Steve's Story has been written by Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia volunteer, Nicole Regan. We thank Nicole for sharing her time, talent and typing to help us change the way people think!
Nova Scotia's Piano Man
If you’re a fan of Nova Scotia’s own Pete’s Frootique, you might already know Steve Dooks. In fact, you probably exchanged a smile and a wave with the Piano Man as you entered the market, enchanted by the melodies he plays and his kind demeanor. Behind his wide grin and genial nature, however, lies a man who could tell you all about how important keeping hope can be, and how crucial perspective is to appreciating where you are in life.
Steve could also share some incredibly entertaining stories about his years of working with the stars who grace the stage at the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia’s A Different Stage of Mind fundraiser. You see, he’s the Musical Director behind them all!
Given his obvious talent, you may be surprised to learn Steve was never conventionally trained on the piano. He actually started on the guitar, but his sister and father were both pianists, so music was always being played around the house. Steve wonders if he “didn’t learn a little bit through osmosis." The rest, he says, he picked up on a job doing a dinner theatre in Prince Edward Island. The ensemble needed a keyboard player, so Steve rolled up his sleeves and got practicing. Over the next few months, he worked very closely with a talented and accomplished pianist, taking all the notes that were given to him.
Although he has produced five albums, his 2007 album entitled Cocktails, Heartaches and Cigars is what Steve is best known for; songs from the album made public radio charts across the United States and Canada, and gained interest from European countries as well. Not deterred by the lack of financial backing in the smooth jazz genre, Steve stuck to his guns and continued to play his beautiful brand of Nova Scotian jazz, and eventually caught his break.
Holland America, a luxury jazz cruise line, offered him a job as a band leader and musical director wholly on the basis and merit of his album, Cocktails, Heartaches, and Cigars.
“For me it was like the writing on the wall. Okay, so you’re going to get this gig with Holland America and they’re offering you a full-time job which is the equivalent to a record contract, 155 shows. You’re not going to get that work around here. The only guy that’s really doing that right now is Billy Joel (who has struggled with mental illness) and he’s got a contract at Madison Square Garden.”
Steve admits that at the time he started with Holland America, he actually wasn't that great at reading music - he was much better at playing by ear. On his first day, all the cruise line musicians were given four books of 100 songs each (all from the American Songbook), and Steve remembers being asked to perform that very evening with new band mates whom he had never even met, let alone played with. After all those hours of practice, it was time to practice a little more.
Steve knows that life, much like music, is never as simple or as straight-forward as it may appear. Sometimes obsession can be a negative thing - it can overtake our perception and sensation of music, and turn something wonderful into something that's totally wrong if it isn't absolutely perfect. Sometimes perfectionism and attention to detail can cease to be beneficial strategies and can begin to hinder our development and growth, in our music careers or in our lives, in general. It's because of this understanding (and his unbelievable talent) that Steve was asked to take part in A Different Stage of Mind. For him, it was a foregone conclusion. When asked why he participates, Steve simply replies, "It chose me.” In this instance, he is referring both to his recruitment by Zed Group (the Event Sponsor for DSOM), and to the fact that he has no choice in whether or not he has been affected by mental illness - that none of us do. For Steve, participating is about giving back to his community, supporting an incredibly worthwhile cause, and getting to be a part of the effort to bring our conversations about mental illness out of the shadows.
A Different Stage of Mind is not simply a concert. The event features local stars performing as major musical acts (directed and accompanied by accomplished musicians), and stories from those affected by mental illness. This year marks the 15th anniversary of A Different Stage of Mind, and with a theme like 'Reunion Tour,' the show promises to entertain as well as inform, and of course, raise money. A major draw this year is the appearance by Elsie Morden, a local artist, anti-bullying advocate, and all around fabulous role-model. Hosting this year's event will be former CTV News anchor Nancy Regan, who performed as Elvis during the very first DSOM show back in 2004!
No stranger to the world of mental health, Steve's family was affected by mental illness and his mother worked at the Nova Scotia Hospital for over 20 years. Steve's own experiences have taught him many things, including the fact that everyone is affected and that everyone has a story. Humble despite his immense musical abilities, Steve says of his work as musical director of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia's fundraiser, “I just try and do the best I can, and like I tell all the talent (the stars in the show), you guys are my heroes. You guys are the ones going out and doing this. For me, after I finish this show, I’m going to go up and do another 155 shows [contract with Holland America] – it’s another day at the office. But for you guys, there are people that have never sung before, never gotten on stage… There’s great stories after!” An integral part of the show, Steve’s musical arrangements, direction, and performance help to make the event the success it is, and the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia is extremely grateful for the donation of his time and talents.
Born and raised in Dartmouth, Steve loves the town and province he grew up in so much, he wound up buying a house just down the street from the one in which he was raised. But don't get him wrong, Steve knows the value of experiencing other countries and cultures. His travels onboard Holland America's giant cruise ships have given him the opportunity to see so much more of the world. Through his contract with the cruise line, Steve has gotten to visit over 40 countries, and he knows that had he not kept hope alive, he wouldn't have gotten the chance to do so.
Steve used to think of himself as lucky, but as time has progressed, his views on the matter have changed. With time and perspective, Nova Scotia’s Piano Man began to see his experiences as blessings, as opposed to merely luck. Gratitude is a major component of keeping perspective on our situations, and it's a way for people to see the forest, despite the trees in our way. Steve's advice to those who are struggling is to find some way, however it is you can, to keep hope. In all the stories he's heard about those incredibly strong people who get thrown one agonizing thing after another and somehow keep standing, the people affected always seem to say that they held on because they knew somewhere inside themselves, possibly against all evidence to the contrary, that things would get better.
Steve's experiences as a whole have impressed upon him the importance of hope, community, and conversation in our struggles with mental illness and in our fight to end the stigma associated with it. Obsession in small doses helped Steve to reach his career goals, and without those countless hours of practice, the Piano Man would not be who he is. But Steve is keenly aware of how lucky (or blessed, rather) he is to be able to tune out those obsessive thoughts and just enjoy the experience of music, something for which he has so much love and into which he has poured so much of himself. Keeping our situations in perspective and being grateful for the good in them can make a huge difference in how we feel about where we are in our lives. They say that the grass is always greener on the other side, but really, the grass is always greener where you water it.
A Different Stage of Mind – Friday, March 23, 2018, at the Halifax Convention Centre, 8 PM.