By Moira Blazi
When Milan House finally decided to pursue his passion and talent, the doors did not magically open for him. Enrolled at the University of Montana, after taking several years off after high school, House was told by accomplished pianist and music professor Dr. Hahn, “You don’t know what you are supposed to know.” It wasn’t the first or last time he was to hear such feedback.
“Dr. Hahn basically told me I didn’t know what I was doing, but that he could see I had talent and ability and (he) decided to give me a shot,” House told The Montanian in a phone interview from his home in Missoula.
“I told myself that this was going to be a mind over matter thing, and that I could do the academic stuff,” House said. So, after years of playing everything from country to rock in local Missoula bands, House began the work of taking his God-given talent to the next level, with serious musical studies, focusing mostly on classical piano music.
House is now poised to become a professional studio musician, a level of expertise and accomplishment that very few musicians will ever achieve.
Born and raised in Libby, House attended elementary and high school here. In first, second, and third grades, he took some piano lessons from Mrs. Brewer, who moved when little Milan was in third grade, then piano lessons from Arcadia Nicolai in Troy in fourth and fifth grades. In middle school and high school, he did play the saxophone in the band, but taught himself guitar and bass on the side because “…band class just wasn’t cool and I wanted to jam out.”
Like most young musicians, House loved playing music and played in many bands including the popular country band 8 Seconds Flat, with local musician and bull rider PJ Morrison. “He was in high school when he played the bass with us for about six months,” recalled Morrison “and he played that bass sometimes like a lead guitar. I am really happy for him,” Morrison continued. “He is following his dream and his deep love of music, and he is really super talented.”
All that talent got House a lot of gigs with a lot of bands in Boise, Missoula, and plenty of other places, playing keyboards, lead guitar and bass, but at some point, he realized that he needed more education in the fundamentals of music. “I went back to Missoula and enrolled in the university, and I was disappointed to find that they didn’t have a Metal Guitar major, because at that point, that’s what I wanted to do,” he recalled with a laugh. “It was a relatively small music program, headed by a couple of keyboard professors, and I hadn’t taken a piano lesson since fifth grade.”
Getting back to his piano roots and “getting my chops back,” House played classical piano pieces, remembering in the Chopin Etude opus 10 #1, a difficult piece that he mastered to performance level. “That was when I realized I could do this academic stuff.” House was 22 years old.
In his second semester at U of M, House discovered and fell in love with jazz. “I saw a flyer downtown for a jazz band looking for a piano player, and I went to the audition,” he recalled. “I remember thinking these people are way too good.” He didn’t get the job, but he realized that, “Although I could improvise blues a bit, I really didn’t know anything about jazz. Jazz is a complicated art form, people think they can just improvise but it really takes years of theory and practice, jazz musicians are fantastic players.” House finally got into the U of M jazz band and recalled, “It was so hard I wanted to quit.”
He didn’t quit, and, as part of the U of M Jazz Band, House was able to play with some of the big boys. Playing at the Buddy De Franco Jazz festival in Missoula, House recalls backing up headliner Bob Shepard. “He comes up to the piano and says, ‘I can’t stand it, you’re doing it all wrong.’ He proceeded to give me a lesson right there on the stage. I felt so bad that I didn’t want to continue, I told my parents ‘I want to quit.’”
But House did not quit. Professor Hahn helped hook him up with private lessons from Jazz pianist Rob Tapper. “It was just like that movie Whiplash House recalls, “We were like oil and water, he pushed me so hard and kept telling me ‘you don’t know what your supposed to know,’ but I needed that push.”
By 23, House was, “The guy you would call for keyboards. I was playing in three or four bands at once, all different styles of music.” For the next several years, House played at night and kept a day job, until “maybe the last two years or so, I have been able to support myself with just music, but that means birthday parties, weddings, and cocktail parties,” he added with a laugh.
Last summer, at the request of Blues singer Suze Simms, House worked as Stage Manager at the Riverfront Blues Festival here in Libby and was chosen to “be the keyboard guy” at the prestigious Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival in Bigfork. There he met some of the best guitar players on the planet and made contacts, among them Jerry Douglas, guitarist for Allison Krauss. Now at age 30, House has played with Halliday Quist, Michael Stone and on a couple of spoken word recordings. He is poised to break into the big time, knowing that would mean leaving his beloved Montana for Nashville or Los Angeles.
Although House has overcome some grueling challenges, he remains grateful and humble. “The real heroes here are my parents,” he told The Montaninan. “They didn’t miss a single band concert, and they have always had my back and kept me going when I was floundering. A lot of kids in Libby don’t have that kind of support, I am very grateful”
To those kids, House would like to say, “A lot of times I wanted to give up, but if you’re good at something and you enjoy it, stick it out!”
Correction: In last week’s front page story, ‘Retired nurse leaves VFW with an inspired upgrade,’ The Montanian reported that Deder Sidner-Kelly would be adding calligraphy on the new stained glass windows. The calligraphy will actually be done by Shae Munroe. We apologize for the error.