Dueling piano players share Hastings roots
When Kevin Rotty had the the opportunity to bring in a second player for his cabaret work at Jitters in northeast Minneapolis during the late 90s, he knew who to call. He asked his friend Mike Borash to help him out. They didn't plan a set list, but they ended up filling four hours with music and chit chat.
"It was kind of an odd foreshadowing of getting a chance to work together," Rotty said.
Rotty and Borash, both Hastings natives, now work together as piano players at the Shout House in Minneapolis. The dueling piano bar is a request driven show that involves two piano players performing classic rock 'n roll hits from the 1950s to the present. Rotty said that what they do is really a mixture of comedy, musical theater and rock n' roll.
Rotty joined the Shout House in 2004. He was one of the grand opening players. After about a year of playing at the venue, one of the players moved away and there was an open position. Rotty thought of Borash right away. He called him up and told him to audition. Borash ended up getting the job and joined the team in 2005.
It was a sixth-grade punishment that first brought together the musical talents of Borash and Rotty. The two attended Guardian Angels Catholic School (now St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School) together, went through Hastings High School and were even college roommates for a while.
"The thing that got us on the tack of wanting to actually make music together, he and I, was we were actually told to make music as a punishment once," Rotty said.
After they were caught goofing around in class, a teacher punished them by asking them to do some sort of performance for the class. Rotty played the trumpet and Borash played some temple blocks and it kind of went on from there, Rotty said.
Both Rotty and Borash continued to play music throughout their lives in various forms. When they were college roommates in Mankato, Rotty and Borash participated in the Ellis Street Singers, a performing group in the music department. They were also involved in music when they weren't playing together.
Rotty grew up playing the guitar, eventually found his voice through musical theater and went to college for music education. He has played music on cruise ships, at Valleyfair, he taught music for a while and now, in addition to the Shout House gig, he is also the music director at his church.
Borash has been playing music since he was about 6 years old and played the drums in his father's band. He learned to play several musical instruments while he was a kid and took music classes in college. He played with a few bands, including Rave On and Stryker. Now, he is a full-time piano player at the Shout House.
Rotty and Borash both have a unique way of playing the piano. Rotty said that his first instrument was the guitar and while he took piano lessons, he hated it because it was very structured. He eventually learned to play the piano by strumming a chord on the guitar and finding the same sound on the piano. Now he plays the piano, not with piano sheet music, but with guitar charts.
Borash said that the only formal instrumental training he has had is on the drums. As for piano, he plays that by ear.
"Playing by ear is more or less just hearing a song and then figuring it out on your own because you can't read the notes on your own," Borash said.
Since he never had any formal piano training, Borash also places his fingers on the piano in a way that is different from someone with formal training. He would not be able to sit down and read a piece of music, but said he can listen to a song and play it on the piano based on the notes he hears.
Neither Rotty nor Borash thought they would be playing piano at the Shout House for more than a couple years, but now they have both been working there for more than a decade.
One thing that keeps the piano staff interested is the continuous change that comes with the job. Borash said that although they will play songs by artists like Journey, Bon Jovi and other classics, music continues to change. Now, when he plays Taylor Swift, the crowd goes wild. Since new music is always coming out, there is always something new to learn. The newest song that Borash has learned is "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran.
There is also an entertainment value to the show each night. It is a show that is by the audience and for the audience. The audience gets to request songs, which is what the Shout House piano staffers play.
"Every night is different because you don't have a set show, you always go with what people request," Rotty said.
Rotty said the the job of the piano staff is more of a facilitation role because they facilitate the crowd participation through song requests. The idea of the show is not to bring attention to themselves, but to shine the spotlight on the audience and make them the star of the show, he said.
As for the dueling part, well, it's more of a dual than a duel. Borash said it's more about working with your partner and feeding off of each other than competing. Rotty and Borash said that they love playing music together on stage when they are partnered up.
"He and I on stage, across from each other, it's like going home," Rotty said, "when you know somebody that long and when you perform with somebody that long, we know what each other is going to do."