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Interview with David Alstead, Pianist

David Alstead

July 3, 2006

Topic: New Twists on Solo Piano and Meniere's Disease
Dybala: Hi David, thank you for meeting with me today.

Alstead: I'm very happy to be here, and flattered that you wanted to speak to me.

Dybala: We always like to speak with talented persons who have interesting stories and you definitely fit the bill! I wanted to talk with you about your music in combination with your experience with Meniere's Disease. I think the simplest approach would be to step through things chronologically, so let's go back to when you were a child. It's my understanding you had a lot of music in your family growing up and unlike some kids, you liked piano lessons. Tell us a bit about your early experiences with music.

Alstead: My family was a very musical family. There was always music from my earliest memories, whether it was singing along in the car on the way to my grandparents' homes, or singing and playing at home. I have a picture of me at the piano at home with my dad playing the guitar - I think I was about four years old.

Dybala: How old were you when you had your first "public" performance?

Alstead: Well, other than early piano recitals, I suppose my first official performance was when I was 8 years old. I performed at the Minnesota Music Teachers' Association State Honor Student Concert at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis.

Dybala: Tell us about this first performance. How were you selected and what did you perform?

Alstead: It was with a group of kids from Minnesota who were all my age who had gone through the MMTA State Piano Contest process. The actual Honor Concert at Northrop is made up of students separated into classes by age, but ranging up to age twenty. During the contests, I was seven years old, though I was eight by the time of the performance. The performance for my Primary age class was a twelve piano duet called "Gay Dancers", with six children playing one part, and six on the other. It was an amazing experience, and was really what showed me that I enjoyed playing in front of people. I performed again for the Honor Concert two years later, after which my teacher decided to concentrate on theory and technique instead of contests.

Dybala: I understand that it was in high school when you started suffering from Meniere's. Walk us through when you first noticed having issues and the problems you experienced.

Alstead: It was very disturbing. It all started at age 16 with, what I called at the time, "double hearing". I would hear a sound, and at the same time, hear the same sound slightly higher. Lower tones would be doubled further away from the original tone than would higher tones, and this made listening to music impossible. It wreaked havoc with being in choir, and orchestra, where I played violin. It was shortly after that that I began being hit by the feeling of fullness and debilitating vertigo, along with nerve noise. I learned to recognize the "two minute warning" of the vertigo attacks, which allowed me to get to the nurse's office. All of my teachers knew that if I stood up and quickly walked out of the classroom, it was best not to stop me or I might not make it to the nurse's office in time.

Dybala: Meniere's is a rough disease. I bet it was hard trying to get through high school and having to deal with your vertigo attacks. You later underwent surgery at age 19 and that stopped the dizzy spells, tell us more about that.

Alstead: Well it is, as you are aware, quite a long process to even get to a diagnosis of Meniere's. So it was with me, but I was eventually diagnosed with Meniere's in my left ear. I was put on supervitamins, an antihistamine, a diuretic, and niacin, with a salt restricted diet, and no caffeine. This seemed to help a little, but during my first year at college, I still had the attacks, along with decreased hearing in my left ear. The surgery was a last chance option I was told. It was an endolymphatic sac decompression. I understood that at the time it was experimental, and I had it at the University of Minnesota Hospital. A funny story... before I went in for the surgery, I was told that the doctors would go in through my ear to do the work. I awoke after the surgery with my head wrapped, but thought nothing of it until a week later when they unwrapped my head. I found that they had in fact drilled through the mastoid bone behind my ear, and had shaved a portion of my head (laughs). I laugh now, but I was really peeved about having my head shaved back then.

Dybala: Well, I think anyone who wakes up with an unexpected shaved head has a right to be frustrated. I once had my head shaved while I was asleep, but it was at summer camp and that is another story (laughs).

Alstead: (laughs) Ah yes... summer camp... shaved heads and hands in warm water while sleeping... We will have to get together again and talk about our experiences then!

Dybala: Yes! Sorry about the diversion, I want to get back to your story. Currently, hearing loss does not usually occur with the endolymphatic sac surgery, but obviously yours did. What was the progression?

Alstead: To be fair to the doctor, I had been told that there was about a 3 percent chance of losing the hearing in the ear from the surgery. I just turned out to be one of the lucky 3 percent. In the space of about one week after the surgery, I slowly lost the hearing in my left ear. Everyone was confused, since the surgery itself went so well. Even after an additional exploratory surgery, no one has ever been able to figure out why. The doctor slowly weaned me off of all the medication. I completely stopped having the vertigo. Other than the complete hearing loss in the left ear, I had no problems.

Dybala: I know some might assume that if you have one good ear, then you should hear just fine! We know that this is not true. What were and are the issues you run into when trying to communicate with others with what is known as Single Sided Deafness (SSD)?

Alstead: Oh, there is a lot that changed in my life after losing the hearing in my left ear. The first thing I noticed was the lopsided, almost lightheaded feeling from the ears not hearing equally. It was very disorienting, and it took years to get used to it. I also suddenly cared what side of people I stood on and where I was seated at a table so that I could hear everyone. Being in an enclosed space with large groups of people just makes me wince, as it is impossible to hear one person over the background noise. I tend to stay away from noisy situations, though I have developed a partial lip-reading ability. It is just enough to get me through most situations (laughs). I have had more than one occasion where people thought I was ignoring them. I had no idea they had even been talking to me! I have learned that when I start working with new people, I make sure to let them know about my deafness, so that they know they have to have my attention before they talk to me. I do have to say, though, that people are right about losing one ear and the other taking over. My hearing in my right ear improved so much that in college I could listen to conversations going on in the next room that others could not hear.

Dybala: Musically, did SSD come into play? You literally went from stereo to mono.

Alstead: You know, that had less of an effect than I thought in some ways, and more in others. The violin was strange, because I was used to playing it next to a hearing left ear. When I lost the hearing, the tone seemed strange. I don't know that I've ever really gotten used to that. The piano has been no problem at all once I got past the "lopsided" feeling. The times when it became a real issue for me, were when recording and mixing music in stereo. When recording multiple instruments, you like to pan them into different spaces so that the sound doesn't come from one point. The stereo imagery helps prevent muddiness. I can no longer hear in stereo, and so everything always comes from one point for me. Whenever I need to record and mix in stereo, I always bring in a trusted pair of ears to listen and help me with the instrumental panning. There is one slight benefit to the deaf left ear. If I am performing onstage with a band with a live drummer, I try to situate myself so that the drums are to the left of me, thereby saving my good ear from cymbal abuse. Look for the silver lining, right?

Dybala: Right! You have obviously taken a very positive approach to all of this and that says a lot about you. You know, I have had some husbands say that they like to put their wives on the side of their "bad ear". I think that your approach to dealing with SSD is better and I am sure your wife would agree (laugh)!

Alstead: (laugh) Yes, I think she would!

Dybala: As I heard you talk about your problems listening to music, your description of the violin sounding different actually makes sense to me. When sounds travel around your head, the head acts like a filter for higher pitched sounds. I could therefore see the violin sounding different to you via the opposite ear only as it is being filtered by your head!

Alstead: You know I had not thought of it that way... it is definitely different. I always assumed that it was because I was hearing no direct sound, but only reflected sound. It would make sense that there would be a "head filter" component as well.

Dybala: Moving forward several years later, besides the SSD, do you have any lingering side effects from Meniere's?

Alstead: Well, up until about 6 years ago, I forgot to think much about my Meniere's. Then I started having the same sound doubling in my right ear as I had in my left ear years ago. I also experienced sometimes painful sound distortion that I had not experienced before. I went back to the doctor, and was diagnosed with Meniere's in my right ear. I am back on the dietary restrictions and taking an antihistamine. I also restructured my life to alleviate stress, and I have not had any ear distortion in years. The hearing in my right ear is still above normal and so far, knock on wood, I have not had any vertigo this go-around.

Dybala: That is good news. Dietary restrictions are a big part of managing Meniere's. The inner ear has some cells in it that function similarly to cells in the kidney and are important in regulating the fluid balance in the inner ear. This is why some of the treatments for Meniere's (e.g. low salt diet, no caffeine, reducing stress) are similar to what might be used for treating a leading cause of kidney failure, high blood pressure. It is a good thing you recognized you symptoms when you did as it absolutely saved your good ear!

Alstead: Yes, I am very thankful for that!

Dybala: So, you worked through your Meniere's treatment while you were early on in college. I read that you were at odds with your college professors musically and this had an influence on your musical style. Can you tell us more about that?

Alstead: Well, since I had already had 13 years of classical music and theory, I wanted to study jazz in college. The music professors at my college were not interested in jazz, so I ended up working that out myself. I also continued to dabble in musical theater, another interest of mine. I played with many bands of various styles. Eventually, I think that my unique style of playing and writing came from the fusion of all of those things, while still being classically based.

Dybala: You have released two albums, the titles of which seem to nod to your SSD. Your first album was called "Piano for Both Ears" and your current album is called "Pieces of Piano".

Alstead: You picked up on that, did you? You know it's funny. That's why I like vague titles. People who don't know anything about my ears don't catch that at all, but they interpret their own meaning from them. I like the fact that the meanings of the titles can be multi-layered.

Dybala: There are various music shopping web sites that will suggest music you would like based on your personal shopping habits. "If you liked this album or artist, you might like that album or artist." Just to give our readers some perspective, pretend you are one of those music web sites and fill in the blank on this sentence: If you like to listen to _______________ you might like to listen to David Alstead.

Alstead: You know, I have a real hard time with that one. I know that every musician feels that they are unique and not derivative of others, but I really feel that there are not other players out there that do what I do. Though, I would say, that if people enjoy George Winston, or Keith Jarret, they will probably like what I do, even though I don't sound exactly like them.

Dybala: Thank you for that. I logged onto your web site at and was able to preview some of your music from both albums. You state that your music encourages "... the inclusion of pop sensibilities, jazz chordal structures and various seemingly inappropriate musical elements into a sometimes belligerent and unwilling classical music form".

I will admit when I first read this sentence I was a bit confused. But, after listening to some song samples from your web site, the description made much more sense to me. I guess one could say the music is worth a thousand words! Can you take us through a few samples of your songs?

Alstead: There is a song on "Piano For Both Ears" called "Empty Well"

It's a perfect example of a song that started out as one thing, and then became another in the writing process. I originally started writing it as a sweeping romantic piece, but then US Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and others were killed in a plane crash. I really felt that loss greatly, and the song changed and became more of a sad, somber piece, reflecting on that loss. Yet, it still maintained the beauty in its melody and chord structure. I have to be careful when I perform it live, as I can become very emotional during it.

Another piece from the same CD is "Can Aaron Come Out To Play?"

This fun, wisecracking piece is one of my favorites, and was the only song that had a title before it was written. I tend to put off titling pieces until I absolutely need to, but I had the first measure of this one done and I knew immediately what it was going to be called. I love to hear what people think the title means, and ask the audience at performance to tell me after the show what they hear in it. I could probably write a book about the different stories I have heard. There have been a few, however, who have actually interpreted the title and the song the way I had, as a nod to Aaron Copeland.

Dybala: I went ahead and "Googled" Aaron Copeland, for myself and our readers. Aaron Copeland was an American composer and is considered one of the most respected classical composers of the twentieth century. Tell us about another one of your songs.

Alstead: On "Pieces Of Piano" there is "Tin Man",

a very different, rhythmic, almost atonal piece. I love it. It is not what people expect to hear on a solo piano CD. I spent a lot of time working on the title, with variations on a theme such as "Mechanicalle", "Human Machine", and many, many others, none of which really clicked for me. I showed them all to my wife, who in a split second suggested. "How about 'Tin Man'?" Well, I knew right away she had hit the nail on the head.

Dybala: Along those lines, a person who has insensitivity to music or sounds is sometimes referred to as having a "Tin Ear", so I could see how the whole "Tin" aspect of the title fits into an "atonal" piece, as you describe it.

Alstead: I had not thought of it that way, but I would have to agree with you! Ok, Paul. I am going to now put you on the spot. You had a chance to listen to my music, what was your favorite piece?

Dybala: Fair enough! When I listened to song from "Pieces of Piano" I think that "Nymph"

was my favorite. I am not a musician, but I would describe the song as a "relaxed, up-tempo" piece. It made me think of sitting next to a river. The sound is soothing, but you also know there a lot going on in the water!

Alstead: That's a great image! One of my favorite things is to hear what images my music brings into the minds of the listeners. I feel that each individual listener will always have his or her own impression of each song. Each person is coming from a different place, with a different history, in a different life, and for that reason, each song will invoke different imagery in each person. As with "Can Aaron Come Out To Play", not everyone hears the same thing in the music. I really enjoy hearing about what others hear. There are some composers who are disappointed or upset when a listener doesn't "get" the song in the way they intended. I think those composers are losing out on something great.

Dybala: I think your philosophy on that is similar to the way you approach your music. I think it would be accurate to say that you have a more open approach to your piano playing as you blend several genres.

Alstead: Yes, I would absolutely agree with that!

Dybala: Now, if I wanted to buy your CDs where could I do this?

Alstead: The best place is at my website, You will be routed to a secure sales page at CDBaby, which is an online distributor for independent musicians.

Dybala: If I wanted to see you performing live, where could I find you?

Alstead: Pretty much at the moment, you would have to be in Minnesota, or a neighboring state. I am always looking to travel more, and would love to do a longer tour. Stay tuned to my website for details.

Dybala: Well, thank you again for sitting down with me. I always enjoy finding new music to listen to!

Alstead: I'm so glad that you found mine, and that you took the time to contact me. I really enjoy hearing from people, and being able to share my Meniere's story was an added bonus. Thank you!

About David Alstead:

(From CDBaby "David Alstead (feel free to call him "Dave") is currently living in St. Paul, Minnesota, but was originally from Alexandria and has lived in Minnesota most of his life. In a state well known for other pianists like Lorie Line, Jeane Arland Peterson and Willie Murphy, David has carved out a niche for himself that is unique. Determined to mix things up a little, he starts with a classical music form, and using the vocabulary of a myriad of musical styles, creates emotional and stirring songs that are sure to surprise and captivate." For more information visit
Industry Innovations Summit Live CE Feb. 1-29

David Alstead


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