Wes Ringel dreamed of life as a rock star, but the universe had a different path in mind.
"Dueling pianos was the last thing I would have imagined doing at any point in my life," he says recently over coffee. "My life took a lot of twists and turns."
For the uninitiated, dueling pianos features two players covering popular songs as suggested by an audience, with lots of humor and banter tossed in. Ringel agrees that it's "dweebie or lazy karaoke," adding, "Some of my songs weren't even cool when they came out."
Around 2009, Ringel relocated to Arizona after graduating with a music degree from Hampshire College. While burning bright with dreams of being a professional singer-songwriter, he was encouraged to audition for a steady gig at piano bar Big Bang (now Low Key). When that audition tanked, he landed an opportunity at Howl at the Moon, where he first reconciled reality with his hopes and dreams.
"Over the first six months, I was training and playing," he says. "I was not a good piano player, and they would let me come on to play drums or guitar for band sets. I'd be playing in a band, trying to look like I'm a cool guy. And pretty quickly, I noticed that the piano players, their presentation, is the total opposite of that, just total dweebs."
But Ringel kept at it. Within his first year, he was hired by a group in Branson, Missouri, the "Vegas of the South." His time in Branson lasted roughly eight months. During that run, Ringel picked up new skills and experiences courtesy of a coke-addicted manager. But he also left Branson with something more serious.
"I was really gung-ho to get my original music back going and ran into some pretty serious health problems when I got back [to Arizona]," he says. "I've been to a million doctors and the best diagnosis was I picked up something up like a mold. It kind of derailed me."
At this point, we ask Ringel if all this bad luck ever forced him to reconsider his choices, or curse the day he was ever introduced to dueling pianos. "I've had this thought many times," he says. "Many times."
But like a true entertainer, Ringel recovered around 2011 to land work at Shout! House in Westgate. It's here he met Kevin Clover, the "Michael Jordan of the game," who helped him refine his shtick. It’s also around the time he connected with Nick Garza, another musician indoctrinated into the industry.
They hatched a novel plan: Buy a van and some piano shells and perform at random clubs and bars. (Dueling piano players use keyboards housed in expensive "housings," something Ringel calls a "dark secret.") Right away, the two were in considerable demand. They spent 2011 to 2013 performing across the Valley.
"We were the first ones in the whole city of Phoenix to take the show on the road," Ringel says. "We could make tips, and then [they'd] give us free food and we would play."
The partnership later dissolved following personal disagreements (they've since made up and still collaborate). Ringel relocated to Long Beach, California, where he still lives, to pursue original music. But he quickly found a sizable demand for his services back in Arizona, yet another instance of dueling piano's unshakable draw. Ringel embraced the opportunity head-on by forming AZ Dueling Pianos, a company and collective of players who work regional weddings, birthday and holiday gatherings, and corporate parties.
It's become a steady source of income, and he's even gotten to travel to places like Dublin, Ireland, to perform (as Ringel explains, foreign audiences love dueling pianos, as it hasn't yet emigrated from the U.S.) It's also been a way to counter some of the uncertainty, like losing friends, collaborators, and even closing businesses. (Ringel's played several bars, including the Amsterdam, weeks before they shuttered.)
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At one point, Ringel shares a rather telling story of why's still invested in this "very niche" career.
"One show [during his time with Garza], the van broke down," he says. "Somebody helped me push it, but that was a moment of, 'Why am I still doing this?' The next day, actually, I opened for KC and The Sunshine Band in Scottsdale. So that was an ironic mix of making 100 bucks at this bar, and the van is smoking."
Ringel still dreams of making it with his music, but he's optimistic about plugging away. In his 10 years, he's seen quite a few changes, like the expansion of dueling pianos into cities nationwide. His company's booked plenty of dates statewide, but is he happy with his life's direction?
"I think there'll always be some tension," Ringel says. "If I ever had a big break in original music, that's definitely where my heart is. Otherwise, dueling pianos has become my little love-hate thing. I'm proud that we started from nothing, and we took it to a pretty cool point."