Local pianist shares his passion for silent films
By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Hudson – After getting laid off from a precision manufacturing job, Richard Hughes of Hudson began transforming his lifelong passion into his profession. Since 2003, he presents programs as a silent film pianist statewide at community events, schools, historical societies, senior centers and retirement communities.
“It took 25 years to figure out that manufacturing was not for me,” he said.
Hughes began his interest in music at age 7, when his mother took him to weekly piano lessons. Afterward, she would place an egg timer on their upright piano as he practiced daily for seven minutes.
“If my mother hadn’t taken me to lessons every week, I wouldn’t be playing the piano now,” he acknowledged. “She always wanted me to be a classical pianist, but I took a left-hand turn from there.”
While in middle school, he progressed to another piano teacher whose repertoire included ragtime music. In his 20s, Hughes moved to Los Angeles where he studied with a pianist who occasionally visited schools and accompanied silent films with bee-bop, a form of jazz.
“When I was in California, I got work as a pianist here and there, but not enough to pay the rent,” Hughes said. “I applied for a job as a machinist trainee and worked myself up to numerical control operator.”
Also around then, he saw a silent film accompanied by an organist for the first time.
“I can’t remember what silent film it was, but I was a bit unimpressed,” he said. “The organ music didn’t seem to go with the film. I was confused because I was having a better time imagining the presentation than actually watching it. I thought this is a great idea, but I wasn’t hearing the good stuff that I wanted to hear. So I had to figure that out myself.”
Hughes moved back to Massachusetts and accepted a manufacturing job. More precisely, he worked several more manufacturing jobs.
“In the 25 years I worked in manufacturing, I had 25 different jobs,” he said. “Working as a numerical control operator was good in that it allowed me to make a living and support my family, which was extremely important to me. But it wasn’t scratching the artistic side of me, which I have found out in recent years is very strong.”
Determined to acquire a better understanding of his innate interest in silent film accompaniment, he researched the subject at the Worcester Public Library. He discovered the book “Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists” by Erno Rapee, originally published in 1924.
“It’s all music broken down into 52 different categories – such as happy, sad, chasing, gruesome,” he explained. “I endeavored to practice maybe one or two pieces from as many of the categories as possible. That’s how I got an idea of how pianists and organists did it back in the day.”
Among local venues where Hughes performs regularly are the Briarwood Continuing Care Retirement Community in Worcester, Southgate at Shrewsbury, The Willows at Westborough, and Whitney Place Assistant Living Residences at Northborough and Westborough.
“They’re a great audience,” Hughes said. “Some of them do remember the silent films and they appreciate it very much because it jogs their memories.”
For the past several years, Hughes also displayed his skill with another type of musical accompaniment. He has provided live mood music for the action of vintage airplanes and antique automobiles in “Race of the Century,” the Collings Foundation’s summertime event in Stow.
“I’ve accompanied silent films and I seem to be pretty good at improvising, so I thought I’d give it a shot,” Hughes said. “Music is self-exploration.”
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