John Chernoff does it all

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by August Linton

John Chernoff doesn’t carry most of the music he plays with him. Instead, the students he plays with bring it to him. He’s been the on-staff piano accompanist at Cal Poly Humboldt for what he figures to be about 16 years, playing a larger volume of music daily than probably anyone else on campus.

Chernoff plays at choral rehearsals, other ensemble practices, and individual sessions with any music student who needs accompaniment. Piano is often a catch-all substituted for what will eventually be other instruments, so Chernoff ends up filling a lot of roles for almost every type of music student.

“I play with basically anybody who needs a piano to be played with them,” he said.

One of his favorite types of music to play during working hours is when he accompanies the school’s musical theater rehearsals. He studied classical music up to the post-grad level, but says he appreciates the multi-faceted nature of musical scores.

Chernoff practices his craft almost every day. He’s able to sight-read any piece of music put in front of him almost flawlessly, and it seems ridiculous that the Music Department ever functioned without him. Learning new music quickly has always been one of his strengths, he says.

However, he is only one person, solely responsible for the needs of many students. Anybody who works with him knows well his constant, almost harried-seeming air as he rushes from practice room to practice room.

“The transition between [personal and professional] worlds is a rough one for me,” Chernoff said. “I have to confess, once you’ve heard vocal warmups enough times it’s kind of like water torture. It’s an inexorable ascent of key. So sometimes I’m not too eager to get to the beginning of certain things.”

Becoming a professional musician wasn’t always Chernoff’s goal. He first learned to play piano as a child, and says it was something he deeply loved, but mostly fell into. Even while seriously studying music, he thought that he would fall back to working in tech.

“I think the moment it happened actually was, there was a year where I was working as a computer programmer … I remember I would go into the office, and there would be people who didn’t know who Mozart was.”

At conservatories, concert pianists mostly learn virtuosic solo music, but he found that playing collaboratively was more fulfilling to him as a musician.

Photo by August Linton | John Chernoff plays the piano in a Music Room B practice room on Feb 22.

“There’s only so many notes you can jam into your brain when you’re learning solo piano music, before it starts to become kind of obnoxious … chamber music always seems like it has a more genuine purpose,” Chernoff said.

Upcoming March 4 and 5, the Eureka Symphony Orchestra will be debuting an original piano concerto composed by Chernoff as a part of their show ‘Inspirations, New and Timeless.’ He’s been working on the piece since before the pandemic.

“I have often been pressed into duty to play piano concertos with the Eureka Symphony, which is a fun thing to do,” Chernoff said.

The piece, simply titled ‘Piano Concerto,’ is Chernoff’s way of melding the 19th century golden age of classical piano with 21st century sensibilities.

“The 19th century tends to be the era where the piano shines particularly, so many great composers wrote for the piano at that time,” said Chernoff. “So that’s sort of part of my DNA. The thing is we can’t really write in that idiom today completely, because it’s not us. But it is a lot of us.”

The idealism of Debussy or other composers involved in the romanticism of the 19th century created an extreme, modernist reaction, according to Chernoff. He views this concerto as a sort of counter-counter reaction.

“I think what’s happened, is … [the cynicism of modern musical sensibilities] not really enough, modernism in a lot of ways has not worked out that well for humanity,” Chernoff said.

Another aspect of the piece, one which is uniquely reflective of Chernoff himself, is what he describes as a sort of awkwardness.

“When we write music, we can’t help but express our own personalities and such,” he said. “It’s alright to see the strings once in a while; I hope people can forgive the imperfections, the awkward turns of phrases, that all-too imperfect humanity the piece tends to have.”

Even after playing piano for other people’s projects all day, Chernoff goes home and continues to pursue his musicality. He plays jazz piano, and explores what bluegrass on the piano would sound like.

He’s also a zealous chess player, and still codes for fun occasionally. Merging three of his largest passions, he created a computer program which assigns musical traits to different moves within chess games.

Chernoff also livestreams on Twitch as @zugaddict: playing chess, performing different piano pieces, or even streaming the digital fantasy card game Hearthstone. He says he tried playing chess and piano simultaneously on a stream once, but that the act of multitasking took away the musicality.

“I try to do a lot of different things,” he said. “This piano piece of mine too, does this a lot, it has trains of thought it gets obsessed with.”

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