Self-taught pianist Samer Fanek on his debut album “Wishful Thinking” and the power of YouTube for musicians

Having already amassed a large following for his piano covers on Youtube, all of which are arranged by ear alone, Samer Fanek has now released his debut album “Wishful Thinking”. The album features 13 original instrumental tracks- all of which Samer composed, performed and produced in his bedroom studio. It debuted at #12 on the US New Age Billboard charts, #6 on the iTunes New Age Music Charts and reached #1 on the Amazon.com Best Sellers in New Age, Hot New Releases in New Age and Movers and Shakers charts.

We chatted to the US-based artist about the process of creating “Wishful Thinking”, and on being a self-taught artist, the power of YouTube and musical inspirations.

Congratulations on the release of your first album “Wishful Thinking”. What was the process of creating the album like?

Thank you! I think it started all the way back in 2009 when I was still a graduate student studying computer science. I loved performing and creating music since my teenage years, but I’d say that 2009 was the year that set off my journey to create a full instrumental album. Back then, I started creating bits and pieces of the melody of the album’s first song, “Wishful Thinking”, and the idea of someday creating a full album was materializing. I was also coming up with various disjointed musical ideas that slowly developed into complete compositions, and those accumulated to over 40 compositions today.

Eventually, I picked 13 of these to drive to completion and include in this album.
Creating the album was neither a linear nor structured process. I would record a violin or cello part on one song, then jump to another song and add another idea with a percussion instrument, then come back to another song and compose an ending. I couldn’t decide when a composition is finished until I concluded that being “finished” is when any further addition or change to the song does more harm than good.
As the years passed, I would also be adding more and more equipment to my bedroom studio. In addition to that, I was acquiring more instrument libraries that allowed me to create tracks with all sorts of diverse instruments by playing and recording them on the keyboard.

I eventually developed such a vast collection of instruments to choose from and experiment with while composing. These ranged from all your traditional orchestral instruments, to rock music instruments such as powerful drums, electric and bass guitars, to world instruments such as the Japanese koto and Armenian duduk. Given that I cannot afford hiring orchestra or band to play my music yet, I would record every instrument part you hear on the album in my home studio. I would also add some instrument artifacts and articulations to make them sound more realistic, such as fret noises on a guitar, the clicking sound of changing an oboe note, or making a violin more expressive by varying its pitch to simulate vibrato. The end result of all of these experiences is the album you’re hearing today.

You are a self-taught pianist, how did you first approach playing and improving your skills?

It started back when I was 12 or 13 when we had a keyboard lying around the house which I’ll try to figure out my favorite songs by trial and error. I also happened to discover music production software that I could connect a keyboard to and figure out what it is like to arrange songs with more than just the piano.

This opened a lot of possibilities because the software had built-in instruments that I could try out, and many of the sounds that these instruments made were unknown to me. As time passed by, I noticed an improvement in my playing and listening ability as I recreated and performed more and more instrumental versions of my favorite songs.
My mom tried signing me up for piano lessons as a teenager, but these didn’t last long as I chose to base my learnings entirely on listening to songs that I enjoy and figuring out how to play them by ear. I think I was afraid that going the traditional route of learning the theory behind music and all the musical rules might somehow limit my creative freedom. This is likely one of the reasons that kept me from trying to enroll in a music undergraduate program and opting for a computer science one instead.

Improving my skills, both performance and composition-wise, came as a byproduct of all the experiences learned by performing and arranging many songs over the years. These songs ranged from all sorts of genres such as movie music, video game music, new-age, pop, rock and heavy metal. Eventually I took in all those experiences and started composing my own instrumental music.

Do you have any particular inspirations for your music? I know you’ve listed Yanni and Nobou Uematsu (yes!) in your bio- what is it about their music that inspires you?

There is something about their music that makes me feel emotional and gives me chills, especially that they’re not using lyrics to tell me what the song is about. This kind of effect is very inspiring to me and I would love to replicate it with my own compositions.

In Nobou Uematsu’s case, I would sometimes be playing Final Fantasy (the video game which he scored the music for) on my computer, and I would entirely stop playing the game and just sit there and listen to the music. I’ve noticed a similar effect repeatedly occurring when I was watching movies with beautiful scores, where I’d entirely tune out the motion picture and just focus on the song being played.

When I performed Yanni and Uematsu’s works on a public piano, I’d also notice the effect these songs were having on other people. That really motivated me to come up with compositions that have that kind of effect and someday perform them live to large audiences. As a result, while composing a part of a song, if I feel an emotional response that is growing on me, I know it’s a keeper and I work on refining it until that idea is communicated as strongly as possible.

Your covers are all arranged by ear, would that be the same case for your compositions? Do you just remember the piece as you work on it?

Yes, because I have no other choice! I think this is taken to an extreme with my compositions as I iterated over them so many times while I was composing and arranging the various parts. That repetition made me remember the tiniest details that I’ve put into my songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of times I heard my compositions is in the thousands at this point.

When I get an idea while composing a song, it’s also a similar concept where I proceed to translate the idea on the keyboard by ear as I am hearing it in my head.

I’d imagine that many years from now, if I am asked to perform some of my earliest compositions, I would probably go back to the recording and figure it out by listening to it, as I have no other way of relearning how to play it.

Samer Fanek - Artist Photo 3

What do you think the main differences are in playing by ear vs. reading sheet music? Do you think it results in a different feeling to the music?

I think that playing by ear requires you to entirely use your memory to replicate what you heard in the song on your own instrument, also providing the immediate freedom to add your own variations to it. You’ll eventually also acquire the memory of what pitch each piano key sounds like, which makes it easier to translate what you heard into the right keys.Things become even more interesting when you have multiple instruments playing in a song and you’d like to create a version that somehow sums them all up on a single instrument like the piano. It forces you to deeply listen to the original recording and discover various nuances that you’d like to recreate on the instrument of your choice. I found that once I listen to a song multiple times, I also start discovering some fun minute details that the original song creators have put in that weren’t as evident before, which is pretty exciting!

I also think that playing only by ear also results in a different feeling to the music. Given that you don’t have a sheet of music guiding you, you are free to translate the music that you hear in any shape or form that you like. That may result into a different feeling than the original songwriter intended, but at the end of the day it’s more personal. When you don’t have a sheet of paper telling you how to play a song, I’d like to think that you’ll have a more natural tendency to experiment with the song and be more open to changing it to something that appeals more to your tastes and style. Your current performance of a song might be entirely different from the previous time you played it.

YouTube personalities, and specifically music artists, are becoming increasingly prevalent these days. What are your thoughts on this?

YouTube has become a fantastic medium for carving out a music career without the support of major labels and large promotional campaigns. Many of these personalities have proven that over the last couple of years. Given that hundreds of millions of people watch videos on YouTube and get more and more personalized videos based off their search and viewing history, chances are you will be discovered by the group of people who enjoy the type of music that you make. I think when I first created my YouTube channel and started getting positive feedback on my music videos, it further convinced me to pursue music full-time. It’s nice to have technology give you a chance to get validation of your work from people tuning in from all around the world.

I think YouTube is currently one of the most popular mediums for listening to music so a lot of artists started releasing their complete albums on there. People just put on a YouTube playlist, minimize the browser tab, and go on with their day sometimes without even watching the video. Every now and then they would discover a new artist they like out the blue, and I hope to someday be one of their discoveries.

In your biography you mention that it’s your “long time dream to create powerful and dramatic instrumental music that tells a story and has an enduring emotional impact”. I 100% agree with this- to me the most important part of music exists in stories and emotion. But how do you, as a composer, go about attempting to create that in your music?

It’s an interesting challenge to try to come up with an answer on how emotion gets created, as my thought process during composing is not deliberate. I noticed that I have a tendency to gravitate towards creating instrumental compositions that are intense and dramatic with big climaxes, probably because this is the type of music that I like the most. Therefore, my composing tends to be a little biased in creating emotion in that direction.

I think a lot of variables contribute to creating something that triggers any kind of emotional response, whether it’s an inspired, happy feeling or perhaps a sad, melancholic one. Sometimes it comes by as an unexpected discovery when I’m sitting on the piano, as a result of an improvisation based on how I was feeling that particular moment. While at other times, it happens to be a random 5-second idea that I inexplicably had so I rush to record and iterate over it. It’s a nonlinear creation process that also involves a bit of random, unexplainable chance.

Eventually, once I create a part that makes me feel emotional in a certain way, it’s my job to capitalize on that discovery and maximize the emotional impact by further exploring the idea and perhaps trying out or adding different instruments. If I listen to a part many times and it strongly triggers the same emotional response, I know that I’ve got something here that I can further enhance and communicate to others.

The knowledge and choice of instruments also plays a big part in making the listener feel different things. Sometimes I immediately know what kind of instrument I’d like to use, while at other times I tend to experiment with various different instrument sounds until I discover the one that better delivers what I’m trying to communicate.

And finally, if you could work on a piece with any artist who would it be?

I’d like to compose and perform something alongside Yanni. It would be an interesting experience, because up to this point, I’ve been a solo composer and never actually collaborated with other musicians to create a piece of music, let alone collaborate with one of my primary musical inspirations.

I would definitely be curious to see how he goes on about creating a song and how does his thought process compare to mine. We’ll just have to wait and see if that ever gets realized!

Samer Fanek - Wishful Thinking (Front Cover)

Samer’s album “Wishful Thinking” is available to purchase on iTunes and Amazon and you can also listen on Spotify.