John Hetherington’s Zen Garden
The common stories about how musicians stumble upon their musical path often includes a made-for-tv watershed moment. An instance in life when the person realizes that music is THE thing. Or there is some seemingly prescient characteristic or trait from childhood that portends their inevitable musical journey.
That’s not the story for pianist John Hetherington. His path to music seems more of a meander through a Zen garden where the important, life changing moments maintain a periphery existence, quietly whispering to the psyche in a very organic way.
When I first met John it was many weeks before writing this article. We were both at a practice session for the first SOAP gig. He was a young man with long, curly-ish dark hair. He had a slightly sad-eyed smile, a slender build, and the attire of a relaxed musician. This image fit perfectly with his very laid back and sarcastically friendly personality, which was a pitch-perfect match for his ridiculously funky musical skills. Reflecting upon it now, I recall my mind having prescribed a middle-American, suburban background for this supreme player. I conjured a middle class kid smokin’ pot and jammin’ in his parent’s basement becoming the monster musician that sat before me. I was wrong.
John was born in Columbus, Georgia to an active-duty father in the army and mother in the air force. Moving from city to city was par-for-the-course, as any army brat will tell you. “When I was 5 we left Georgia, and I had this succession where every three years we moved,” John recalls, “New York first, then we were in Connecticut for a bit, then Minnesota, and then ultimately Virginia.” Somewhere in these travels, around the age of 8, John found a small Cascio keyboard in the basement and started teaching himself piano.
Typically at this point in the aforementioned clichéd story, the protagonist would say something to the effect of, “Once I found the keyboard, I knew I wanted to play music for the rest of my life.” John is no cliche. “The music thing was really just more of a hobby growing up,” he said, “I was really more of an athlete than anything.”
John continued to recount childhood. It involved how baseball was his life, how he had a buzzed hair cut, and how he never had the same music teacher for too long. This casual & spotty relationship with music and more engaged relationship to sports continued through high school.
Then Came College
In 2012 John enrolled at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Like many young college students, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Thus, he enrolled in general education studies. During the one semester John spent at CWU, he was encouraged by his roommate’s family to pursue music. Recalling the occasion John understood it to be significant and yet a simply organic realization. “In a very natural way,” he said, “the piano, which had always been a hobby, something in my back pocket, now came into the forefront.” While this experience seemed as slow and inevitable as the tide, John remembers “I made a very specific decision at that point in my life and I definitely flipped the switch myself: I’m gonna do music now.”
John withdrew from CWU, registered for music classes at State College of Florida, and moved in 2013.
At S.C.F., all of John’s classes were focused on music. He delved into classical, jazz, harmony, and music theory, among other topics. Most of his first year he spent on the intellectual side of music. “I was trying to play catch-up. Really focused on my music theory courses. That’s what brought me up to speed and gave me the foundation.” he said. When outside of class, in his free time John summed up his musical focuses with one word, “Improvisation. We were interested in improvising and creating on the spot.”
John Hetherington: Intellect Meets Intuition
‘Round about 2014 or so John met a young piano player name Liston Gregory. “He was an incredible improviser but couldn’t even read [music],” John recalls, “He and I were counterparts, perfectly balanced piano players coming at it from two complete opposite ends.” John referring to his own Euro-classical education contrasted with Liston’s play-by-ear intuition. “The two of us converged at USF looking to learn what the other was already doing.” It was clear in John’s recount that the two had a profound impact on each other, “He really blew my mind.”
Almost swapping rolls, today Mr. Gregory is enrolled in jazz classes in northern Florida. John, on the other hand is attending the University of Life absorbing the experiences that musicians express through their music. As a working musician he is making his living performing and teaching. In addition to freelancing, pickup gigs, and whatever else comes down the pipe, John is looking forward to a northeastern tour with the funky soulful fusion band Wild Root.
For the long term, Mr. Hetherington seems to express his goals with the same “Zen Garden” attitude I mentioned before. “I want to compose and perform and tour,” he says. And while, “playing with people is essential to my being,” John also values the serenity of pursuing a solo career. When pressed to define his vision of a solo career (classical project, piano-man solo show, solo album project, etc), John replied, “kind of… all of that.”
Talking with John Hetherington it is easy to be reminded to reexamine the mutability of boundaries. His history, experiences, interpretations, and presentations are not unlike a movement in Tai Chi. It seems that he operates with the inherent understanding that anything is PROBABLE as much as anything is possible.