Ethan Uslan, who lives in Charlotte, has won the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest three times.
The music he plays includes original arrangements of Civil War-era songs, New Orleans jazz, 1920s Charlestons, blues, stomps, Harlem stride piano, swing, Cuban rumbas and even an Hawaiian song. His ragtime version of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” has gone viral on youtube.com.
This evening, March 8, Uslan will be playing live to accompany the silent films shown at Studio-C Cinema at the Cornelius Arts Center. The silent films are professionally restored comedies from 1915 to 1917, featuring Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) and Mack Sennett. Uslan will comment and take questions in the breaks between the films.
In his hometown of South Orange, N.J., Uslan started playing piano when he was 9 years old “because the next-door neighbor was selling a piano, and Mom thought it would be nice if I played. I don’t think I even knew what a piano was, and I said, ‘Whatever’ (to taking lessons). I ended up taking lessons and liked it.”
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Uslan began his musical career playing “classical music. I played a lot of it. I even majored in it in college. But I always liked jazz and ragtime. In college, at Indiana University, I felt like, why am I going to practice 25 hours a day to be really good at the same pieces everyone else was playing really well?
“I guess I had a musical identity crisis in college. (Playing ragtime and jazz) was a big decision for me. It’s a little bit off the beaten path. It’s been working out well,” Uslan said. He then added, “But not everyone likes it,” and laughed.
Since his mom started his musical career, I asked him what his mother thought of his ragtime and jazz piano playing. “Mom was always supportive of my music,” Uslan said. “There was no drama there.”
Uslan said he started playing the ragtime “Fur Elise” through the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. “One of the things I love about the contest is that it inspires me. It’s a friendly competition. I like to try to surprise the other contestants. I try to be clever. By the end of the contest, you see people do barn burners of really virtuosic music. Judges are kind of numb to all this, so I try to do things that are clever.”
As a result, Uslan tried translating Beethoven’s classical “Fur Elise” into a ragtime piece of music. Uslan said, “I think it’s always fun to hear something familiar in a new context. And it always gets a smile or a laugh. It gets people’s attention.”
Uslan explained the difference between ragtime and jazz music. “Ragtime usually refers to the music of Scott Joplin and the time period of 1900-1920. Around the year 1920, the style changed, and they started using the word ‘jazz,’ but there’s a lot of overlap.
“The kind of music I play kind of blurs the line. I don’t really get hung up on the terminology. It’s like the difference between rap and hip-hop,” Uslan said and laughed.
Lisa Daidone is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
Silent Films Night, with accompaniment by Ethan Uslan, will be March 8 at Studio-C Cinema in the Cornelius Arts Center. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. for a complimentary wine and cheese reception; the films screen at 7. Tickets are $9 for Cornelius residents, others are $10. Buy tickets at the door, at studioccinema.com/tickets, or call 704-996-7724.
For more info on Uslan, go to uslanmusic.com. Be sure to check out his ragtime “Fur Elise” on youtube.com. If you miss the movie tonight, to see him in person, head over to Petra’s Piano Bar in Plaza-Midwood on March 24 and April 28.