A Composer in Conversation

Rami Bar-Niv will be known to some readers as an acclaimed concert pianist, recording artist, renowned pedagogue and author of the outstanding book, The Art of Piano Fingering (which I have reviewed here).

Before discovering any of this, I first encountered the genial musician when running an online group for composers; Rami became an active contributor, and I was immediately struck by the quality of his original music in an engaging contemporary classical style.

It is a privilege to have this opportunity to chat with Rami about his composing career, and there are many insights here which Pianodao readers will undoubtedly find interesting and helpful…

The Interview

Andrew:  Rami, many thanks for agreeing to this interview for Pianodao. Could you start by introducing yourself to readers with an overview of your career in music as a pianist, writer and teacher?

Rami: First, I thank you Andrew for asking me to do this.

I’ve had a worldwide concert career for the past 60 years, performing in solo recitals, as soloist with orchestras and in chamber music. I have done many radio, TV, and commercial recordings with record companies.

My teaching career is also that long, as I started teaching too at an early age. I started teaching in a private studio setting, later on in various music schools, and then more and more via master classes, lectures, and workshops. I also created my piano camp for adults, a week-long program that I ran in various places around the world. Currently, my camps are in North America.

Before I wrote my piano-fingering book I had very little writing experience; I just wrote a few articles for some music magazines. I think I got my writing experience on Internet groups. At the present time I am working on writing my autobiography.

At what stage in your childhood music education did composing first become a feature which caught your interest?

Right from the start of my piano lessons I also started playing by ear, improvising, and composing. My father who had beautiful-calligraphic music handwriting copied my compositions into a manuscript album that I have until today. However, I must admit that those compositions were nothing to write home about.

I completely neglected composition for many years, as I was too busy practicing the piano and touring the world concertising. Only later in life I started really composing. I started first with some songs that got performed, recorded, and played on radio. Then I turned one of my songs into my first piano piece – Toccata.

That was the beginning of quite a fruitful composing career. I wrote for piano solo, duets, trios, and duo pianos. I wrote for voice, other instruments and ensembles, and for orchestra. I am very lucky as my compositions get performed and recorded all over the world.

Incidentally, I also arranged my Toccata for string orchestra. It got performed a number of times in Israel and in the US. 

It will be premiered in the UK on 15th July, 7.30pm by Alison Dite’s St. Edward’s Orchestra conducted by David Hutchings at St. Edward’s church, Roath Cardiff, Wales. The concert is free, with retiring collection.

Looking back to those first songs, were they commissioned? What was the inspiration for them?

My first songs were written for various song festivals, but they had to compete first for getting accepted over other songs.

The inspiration was the subject of the particular festival I entered. e.g. I wrote Klezmer style songs for the Hassidic song festival, I wrote Mediterranean Style for the Middle-Eastern song festival, I wrote romantic ‘Sanremo’ style for a general pop festival, etc.

Later on I got commissions by theatre shows, television programs, and individual singers.

Composers looking for that initial break will no doubt be keen to hear about how you promoted the songs, in terms of getting them performed and even broadcast on radio. Can you share that story?

Once a song is accepted for a song festival, these things happen automatically. So the idea is to constantly send songs to song contests. Other things that I did later on were nonstop sending songs to actively performing singers, their producers, and their record companies.

There’s a saying in the Israeli Foreign Ministry: “If you didn’t report, it didn’t happen”. My paraphrase on it is: “If you didn’t send your songs all over the place, they never existed.”

The same goes for any composition, you have to let people in the relevant places know about it.

Given this imperative to put your music out there, to fulfil commissions, win competitions and meet the expectations of your audiences, would you say it is difficult for a composer today to establish their own unique voice? 

I would definitely say that it is difficult for composers to establish their own unique voices. I’d say it not only about our present time, but also in general.

All great composers in the history of music had their own voices, their own unique languages, ands their own stamps in their music. Many composers rely on their roots; others may pick up styles and genres they like, while others follow their teachers’ footsteps.

However, a composer is always trying to take the past a step forward into the future. 

How would you describe your own composing voice?

Now you’re getting into the difficult questions… You are making me actually think…

I may have a split personality regarding my composing voice. My main two genres of composition are Israeli music and American music. In either style, I am heavily influenced by my classical-music upbringing and education.

In my Israeli music I am influenced by my composition teachers, foremost Israeli composers: Paul Ben-Haim, Ödön Pártos, and Alexander Uriah Boskovich. In my American music I am influenced by Joplin and Gershwin. That is not to say that other composers didn’t influence me. My music is also influenced by Jewish music and by jazz.

However, the most important thing for me in composing any genre of music is structure and form. I love quotes and mostly quote my own music in my own music. I also quote segments of songs when relevant in my music and have put the motif of Bach’s name into my music.

Put all the above together and you’ll get my own voice in my compositions.

Could you share a link to a piece in each of these voices – a couple of the pieces you are most proud of perhaps?

I am actually “most proud” of all my piano pieces as well as my works for other instruments and ensembles. However, for the purpose of this blog I’ll share the following piano pieces. 

My Israeli voice: Prayer and Dance (intermediate to early advanced):

My American voice: Blue-Rag (Advanced, though sheet music for a simplified version is also available):

Both my voices combined: Shmateh-Rag (Advanced, though sheet music for a simplified version, as well as a duet one, are available)

What are your thoughts on music publishing, and self-publishing?

My early compositions were published by established professional music publications. The bigger and the more famous the music publications are, the less they are able to do for you and your compositions. You are just one of many composers they have to promote. Usually, the contracts are not very much in favour of the composers, the earnings are very little, and you end up doing the promotion by yourself. I am not blaming the publications, it’s just the nature of things, they have lots of expenses and they have to make a living too.

However, self-publishing is a blessing: you don’t have to beg publications to take your work, you can control every aspect of the publishing process, and you maximize profits with practically no partners. 

If I may add, I think I was one of the “pioneers” in self-production altogether. I was self-publishing before this became the fashion and before the term was even used. I didn’t wait for the big Internet companies to get into the business. I just copied my compositions into a music-writing software program, printed them out, and brought them to the print shop for binding. 

The same was with my CDs and earlier with my cassettes and Long-Play record albums. I did the “indie” thing before anyone even dreamt of such term. I produced my very first Long-Play record album in 1971.

What advice would you give to would-be-composers?

First of all learn music and composition thoroughly.
Secondly, find your own voice.
Then, believe in yourself, get out there, and let the world know about you and your work.

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

The profession of music is not an easy one. I have always believed in hard work and perseverance.

If someone asks me, I’d always recommend to stay away from it and to choose another profession. However, if you can’t help it and this is what you want to do in life, be prepared to work very hard. It definitely isn’t a 9 to 5 job.

More will be conveyed in my upcoming autobiography.

Good luck to all and thank you again, Andrew, for hosting me here.

Thank you Rami, it’s been a real pleasure!

Find out More….

You can discover more of Rami’s music on his YouTube channel here.

Sheet music for his compositions can be obtained from Amazon, SheetMusicPlus, and other similar sites.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.