American Songwriter - April 11, 2022
Neutral ground, the strip of land running through the middle of two-way streets is where Harry Connick Jr. would typically hang out as a kid growing up in New Orleans. Returning to the idea of these grassy medians, Connick Jr. developed The Neutral Ground, an immersive metaverse-based community where people of all ages can meet in the middle and connect through music.
“It also has a double meaning, because it’s a place where everybody’s on the same slate, and I think that’s kind of what the metaverse is,” says Connick Jr. of The Neutral Ground. “It’s the idea that we’re all contributing parts of a community, and it’s a place for all of us to hang out and have a good time.”
To kick off the first of a series of projects around The Neutral Ground, Connick Jr. has turned into a teacher with the Piano Party, an online course where Connick teaches piano to people of all ages and levels of playing ability, beginning with the most fundamental understanding of music terminology and simple exercises.
“I wanted to come up with an online community that was a place to gather and share ideas and passions,” says Connick Jr., who already has thousands of members connecting over music. “It’s a way to be immersive and in a new way, because it’s more than a chat room. As the metaverse expands, we’re able to connect in different ways.”
Season One of the Piano Party course, offers participants unlimited access to nine on-demand lessons, and two live interactive sessions with Harry and other participants, in addition to an exclusive learning community where members share their progress, get assistance, and communicate directly with Connick Jr.
As members sign up, they’ll begin to learn the basic fundamentals of playing the piano and interact with other participants around the initial nine classes. “It isn’t an advanced course,” says Connick Jr. “It’s a really basic introduction to what a piano is and appreciating the very basics of music.”
Every 10th episode will transform into an interactive lesson with Connick Jr. where he will meet members of the community, and exchange ideas and tips. As the course progresses, it will become more comprehensive, but in the beginning, everything is elementary, a departure from the more advanced courses that are more discouraging than educational. “There are lots of courses out there that teach people how to play advanced stuff, and eventually this will be the best version of that,” says Connick Jr., “but right now it’s just about getting people together and getting them to celebrate one another in a really fun, healthy way.”
Recently when one of Connick Jr.’s daughters wanted to try out a boxing class, Connick Jr. says the instructor immediately started her off with technical lessons. “I wanted her to go in and hit the bag for half an hour, just get her frustrations out, and if she liked it, then she could keep going,” says Connick Jr. “This guy ruined it for her, and she never went back. That’s not what this [The Neutral Ground] is. I could care less how good you think you are. We’re going to do this together. We’re gonna have a blast. I want to hear you play, and I’m not judging you. Believe me, we could get technical, but that’s not what this is about.”
Throughout each lesson, Connick Jr. shares personal stories, offers a show and tell of the different keyboards he has and what each does, and filters down terminology—even describing what tremolo is to members. “It’s going back to ‘what are these black and white things,’” he says. “A lot of people look at a keyboard, and say, ‘I have no idea what this is. It’s like Greek to me,’ and I say ‘let me break it down for you,’ and I just go back to the very fundamentals of my own learning, and that’s good for me.”
He adds, “It’s not that I need any more musical passion, but it certainly ignites that passion even more because there’s a chance for me to be able to relate to somebody on a good level. It doesn’t take a lot to appreciate music and to play a little bit, and that’s what this course is designed to do.”
Each lesson also incorporates a “home play” assignment for participants to practice what they learned. “I’m not teaching you how to play a song,” says Connick Jr. “You can grab a guitar and learn ‘Stairway to Heaven’ but then what? I want to teach you how to play music so that you can learn how to play it on your own, and know how to play whatever else you want, but you have to know some basic, fundamental things to start. If I was teaching you addition, two plus two is four, and that’s great, but what does plus mean? What does adding me? It’s going back to what are chords? What is a key?”
For Connick Jr., who released the gospel album Alone with My Faith in 2021, it’s never a question of working on new material. It’s his raison d’etre.
“I don’t really have writer’s block,” says Connick Jr. “It’s always happening. It’s like breathing for me. That doesn’t mean it’s effortless, but the idea of creating something musical is something that is innate for me at this point.”
Now teaching the instrument he loves most, Connick Jr. says that everything goes back to his daily sense of gratitude. “This is a terrifying time in our world, and when you sit around a piano, singing songs, and having fun, it gives you a break from the news,” says Connick Jr. “I think it’s one of the things that I can do to make the world a little bit better. I feel like I’ve been given a set of gifts, which I’m very grateful for, but I know I’m not better than anybody else.”
Connick Jr. adds, “We’re all trying to make it. We’re all trying to do our thing. I just have to keep my ears open and my eyes open and try to learn and try to understand things I don’t understand. I have approached people and situations with humility and celebrate being alive every day. That’s how I roll.”