“Walk-on” pianist flows to the top of Billboard Latin charts

Alumnus Arthur Hanlon reflects on his time at MSU, visits with students and performs at concert.

MSU Alumnus Arthur Hanlon shared his professional experiences and offered advice to MSU piano students during a Running Start workshop.
Pianist, composer and arranger Arthur Hanlon has established himself as one of the top Latin instrumentalists, signing with Sony Music Latin.
Arthur Hanlon, far right poses with MSU piano faculty members (L-R): Zhihua Tang, Panayis Lyras, Margarita Shevchenko, Derek Polischuk, and Deborah Moriarty.
Arthur Hanlon performs with MSU’s Salsa Verde band at Demonstration Hall during a concert from the Latin IS America series.

When Arthur Hanlon, an Irish-American kid from Detroit, began studying piano performance at Michigan State University, he never saw himself becoming one of the hottest instrumentalists on the worldwide Latin music scene.

Hanlon knew he wanted to perform. He had been playing gigs around Detroit since a teen, and later performed with Motown’s Flip Jackson Band. He knew he had talent, but with limited classical credentials, Hanlon says he entered the MSU College of Music as a “walk-on” who would have to prove himself.

Fast-forward to 2017.  Hanlon routinely is billed as one of the most recognized names in Latin instrumental music today. In addition to his work as a composer and arranger, Hanlon is the only pianist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Latin charts and the only pianist in decades to hit Billboard’s Latin Airplay charts multiple times. He has recorded and performed with superstars such as Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. He now is signed with Sony Music Latin. His latest release is a CD/DVD film documentary titled “Viajero” (Traveler)—a project that involved traveling to eight countries to film, play, and record iconic Latin music with top musicians from each country.

Hanlon says it’s been a dream come true for a kid who earned his bachelor’s in music from MSU then a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. While in New York, he found himself living in a neighborhood with Latin music literally flowing from the buildings and into the streets, and started going to concerts and playing at night in Latin clubs.

“As a young composer and pianist it was impossible for me not to hear this vibe that was coming out,” Hanlon recalls of his New York neighborhood. “It’s important to just hang out and get yourself out of your little comfort zone; get out there and play. I love jam sessions to this day and that was so fun and kind of liberating. Those days changed the direction of my career.”

In March, Hanlon had the opportunity to share some of his professional experiences and hard-won advice with MSU piano students during a Running Start workshop, “Creating Your Own Career Path” and by meeting individually with jazz and piano students in a one-on-one “Ask a Professional” session. Director of Career Services and Entrepreneurship Christine Beamer and Instructor of Percussion Jon Weber worked together to help bring Hanlon back to his alma mater for the first time since he earned his degree in classical piano performance.

VIDEO: Arthur Hanlon - American Pianist, Songwriter, and Arranger
Courtesy MSU Alumni Association and Friends

“It’s always great when Spartans who have been successful can mentor future Spartan graduates,” Beamer says. “Arthur was very generous with his time and talent and with letting the spotlight be on the students.”

Guided by student questions, Hanlon spoke about everything from the day to day life of a working musician, to the challenges he faced as an Irish-American trying to make it in a musical genre dominated by Latins and non-whites.

“I never got why people wanted to put you in a little drawer,” Hanlon told the students. “When I got my first record deal, because I was white everyone was saying ‘you can’t do this.’ And I said ‘why not?’”

Retired faculty member Albertine Votapek was Hanlon’s primary piano teacher during his days at Michigan State, and she remembers well Hanlon’s can-do attitude.

“He would come to his lesson every week prepared and anxious to get going,” Votapek says. “He worked very hard. He was focused and he tried to do what you suggested. He just kept making gradual, steady progress, and he had oodles of talent.” 

Hanlon says MSU was “a great place to establish a solid musical foundation. I walked away with a solid sense of jazz and classical music, and still kept my pop vibe.”

He also was delighted to see how diverse the campus has become since his student days in the late 1980s.

“It’s awesome,” he says. “One of the reasons I wanted to go to New York for my master’s was I was searching for diversity and different types of people.”

Hanlon recalls it was Professor of Piano Deborah Moriarty who urged him to apply to graduate school.

“She was really encouraging,” he says. “She told me ‘you can go wherever you want to,’ and that’s my mantra now. What’s the worst thing anyone can say to you? No? All that means to me is ‘not right now.’”

Moriarity says, “it is truly wonderful to have played a part in Arthur Hanlon’s success.”  She called his time with the MSU piano students “an inspiring presentation from a very gifted musician whose belief in himself and his music is illustrated in everything that he does.”

Hanlon closed out his campus visit with a lively evening performance with student musicians, joining MSU’s Salsa Verde band as part of the Latin Is America concert series, which included a Latin dance party. The salsa band was co-founded by Weber as a way for College of Music students to play Afro-Cuban music.

Hanlon says starting up a salsa band for student musicians is one more way MSU has broadened its horizons since his student days. He promises he won’t wait as long next time to make a return visit. 

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