David Hicken ~ Classical Crossover Pianist

My Story

From music to diving and back again

I was born into a musical family in Shropshire, England.  My mother, a well-known piano teacher, was trained by York Bowen at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  She was also the Headmistress of a large High School, yet found time to accompany my father, an amateur tenor, in local venues.  My grandparents were also musical, and in her youth my grandmother sang in numerous clubs around town accompanied by my grandfather on the piano.  It was inevitable that I would begin musical training, which I did, starting with piano lessons at the tender age of three.

I still remember my very first piano lesson in which I learned the scale of C major.  Shortly thereafter, piano practice and the study of music theory became mandatory and not a day would go by without sitting at the piano under the guidance and tutelage of my mother.  I enjoyed the lessons, but found many aspects of my training challenging, and it certainly did not come easily.

I attended a private boarding school nestled in the beautiful countryside surrounding Wolverhampton, and it was there that I began clarinet lessons at the age of nine.  Two years later I moved to another private boarding school within walking distance of my home, where I immediately joined the school's chapel choir, school choir and orchestra.

I became completely immersed in music, singing in performances of Mozart's Requiem, Vivaldi's Gloria, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis - all before the age of thirteen.  I also performed in Bizet's Carmen as well as the musical "Oliver".

At this time, the organ in the school's chapel had recently been refurbished and the choir was to sing at the dedication ceremony.  Roy Massey, the organist of Hereford Cathedral presented an organ recital and I was transfixed not only by his playing, but the incredible sound that emanated from the instrument.  Upon returning home that evening, I asked my parents if I could sign up for organ lessons.

My organ lessons began within just a few weeks and I became obsessed.  I arrived at school early every morning so that I could practice the chapel organ, I practiced during lunch break and stayed late after school so that I could practice even more.  I read everything that I could about the organ as well as music in general, and I made many trips to the local library to borrow recordings of classical music which I studied diligently.  My requests for Christmas and birthday presents were always for books and recordings related to music.

My school's chapel choir toured cathedrals in Scotland and performed at many major cathedrals throughout England, including Westminster Abbey, which helped to broaden my knowledge of the rich repertoire of organ and choral music.

My training included preparation for examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and I obtained the highest level (grade 8) in piano, organ, clarinet and theory, all with distinction.  I did not realize at that age just how advanced I was, but people around me were starting to notice.  One of the highlights of my youth was receiving a hand-written note from the headmaster of my school congratulating me on my performance of a Bach prelude and fugue for organ during a chapel service.

I entered and won local competitions in both piano and organ, and even won the mayor's prize for the most outstanding young student.  At thirteen I was asked to play the organ for a wedding because I was the only organist in the area who could play "Toccata from Symphony No. 5" by Charles Marie Widor.  At fourteen, I was asked to play the organ for local church services, as well as accompany singers and choirs.  At fifteen, I was featured as a guest artist at numerous venues with an organist who was widely-known.

On my sixteenth birthday, I gave my first solo organ recital - an hour and a half program performed on the organ of Ellesmere College.

Shortly after this I was awarded a full music scholarship to Stowe School, a prestigious boarding school which was attended by Sir Richard Branson and Sir David Niven.  During my time there I discovered synthesizers for the first time.  They were donated to the school by the famous group "The Police", because a member of the band had a son who attended the school while I was there.  In the small music studio, I used multi-track tape machines to sequence works by Bach.

I gave solo organ recitals on the massive organ in the school chapel (one of the largest organs in the country), and also performed as the soloist for a Handel organ concerto with the Oxford Symphony Orchestra.

At sixteen I began working towards two diplomas - Associate of the Royal College of Organists and Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music.  The work was extremely challenging - transposing hymn tunes at sight, score reading, writing two-part vocals in the style of Palestrina, harmonizing chorales in the style of Bach and writing string quartets in the style of Mozart and Haydn.  It wasn't easy to fit this work around my academic studies, but I was able to manage it all somehow.

By this time I had already received training from some of the finest teachers in the country, but I wanted to learn from the very best so I traveled to the Royal College of Music in London once a week to take lessons from Nicholas Danby.  He was a baroque specialist and I learned much from him about baroque fingering and articulation.

During the summers, I attended International Organ Festivals where I met professors from all over the world.  It soon became clear that the path set before me would lead to attending one of the colleges at Cambridge University or the Royal Academy of Music.  This would probably have led to a position as director of music at a cathedral - something that did not interest me at all.  Upon meeting an American professor, I knew that the next step was to travel to the United States.

I left England at the age of seventeen to attend Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where I accepted one of the largest scholarships ever awarded.  It was a wonderful opportunity, and a very exciting time in my life, but I found the standard of education to be somewhat pathetic, because I had learned much of it ten years earlier.  I was very happy to be in America, but very disappointed with university.

At eighteen I traveled back to England to present organ recitals at St. Paul's and Westminster cathedrals in London, as well as St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, while the queen was in residence.

While living in Baltimore, I began composing using synthesizers and sequencers.  I made a few demo recordings and sent them off to record companies in England, and to my amazement, I was offered record contracts by three different companies.  I chose to sign with President Records in London, and my first album "The Final Toccata" was released when I was nineteen.  I was so excited about recording using electronic instruments, that I felt I would not return to playing the organ, and the title of the album was a "farewell" of sorts to the world of organ playing.

I began teaching piano students and continued to compose in my free time.  As I worked on a second album, many people suggested that I move to Los Angeles to pursue work in film scoring, and although film scoring didn't appeal to me, the idea of moving to Los Angeles did, so I moved there to seek other opportunities in the music world.

Upon my arrival in Los Angeles, I accepted several positions as organist and Director of Music.  I trained adult choirs, handbell choirs and children’s choirs in addition to performing for church services, weddings and funerals.  I gave organ and piano recitals and taught private piano students on the side.  This didn’t leave much free time, but what little time I had was spent practicing and composing.

Although I was completely immersed in the world of classical music, I began to meet musicians from other genres.  I worked with a drummer for a year, writing and recording pop songs, and I also met and worked with Patrick Moraz of “Yes” and “Moody Blues” fame, who taught me much about Jazz, Blues and improvisation.  I learned all that I could about recording, mixing and mastering, and I soon had my very own recording studio which included a 3-manual digital church organ.

I signed with another London record company, and my second album, “The Shadow of Youth” was released by Prestige Records.  I had recorded my first album at the famous Power Station Studios in New York, but this time, I was able to record and mix the album myself.

Before long, I had my own office in Beverly Hills, which was certainly something to brag about to my former classmates in England.  I became the director of music at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills - a venue known for one of Elizabeth Taylor’s weddings, as well as Frank Sinatra’s funeral.

I performed as the soloist with several orchestras, and one particular performance led to a record contract with Laserlight Records for two albums of classical organ music.  “Symphony Gothique” and “A Christmas Pastorale” were recorded on the organ of Sacred Heart Chapel of Loyola Marymount University and were both produced by Mark Volman - a former member of the band “The Turtles”.

Word was beginning to spread about my abilities as a piano teacher, and I was taking on more students than I could handle.  I taught the children of film composer James Horner, music producer David Foster, television composers Snuffy Walden and David Kurz, as well as children of Oscar and Emmy-winning actors, actresses, directors and producers.  Not a day went by that I wasn’t teaching in a multi-million dollar mansion in Malibu or Beverly Hills, and although it may sound exciting, it was actually very exhausting.  This led to even more work, and I found myself performing at the homes of David Foster, Cher and others.

Between church work, concerts and students, I had very little free time, but I did decide to pursue a lifelong passion of learning to scuba dive.  I fell in love with diving, and wanted to learn as much as I could about it.  I took one course after another and before I knew it, I was at the level of instructor.  I wanted the instructor rating for the knowledge that the course provided, as I had no intention of actually teaching.  However, while acting as assistant instructor during several courses, I realized that I was having much more fun than I was when teaching or playing for weddings and funerals.  Almost overnight, I gave up an extremely lucrative career in favor of becoming a full-time dive instructor, and went from being somewhat wealthy, to being somewhat broke. 

All dive instructors were expected to work in the Malibu dive shop a couple of days each week.  Occasionally, one of my former clients would walk in to the store, and rather than have them see me working behind a counter as a sales clerk, (after they used to pay me a very handsome wage), I would hide in the back and have someone else take care of them.

I enjoyed teaching diving and had many adventures.  After logging hundreds of dives, I had seen it all - from the most amazing ship wrecks, caves, walls as well as sharks and all manner of sea creatures.  I also met many amazing people in the many classes that I conducted.

On a visit to Tahiti, I was offered a position as a dive instructor because I held the highest instructor rating of “Master Instructor”.  I was quick to accept, however there was one caveat.  Anyone who taught physical education in Tahiti had to pass a test in physics and physiology which was administered all in French.  I had taken eleven years of French in school, but I did not have the knowledge of the scientific terms and knew that my efforts would be futile.

After reading an article about diving in Thailand, I applied for a few jobs and was quickly offered several.  I moved to Thailand within a few weeks, but arrived at a time when the SARS virus was spreading, which affected tourism.  Owing to so few students, I had to supplement my income by teaching English.

I applied for dive jobs in other countries, and settled upon Sri Lanka, mostly due to my interest in Theravada Buddhism.  I worked for a dive company that was founded by the famous science-fiction author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke.  He had moved to the country in 1958 and discovered a number of famous shipwrecks off the coast.  I lived in a small house that he owned which was nestled in a jungle, and I rode his original Vespa motorcycle to work each day.  I was surrounded by poverty, and each day would see women carrying water back to their homes from the local well.  However, life at the hotel where I worked was considerably different, where I taught mostly German and Dutch tourists who were living in luxury.

The Sri Lankan people are wonderful and their country is exquisite.  I was fortunate enough to see most of it except for the north due to the rebel Tamil Tigers - a problem at the time, but one that is fortunately now over. 

I had a well-stocked first-aid kit, and when some of the boys who worked for me would complain of headaches or back aches, I would give them Ibuprofen as well as Hydrocortisone for their rashes and Neosporin for their cuts.  They began to affectionally call me “Dr. David”.

As a dive instructor, I followed strict protocol, and always took very good care to see that my students were safe.  One day, while teaching some skills in the swimming pool, many of the locals were frantically calling for me - “Dr. David, Dr. David!”  It turns out that one of the hotel guests - a German man (not one of my students), decided to go swimming in the ocean after eating a heavy meal and drinking more alcohol than he should have.  He got into difficulty and was drowning.  A boat was dispatched to bring him to shore, and it fell upon me to perform CPR, which I continued to do over the next 40 minutes - all the way to the hospital, but to no avail.  I was trained for such events, and in fact, I even conducted classes in CPR, but this experience made me realize that I no longer wanted that level of responsibility and my days as an instructor ended right there.

Reality set in, and I realized that I would need to return to a “normal” life.  After returning to Thailand for a while, I eventually made my way back to California, accompanied by many stories.

After living in tropical climates, my blood had thinned and I preferred warm weather.  Returning to California in October was not pleasant for me, so after a few months, I decided to move to Hawaii.

Although I was offered dive jobs upon my arrival on the island of O’ahu, I turned them down in favor of an organist position and private piano students.  My private teaching studio began to flourish and my organist position turned into a position as Director of Music.  I also became the choir director at a girls private school which was founded by one of the queens of Hawaii.

I bought a house on the North Shore, which is known for its extremely large waves in the winter months.  Surfers flock there from all over the world to take part in the Triple Crown of surfing (three very big competitions).

My studio overlooked the ocean and the mountains, and I was inspired to compose.  Music poured from my fingers and I completed three albums of solo piano music - "Goddess", "Angels" and "Faeries".  I even wrote a piece of music for choir called "Adoramus te" that has since been performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Vatican in Rome, Canterbury Cathedral in England as well as many other major venues.

I enjoyed giving performances of the music from my new albums, and was quite happy to write music for solo piano rather than the synthesized works of the past.  I had always wanted to produce a Christmas piano album, so I set to work and “Carols of Christmas” was born.  After hearing my arrangement of “Carol of the Bells”, it was suggested that I make a video, and “The Bell Carol” was filmed on a very windy day at the end of November.  The weather was awful that day, but remained clear enough for a couple of hours so that we could film.  We had a whole story planned out, but were unable to film it all, so the end result was somewhat fragmented, but nevertheless it became very popular.

I continued to write more piano music, but instead of softer, melodic compositions, I began to write fast-paced, exciting works that reminded me of the organ repertoire that I enjoyed so much.  Rather than compose enough music to create an album, I decided to release each track as soon as it was completed as a YouTube video.  It was clear that people really enjoyed this style of music and before long, people all over the world were buying the sheet music and working on the pieces themselves.  After teaching piano lessons for so many years, and having much of what I said fall on deaf ears, I could see that now I was reaching and inspiring a much larger audience of pianists - people who really wanted to learn this new music.  I continued to compose more pieces in the same style and “The Art of Piano” was completed in about a year.  As you read these words, thousands of pianists around the world are right now working on one of those pieces, and as a composer, there is no greater compliment than that.

I no longer teach, but I do share my knowledge through books and blog posts.  I receive emails from pianists all over the world and I respond to all of them to offer words of encouragement and praise.  I do believe that if more people sat at home and practiced a piano, then the world will surely be a better place because of it.  Playing the piano can be a meditative and even a spiritual experience, and when one is thoroughly immersed in it, all thoughts of negativity disappear, and all of one's ills fall by the wayside.

I enjoy creating new music and sharing it with the world, and I derive great satisfaction from knowing that people are enjoying my work.  If you have read this far, you can see that my life has never been dull.  I have had some amazing experiences, and of course I look forward to many more, yet all of these experiences come through in my music in one way or another.

I hope that you find inspiration from my story and that you believe as do I, that anything is possible when heart and mind are set to purpose.

I remain musically yours,