test. I got some college credit for that. But that kind of just showed me that I kind of have an ear for this stuff. And I always knew that my personal piano I grew up on was always out of tune. I always begged my parents to call someone to get it tuned and they just never did. It’s never something like on the top of their list or maybe I didn’t bug them enough.
Jason: I think normal people don’t think a piano sounds that bad. They don’t know the difference. Right? So it’s like they’re used to it.
Matt: They were like, “Ahh, sounds like a piano to me.” I knew it was pretty flat because like I tried to play the guitar or the French horn with it, along with it, every once in a while and I always have to detune those instruments to make it sound remotely decent with the piano. So that was always bothersome to me.
I was 18 years old. I was like I kind of had this epiphany one day. I was trying to save up money for college and for a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And one day, I had this epiphany of like, I’m gonna learn how to tune up my piano and maybe I’ll make a job out of it. Who knows! So, I went on to eBay. and I bought myself a little $40 Piano Tuning Kit and just a lot of self teaching at the very beginning and lots of trial and error and eventually got the piano tuned kind of. It didn’t sound great when I was done..
It took me about 10 hours. It didn’t sound awesome. It sounds a little bit better than before, I don’t know. So, that kind of opened up this new realm of musicality for me and kind of went off of the traditional path of musicians, playing instruments. Right? Just a little different.
Jason: I’m sure when you went up on a mission and came back… tell us about your school, thinking music was gonna be your career. I know you trained with some of the best technicians on piano in the world. Tell us a little about that.
Matt: Yeah. After I graduated from high school, I actually did one year of college just right before my mission. And I did a French horn performance at UVU — a great music program over there. It’s only grown since then. This was in 2011 so 10 or 11 years ago. And I went through that program. I had a blast. It was super fun playing the French horn. It was so competitive, and it was tough. Being a music major is hard. I really, really respect those who take that time and dedication to master their instrument and for me, toward the end of that year of doing college, before my mission, I was unsure if that was for me. I didn’t know if I had that tenacity, that grit to really push through a four year degree and do that. It was so much fun but was so hard.
So, I went on a mission. I served in the Indonesia, Jakarta mission. I came home. My French horn teacher got in touch with me right away, right as soon as I got home and said “Hey, you’re gonna come back and play horn for us?”
I thought, “I don’t think I am actually.” And that was the end of the chapter. I started to tune pianos again when I came home, and I went to UVU for a few more years and I ended up transferring to BYU and I started tuning pianos there also and that kind of a little sort of apprenticeship and under a couple of world class piano technicians. Rick Baldassin and Keith Top and a couple more people, and I learned so much there.
Then, when I graduate BYU, I just kind of did my own thing and so I had kind of this 8 or 9 years of piano technology under my belt — fixing pianos, repairing them, regulating them, tuning them, of course, just making them better than the condition that I found them in before. I loved it. I thought this could be a very much a full time career for me.
I graduated at BYU, about two years later, I kind of felt like I hit a ceiling in my home service desk. It’s full time actually — going to people’s houses, playing their piano, going to the next house, tuning that piano, going to the next house…It was like between three and five every single day. It was fun. I loved it. I loved being in customers’ homes, getting to know them, meeting new musicians every day. Getting to meet new pianos every day. It was just fun, very satisfying work. But like I said, it kind of felt like I hit a ceiling there. And I was like, what’s the next thing to do? Which brings us to how I got to know you a little bit.
Jason: You opened up a piano store, right?
Matt: Yup, yup. So I don’t know. I had this dream, I think ever since 2018 or 2019 of opening up my own piano store. I figure I kind of knew pianos inside and out better than most, perhaps piano salesmen out there and kind of like done the manual as opposed to just reading the manual.
I am an okay player but I know pianos really well. I visited the idea several times and ended up canceling that idea because maybe I wasn’t financially there or my understanding of that industry wasn’t quite where I wanted to be yet.
About a year ago, that idea came back to me in full force and I spent literally hundreds of hours doing research, figuring out what brands I wanted to sell and how to run a retail store.
Jason: This is right in the middle of a COVID pandemic when you decide to do this, right? That’s a good idea and certainly in business during COVID.
Matt: It’s so anyway, I even went as far as flying out to California, to Texas, to try out different pianos that weren’t being sold here in Utah already and I settled on a couple and I came back in November last year and MJ Pianos officially opened for business. We now sell brand new and used grands and upright pianos. We still have the service site, I still got to tune pianos, and that’s like a car dealership. We have a service and the sales. So two different sources of income and it’s great, it’s fun.
After three months, we’re still open. That’s a good thing, right?
Jason: I find it so interesting, because you who grow up and think I’m gonna start my own piano store and that wasn’t your pet. You just want to be a French horn guy. It sounds like and I guess here’s a good question for you. So as you’re thinking back of like, okay, finding that success. What do you define as you’ve been in all these probably hundreds of musicians’ houses and tuned their pianos and made them even more awesome. When you hear the word, you know, a successful musician, what does that mean? How is it different for everybody? When I say that, what comes to mind?
Matt: What comes to mind, what makes a musician successful? It comes down to an individual basis, I would say. You could say, words and merits that you’ve earned and achievements that you’ve accomplished and places you’ve performed at, how much money you make. I think in the end, it comes down to two things — satisfaction and happiness. I’m happy or not. For me, if you’re happy, you have basically achieved success.
So four years of music can range anywhere from performing, to teaching, retail like I am –completely different worlds but under the same umbrella of music. Yeah, for me, I was always happy with tuning pianos that have come to satisfaction where I felt like I was hitting a ceiling. That’s why I decided to expand and open up the store in full force. It’s fun and it’s satisfying, and it makes me happy, and it leads to great family and home life as well. I’ve got a great relationship with my wife and we’ve got three children and one on the way and still time to spend time with them, hanging out with them. It is great. I would consider myself successful.
Jason: Absolutely! What I think finding that fulfillment and success, that happiness is spot on. If you’re with your former self, going to deciding am I going to French learn or I’m gonna go to school in music and there was that guy in the back of your mind, wants to do music but want to do something else. What would you tell that person in an interview if they were wanting feedback about what to do when it comes to music in the future?
Matt: My experience is a little bit different. Like I think I got to the point where I wasn’t really enjoying that full time grind of being a music major. At that point, I was like, “I think I’d rather just have this as a hobby. I don’t see myself being a professional French horn player. I just don’t.”
You know I’ll tell you what, I actually have a degree in? I have a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic.
Jason: Yeah, that really sounds just like French horn were like, Okay, what am I gonna do with that, right? Sure enough. They have music in the Middle East, of course, but it’s different. So, that kind of intellectual learning, that’s what made me happy. I love that. That’s why I got a degree in it. I had a lot of options to do professionally. I really thought it’d be fun to go work for the State Department. The government is doing something with Middle Eastern relations, with Arabic and I speak Indonesian as well for my mission. Those were honest fun but something happened like in 2018 or 2019. As I was about to finish my degree, I had a switch in thought and I was like, I love this language stuff but I don’t know if I can do it full time. Nope, I can switch back to music stuff. And I’m like, No, I think this is my calling. At least for now. It’s to make a living tuning pianos, making myself happy that way and making others happy with making pianos more fun to play inside their own homes.
Jason: You’ve played on all kinds of pianos and we’ve talked earlier that when you flew all the way over to Germany even kind of in search of Europe and traveled Europe looking for what’s that? There, this holy grail of pianos, and you’ve got the Steinway, the Yamahas which seemed to get all the attention. And then there’s a small little Fazioli that I’ve played on. It’s just incredible. And Bechstein’s and another one that I don’t think in the US has gotten near the attention that maybe it deserves, but it’s kind of like the Ferrari. It’s a low volume type of production of pianos . Talk a little bit about maybe some of these instruments and what you’ve learned over the years working on them.
Matt: So if it’s not Steinway, Yamaha or Kawai, no one’s really ever heard of it. Unless you’re an absolutely diehard serious pianist that has looked into these things. But most in general, it’s not any one of those three brands, people really haven’t heard much about them. So, people walked in the store all the time and said, “I’ve never heard of this brand.” Let me tell you about them.
So, like I said earlier, like hundreds, hundreds of hours of research that I did in finding the perfect brand to sell here that I could do well in Utah, and I flew to LA, first and foremost and I played with tons of different brands out there. For some reason, I was really attracted to European pianos, so I spent my majority researching those and honestly, there’s so many incredible pianos in the world people really haven’t heard a bunch of. I was considering brands like Bechstein, Grotrian, Steingraeber and Sons, Bluthner, and a few other ones that I looked into.
I ended up settling on a brand called C Bechstein. It’s been around since 1853 and they were extremely popular in Europe when they started making them back in that day. It was France’s list of favorite pianos. It was Claude Debussy’s favorite piano. Peckers a quote from him attributed to him saying all piano music should be written for Bechstein.
So if you’re playing something like Claire de Lune, you know how soft, beautiful or precise it needs to be in order for all the colors that songs really pop. It came out well on Bechstein so there’s a reason why I said that.
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen was recorded on a Bechstein. All sorts of other British artists recorded on Bechstein — Queen, David Bowie, The Beatles, Elton John and others. It had this really cool story behind it and I decided. I played on the Bechstein and I instantly fell in love with it. I love the value and the price, as well.
Like you said earlier, I flew to Germany last year, to play a bit more and also do some training with them — with some world class technicians out there. Awesome. So I spent about a week in Berlin, at the headquarters of Bechstein and worked on other concert grand instruments — under 9-foot Costa Grande, 8-foot Costa Grande and there are 7-foot one. It was so much fun.
I also got to tour their factory and now I know, I have an eyewitness. Bechstein’s are in fact handmade in Germany. It was fun. It’s just a different flavor in Utah that we haven’t really seen before.
Jason: Very cool! I’m guessing just like any other instrument, it just has a little bit different feel, a little bit different flavor on how the sound comes out?
Matt: If I have to describe the sound, it’s very colorful, orchestral, and full. It’s great and beautiful. Some musicians, like everyone who comes in the store, they sit down and play the Bechstein, like oh my gosh, this is so fun. I love this piano.
Some of them I’ve described. It takes a minute to get used to the sound because it has this weird sound on these notes and it’s different. That’s all I can say. It’s different.
Jason: Back to this whole giving advice to these younger musicians and trying to figure out okay, what to do if you have the younger piano students. It sounds like you and I weren’t really the model piano students growing up. I was one that did not love practicing. I was pretty good at it, I think but I hated having somebody telling me that I had to play something a certain way.
My piano teacher told me that you know these dead composers were gonna roll over in their grave and come haunt me if I screwed up the songs and I’m thinking you know how to play and there was Beethoven or Mozart. I mean, they’re great. I felt like at the moment, what if we did it this way? That would have been cool. You would have kinda mixed these up I think from a creative standpoint, if you do have an ear for music, having fun and enjoying it is way more important than having some judge get their piano degree from some important place. I don’t care what that person thinks about my music if I wasn’t doing it, like that was what mattered. I think that’s why I struggled with lessons for so long because when you get into those teenage years and you start to get stubborn and you think you want to go chase cars or sports or whatever the thing is, they just didn’t want to spend time practicing. What advice do you have for those younger people, you probably run across so many people have quit piano and say oh I regret it.
Matt: That particular Utah story is I took lessons when I was younger. I think really just you nailed it on the head. You ‘re enjoying it. There is a certain amount of uncomfortableness that you have to go through when you’re learning something new. You just can’t avoid it. You have to push yourself, past enjoyable sometimes, but in the end, you have to kind of have a vision and goal in mind of hey, where do I want to be in a year? 5 years from now?
I want to play this song because I love it, it’s fun and I know I’m gonna enjoy it. You have to push through it. So it’s like, when I was in marching band in high school, no one enjoys practicing when it’s 95 degrees outside and you’re running around with a big brass instrument and sweating like crazy and you can’t breathe. That’s not fun but it’s all worth it and you get to the competition, do your thing, and you win. That’s the part that you said earlier, it’s just enjoyable.
Jason: And I look okay, it’s getting better. You always have to go through that hard thing. So like with a jammer, I was on the swim team growing up. And it was not fun to swim, I mean it. You’d go and swim for an hour and a half and we were doing five- six miles a day and wanted to throw up most of the time. That was not fun but what was so cool was all of the pain that you put in when you finally get to that race or that moment where you didn’t need to perform. Kind of all of that payoff and I think as I look at my music, and probably anybody is, you can suffer through the really crappy songs or some of the technique, it’s hard and you think there’s no way I’ve ever played this Rachmaninoff song.
I still remember playing some of Rachmaninoff when I was back in high school and it was cool when you could play but man it’s painful getting there. Yeah, I think the hard part is that most people when something gets hard, they quit or they whine and cry and don’t want to push through it.
Matt: So they come down with a question of what do you want to get out of this? It’s always enjoyable at the end. What do you want to put into it to achieve that enjoyment?
Jason: I think as a parent now, with kids that are taking lessons and I get told I don’t want to take piano lessons and I want to quit. I think the tricky part is finding that balance as a parent where if your kid whines and says they want to quit or if you’re maybe you’re a piano teacher, and you’ve got those students that are whining, how do you find that balance of being the mean parent and make sure your kids stick with it knowing that hey, you’re gonna thank me later and it’s gonna be worth all the suffering. It’s a tricky balance you have to find as a parent.
Matt: I always resort to being a parent.
Jason: Absolutely. I play piano because I joke with her all the time. I had a mean mom that would not let me quit.
Matt: Thank goodness for mean moms. My mom got her thank you note, her thank you letter when I was on my mission because I regretted quitting when I was 12 on my mission, and somehow someone found out that I could play the piano a little bit when I was out there in Indonesia and I was asked to play from that point on it and so I was grateful that I had a foundation and my mom pushed me to the point where I got to. She got a thank you letter.
Jason: Awesome. I think every time I put out a new piano book, I think it’s like giving another thank you letter to my piano teacher and my mom for putting up with me over the years. I always laugh, I went down in a mission in Argentina and my mom growing up, it would be like, “Oh, you’re gonna be able to learn how to play the hymns and you’re gonna need to be able to do these things and get home in the middle of nowhere Northern Argentina, upward, middle, like our first church was a dirt Church, with the dirt floor to wall bathroom, outhouse out back, but not even like a seat to sit on. There certainly wasn’t a piano on the dirt floor of the church.
I still remember my saying to my mom, ” Mom, you told me I was always gonna need this… [laughing…] great memories. I’m so glad I learned and mom didn’t let me quit.
Matt: I think you were at the point now where you can say that you are a professional musician. You literally get paid to write music.
Jason: And I think that’s what’s been fun. And I’ve heard you play, you play really well. I mean, where do you find inspiration for your music when you’re doing your own thing or when you’re trying to do your own stuff?
Matt: I just want to have things that I like. We got Spotify laying in the background or house and I hear a song and I am like, “Oh, I like that! I wanna play that.”
One of those is one of your pieces, your arrangement of what is it? How Firmer Foundation. I remember hearing that on a shuffle on Spotify and I said, “Who is this? I love his arrangement. I have to learn this.” Jason Tonioli..
So I look for it. I look for inspiration and I always find it.
Jason: I do the same thing. It’s all around you if you’ve got your ears open and willing to listen for it.
Matt: I think at this point, I have decades and decades worth of inspiration for things that I could learn. I know I’m never going to learn all of it. at once. It’s fun.
Jason: Well, Matt, thanks so much. I know I gotta get you to come to my piano here soon as we’re finishing up this studio. I definitely need to make my way down and try this next time. You’re making me a little bit excited like “Okay, I gotta come check out his pianos.”
If people want to learn a little bit more about you and your story or your store. Where should they go?
Matt: You can follow me on social media — Facebook and Instagram and MJ Pianos. My name is Matt Johnson. I happen to be an M in MJ Pianos. Matt and Johnson- two of the most common names ever. I tried spicing it up somehow. I got fun initials.
You can go to my website mjpianos.com. On our social media, we’re always posting things about piano technology, how pianos work and how you fix them and just cool pictures of pianos and people playing the piano. It’s a piano player’s haven. At least it’s for me. I enjoy it, which is why I do it for a living.
Jason: That’s the reason you’ve found that success and happiness. So congratulations and thanks so much for spending some time with us today. And I’m gonna catch up some more later on. Thanks so much.
Matt: Thanks for having me, Jason.
Hey, it is Jason here and I hope you have gotten a lot of value out of this episode. Be sure to check out our show notes to learn more about our guest for today and if you’d like to support our podcast, there’s a few things that you could do to help us grow.
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Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Our special guest today is a Registered Piano Technician with the Piano Technicians Guild. He is a Bechstein Factory Trained Concert Technician. Suffice it to say, he has the knowledge and experience to best help customers fall in love with their piano again.
He has worked alongside and learned so much from some of the best piano technicians in the world. Among whom are Rick Baldassin, Keith Kopp and Torben Garlin.
What You’ll Learn
In this episode, we would learn how Matt Johnson started with music and how he ended up tuning pianos and owning MJ Pianos – his own piano store.
He also talked about different kinds of piano such as Steinway, Yamaha or Kawai and he mentioned his favorite one which he describes as having a very colorful, orchestral, and full sound.
Things We Discussed
MJ Pianos – Matt Johnson’s piano store
C Bechstein – a German manufacturer of pianos, established in 1853 by Carl Bechstein.
Rachmaninoff – a Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor. Rachmaninoff is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music.
How Firmer Foundation – Jason Tonioli’s piece which is Matt’s favorite
Connect with Matt Johnson
Connect with Jason