We caught up with Lewis Warren, Jr. ’19 with this Q&A about his recent experience performing the Star Spangled Banner at the Texas Motor Speedway:
Recently, you played the U.S. national anthem to open a NASCAR Cup race. How was that?
I think that it went pretty well; so much fun. It was actually 40 degrees outside, so my hands were ice cold—I really don’t know how I played it. I'm thankful for my piano tuner, Steve Swinney.
This is the second time you played the Texas Motor Speedway—the first time, you were 11, and you played the national anthem for an audience of over 200,000.
How was this recent experience different?
When I was younger I couldn’t afford to be nervous, I just had to do my best and play my arrangement.
Now I have more experience pianistically, and this time around it was difficult to make an arrangement within 1:30 seconds. I originally made a 3 minute arrangement so cutting it down was a challenge.
What’s your creative process like when you're crafting an arrangement for an extremely well-known piece, like the Star Spangled Banner?
The challenging part is to make it unique yet be true to the melody and myself.
I had so many ideas and arrangements but had to constantly cut it down and simplify it so that the melody could be relatable. However I wanted it to be technically demanding and also harmonically rich. So that was a challenge.
What is fun about it is I had the chance to express my joy for my nation through music. I also wanted to express my hope and showcase the beauty within the arrangement as well.
One portion I purposefully did was to make “For the land of the free…” quieter and more contemplative; almost like a beautiful dream or memory, yet a future hope and cry.
Can you give us a play-by-play leading up to the event?
So I was approached by Mr. Gossage, President of the Motor Speedway, in mid-February during the middle of my work day at MUJI (my previous job), and I was completely shocked.
I told a few trusted people about the exciting news.
I had just finished recording for a piano competition and was preparing new repertoire for the semester. In March I really began to work on the arrangement.
I also had another musical engagement in Texas the night before the NASCAR event, so I prepared a program for that evening as well; ‘twas a busy few weeks for me.
I felt that I was not as balanced as I could have been but this experience helped me to understand how to prioritize better. It was a great learning experience.
Are you a NASCAR fan?
I am not necessarily a die hard NASCAR fan; however, the car races are so exciting. I find that any professional field requires so much dedication and technique.
I am amazed at how fast those drivers can drive with such finesse and skill; it’s truly exciting to watch.
I would love to go to more events like those.
Stereotypically, people might think that there’s not a lot of crossover between NASCAR audiences and Jordan Hall audiences, but people responded very warmly to your performance.
Do you think about your audience when you're preparing a performance?
I definitely think about the audience because the audience is who I am communicating with.
How do you approach performing for a crowd that may not be as familiar with the styles of music you play?
For this performance, I thought:
I know that the audience will take a chance to listen to something new, yet I know that a piano arrangement is not something they hear often.
It’s a completely different experience than a solo voice or voice-and-orchestra arrangement. That’s why I wanted the melody to be clear but to expose them to a variety of harmonies and technical textures.
I am so blessed that they received my arrangement well. I feel that if one expresses themselves from the heart respectfully, sincerely, and with thoughtful care, anyone will listen. Whether they agree or disagree, they will listen and contemplate.
You’re originally from Texas. What was it like growing up there?
I absolutely love Texas! It was a wonderful state grow up: kind and loving people, delicious food and sweet tea, burning hot summers and cool winters.
I find that my relationship personal with God, the care of my piano professors and mentors, family and friends, and my keen imagination nurtured my musicianship when growing up.
If I can be vulnerable, I also find that people think Texas is a “dangerous” and “close minded” state and so I often get this “Oh you poor thing.” look when I say I’m from there.
I would encourage one to take a visit and experience the state for oneself. No state or country is perfect, but Texas really is a beautiful, loving, and charming place.
Everything is bigger there, so that counts for the hearts, too.