Piano Man

Give Louis Colaiannia a hand--he'll need one after his 24-hour marathon.

Colaiannia says that Kerstner--who now lives in Ohio and is eagerly awaiting a Colaiannia concert in Columbus next month--made him appreciate that there was more to playing the piano than just scales.

"She always made it interesting," he says. "I was having trouble with this one Rachmaninoff piece. I just couldn't get it. She said, 'If you play it properly, you'll hear water in the background.' I thought she was this crazy old lady. I played it and played it, and I didn't hear anything. Then I started to hear it. She was right. That's when I realized you could create emotion through music."

Colaiannia took lessons from Kerstner for seven years. When she moved away, he studied with Kathleen Joiner, then the pianist for the Denver Symphony Orchestra. But he soon had a falling out with Joiner over his refusal to give up playing basketball; Joiner didn't want him to risk injuring his hands. He had a shot at a traditional career as a concert pianist, but Colaiannia wasn't prepared to invest the kind of single-minded devotion to classical music that would lead him to a conservatory.

"I thought if I did that, I would end up teaching piano in a basement somewhere to a bunch of kids who didn't want to learn it anyway," Colaiannia says now. "I wanted more out of life. I knew if I was ever going to do music, it would be my music. And if nobody in the world liked it, so what?"

With his parents solidly in his corner, Colaiannia went on to earn a basketball scholarship to the University of Colorado. He never quite abandoned the piano--he played ragtime at the venerable Red Slipper club, accompanied silent movies at the Hungry Farmer, then slipped into the soft hell of the cocktail-lounge circuit--but most of his energy was poured into pre-med classes. Colaiannia had an idea that he might make a pretty fair heart surgeon. After three years he had most of the requirements for medical school completed but was still a few credits short of an undergraduate degree. A counselor suggested that he apply to dental school, just for the practice. Much to Colaiannia's surprise, he was accepted. Curiouser still, he decided to check it out.

"I thought that if I turned them down, I probably wouldn't get into medical school," he says, "so I went ahead and accepted the position."

Dentistry paid the bills, but Colaiannia was soon bored with the routine. He turned to buying and selling practices, then became the director of a dental-insurance company. His musical career had dwindled to occasional stints with fleeting rock bands. Once in a while he got to rub shoulders with celebrity--a studio session with Alice Cooper, performances at private parties for the likes of David Niven and Sid Caesar; even a backstage meeting in his youth with his idol, Liberace, who advised him that family was very important--but as the years wore on, it seemed that Colaiannia was not destined to shake up the music world after all. To most of the people he met, he was Dr. Lou.

Two events several years apart helped turn things around for Colaiannia. In 1988 an acquaintance asked him if he could provide the background music for an instruction tape in meditation that was being prepared by a Boulder company. "Up until then, I'd been trying to write songs that someone would play in a piano bar some day, with lyrics and everything," Colaiannia says. "I'd never done anything that might be considered new age."

The company paid him a hundred dollars for his piano ramblings. The tape was so successful that another version, featuring just the music, was quickly released and sold thousands of copies. Colaiannia never saw another dime from the venture, but his emerging rep as a new-age composer secured him a concert at Chautauqua in Boulder, sponsored by radio station KHIH-FM/95.7. That in turn led to several offers from Narada and other record labels. Unfortunately, the timing was all wrong. Colaiannia was a divorced single parent; his son, Louis III, was only five years old. The labels expected him to perform as many as 300 concerts a year. Colaiannia figured touring was out of the question until his son was older.

He would, he decided, concentrate on composing rather than performing. But he kept his work to himself, right up to the death of his father in 1994. Colaiannia was devastated.

"My father and I were extremely close," he says. "Best friends. Dad was the person who always said I could do whatever I decided to do. He would even come to the concerts when I was in a heavy-metal band. He hated the music, but he would come. When he died, I was the executive director of an insurance company, and it looked like that was all I was going to be."

The loss of Louis Sr. sparked something in Colaiannia. He began building a theme around the notes D-A-D, a piece that developed with a certain classical rigor but oozed new-age romanticism. "That was my personal space to go and grieve," Colaiannia says. "I could think about my dad and it was okay. I never wanted anybody to hear that song."

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