Luann Carman, pianist and teacher, is Town Crier’s artist of the week.Photo by Marshall Smith
Luann Carman, pianist and teacher, is Town Crier’s artist of the week. Photo by Marshall Smith

In many cultures, coming of age begins at 12. For Luann Hanf Carman, it was when she found her personal purpose and passion, the piano. “My parents divorced [when I was age] 12,” she remembered. “The piano was my way to shut the door. No one was making me play. I just loved it.”

For Carman, it was not to be a solitary experience — years of lessons and practice all geared to solo classical recitals and performances. “Immediately, I found a way to make it social, to get out there with it, to play in pit bands and to accompany the high school chorus,” she said. “I’ve always directed my own path.”

There is a certain affirmative stability for any who find their life path early — a reassuring knowledge that they are pursuing a course that is authentic for them. Once Carman discovered the piano, 88 keys to her future, she did not look back. The New Jersey native attended college as a piano performance major at California State University, Long Beach. “At that time the music department was one of the best,” she said. “I was surrounded by world-class jazz musicians. The classical training was integral, absolutely the foundation. But I realized that studying and playing the classical masters was essential but not, for me, an end in and of itself. I learned, through jazz, how important improvisation is.”

For Carman, that exposure to jazz was one more key to her own musical authenticity. “One of the things I like to do is to blend styles, to be creative with all I’ve learned and all I’ve done. And playing in ensembles, being collaborative and supportive, has been a major part of my work.”

Carman continued her piano performance studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, obtaining her master’s degree in piano performance. Then it was immersion in the Los Angeles and Orange County music scene, playing gigs and teaching. Carman taught at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana and Cal State Fullerton. She taught jazz harmony, classical piano, electronic music, songwriting, ear training, music appreciation, applied piano, synthesis, arranging, MIDI and sequencing, and the history of jazz.

But the gigs grew wearisome. Booked into cushy upscale parties and events by the entertainment agency with which she was signed, she experienced a class separation that musicians sometimes experience — to be the featured entertainment at a party but asked to eat with the help in the garage. “There was this feeling of disdain from the music patrons,” she remembered. For Carman, it wasn’t so much about the class separation, it was about where she was playing — the L.A. and Orange County music and party scene.

She needed a break and took it when she and musician husband Paul Carman moved to Idyllwild. “There was a period of 10 years when I stopped playing,” she said. “I needed the seclusion and the time to raise my boys. The joy in the playing had ebbed.

“During that time I would look over at my piano bench, which was 10 feet away, and I would think, ‘I don’t know how to get over there.’”

Love is a strong emotion. Three or four years ago, Carman realized what she wanted. “I wanted to fall in love with playing again,” she recalled. “I knew I couldn’t do what I was doing when I had quit. It had to be something different.”

She was hired by Idyllwild writer Ken Luber to play a musical that was in development. “I was sitting there in the room with the composer and lyricist and book writer as they were putting it together and I thought, ‘This is cool. It is collaborative and part of being in the creative process, just like Rodgers and Hammerstein in their formative moments.’”

And it was that door in, being part of the creative and collaborative genesis of new work, that helped Carman reboot her music career. “Accompanying is one of my strengths,” she said. “I like being where the energy is. It’s exciting when people are doing what they love.”

And Idyllwild provided the place to reboot. “Part of not wanting to play was a symptom of what was going on in my life,” she said. “Coming here was bittersweet but I really needed the seclusion. I needed to fall in love with life again. I’m still working on my reboot — being more authentic. All of this has been a very rich experience in every way. This part of my life has been about opening, not closing off, listening to my gut and being myself.”

Carman has been busy — as rehearsal and performance pianist for the Inland Valley Symphony Orchestra, the Southwest Women’s Chorus in Temecula, the United Church of Christ in Temecula and Idyllwild Master Chorale’s musicals. Her son Isaiah is a songwriting major at Idyllwild Arts Academy and she said one of her greatest joys is studying with him. “I teach through discussion,” she said. “I stay out of the way and I’m there to support.”

For Carman, finding her joy early in life, and returning to the piano with new energy has been a reaffirmation. “Once I started playing, I had to play and keep going. It was just one of those things.”