A Life of Music

A Profile of Peter Kater

By Karrie Osborn

You may not recognize his name from your appointment book, but Peter Kater has likely been in your therapy room many times. His calm, distinct presence is often found in the melodic banter used to soothe clients into a relaxing, therapeutic state.

Five-time Grammy nominated pianist, composer, and producer Peter Kater has scored more than 100 television programs (How the West Was Lost) and films (10 Questions for the Dalai Lama), composed for Broadway (The Seagull), and collaborated with the likes of Kenny Loggins and Dominic Miller, but massage therapists will know Kater best for his work creating therapeutic music, including the CDs Essence, Compassion, and, most recently, Cloud Hands.

Kater has lived a life full of opportunity and achievement, and while the accolades are wonderful (his most recent Grammy nod came in December for the 2008 release Ambrosia, which was nominated for Best New Age Album; results were not available at press time), this German-born pianist says winning awards and selling albums is not what drives his work. Just like the massage therapists and bodyworkers he caters to, Kater says his work is driven by heart.

Making Friends with the Piano

It was at the insistence of his mother that Kater began playing the piano at age seven. “I didn’t want to, but it was a high priority for her,” he says. The structure of classical music was something he trudged through as a child in 1965. “Even at seven years old, I wanted to reinterpret the classical music, but I wasn’t allowed to.” By the time he was a teenager, Kater was able to play more of the music he liked. It created a shift in his world and his thinking. “It became more personal to me when I could play what I wanted. I could make it my own. The fact that it became a socially cool thing didn’t hurt either.” With the confines of artistic expression unleashed, Kater found his passion.

Music was a grace in Kater’s life, especially as he dealt with the death of his mother when he was only 18. “My teenage years were very dark and isolated as she was struggling with disease,” Kater says. “Even though I loved her deeply, there was a lot of darkness in her life. When she passed, I had the chance to live my life. All that stress and drama she had in her life just kind of went away and there was a rebirth for me.”

Kater says the experience not only changed him, it changed his music. “I went from playing Billy Joel and Elton John to listening to Keith Jarrett [The Koln Concert] and Paul Winter Consort. My music became totally internal and it led to my style today.”

Desperately wanting to leave New Jersey and its memories behind, an 18-year-old Kater set out for Boulder, Colorado, having been lured there by the promise of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” and because, as he says, “it was the only place I knew someone.”

With the mountains reminding him of Germany and a “nature vibe” that inspired him, Kater began making his new life and started turning the bad into good. “There was a lot of responsibility put on me to care for my mother. With her death, I couldn’t really be scared. I couldn’t give energy to my fears—there wasn’t room for them. I had to move forward and quickly. I was left with nothing and didn’t want to drown emotionally. Suddenly my music became one of the only things I had.”

Borrowing time on the piano wherever he could, including the local university, Kater began playing various clubs to earn a living. “I didn’t have a car, so I often had to walk or hitchhike.” Even though he was frequently on the verge of being out on the street, he remembers this as being one of the more rich and interesting times of his life. “I look back at it fondly,” he says.

A New (Age) Path

As Kater’s environment and experience began changing him, it also began changing his music. By 1983, he released his first album, Spirit, on his own label, and soon his recognition began to grow. He says even in making that first album, he never considered it would be the first of many. His motivation had been simply to give voice to his music.

Though never formally trained in the genre, Kater soon found himself playing jazz festivals and sitting alongside some heavy-hitters in the jazz world. His third album, Two Hearts, even hit number six on the national jazz charts after its release in 1985. But something didn’t feel right. “I felt like the oddball. I wasn’t a jazz player and I felt almost embarrassed that I was in the same festival as these other, more accomplished musicians.” He says his music was staying true, and he was still coming from his heart as he composed the work, but he didn’t feel connected to the audience. “To be honest, after a while of doing jazz festivals and playing in those environments where the focus is wine and cheese and partying, I really didn’t feel like I was part of that vibe. My music was always more personal to me than to have it partied to.”

His redirection came in a collaborative moment with flautist R. Carlos Nakai, an experience that would mature into a 10-year musical partnership that included seven albums and nearly 200 concerts together. “Playing with Carlos was the easiest thing in the world; it was like we’d played together forever. It was so close to home.”

Kater first called Nakai after hearing his album Earth Spirit. He had been playing piano along with Nakai’s flute instrumentals. “I called him up and said, ‘I’m playing along to your record and I think it sounds pretty cool.’ Nakai was pretty skeptical, but we got together and played and it was the easiest thing that ever happened.” The process strengthened his musical chops, helped create a renewed interest in Native American music, and it’s also what built the framework for his latest musical journey.

The Healing Sound

A confessed healing arts junkie, Kater says he’s always been confused by some of the choices he would hear in the massage therapy room. “I was amazed at what they would play. I would lie there and ask myself, what does classical music have to do with this? Classical is about the structure and organization, but that’s not what’s going on these days. We need to unravel and unwind.” So that’s what he set out to do in 1989—create music that could quiet the mind and let healing begin. Just as with his other musical ventures, there was no end-goal or grand scheme attached to the move—he just wanted more “in-tune” music while he got his weekly massage.

At the time, there wasn’t really a healing music market, and while New Age music was growing, Kater says it wasn’t the music he sought during his massage. “I didn’t know of anyone else except Steve Halpern doing ‘healing’ music at the time.” [Editor’s note: See Halpern’s latest work featured on page 102.] Kater wanted something that would flow with the rhythm of the bodywork and not ask the mind to process too much information. With his love of the therapeutic arts guiding him, Kater set out to create music that would inspire others during their healing journey and create the most amenable space for insight and recovery.

Kater, who won the United Nations Environment Leadership Award in 1995 for his musical commitment to the environment and his belief that there is no separation between the health of the environment and our health as a species, says the value of music in a therapeutic situation is tenfold. “Everything in this world is made of vibrating energy—the faster the vibration, the more subtle the change. Light vibrates at a very fast frequency. Sound is a slower, more dense vibration.” He says the slower the vibration the more impact it can have on the physical body.

“My theory is that sound absolutely affects not only the emotional body, but the physical body. It feels good and it draws me to this place of peace and relaxation. It affects the physical body—the cluster of harmonics, the melody. I think it communicates in a real way toward a person’s being.” Whether you’re conscious or unconscious of it, Kater says healing music has the effect of slowing you down, disabling the stress, and unraveling the layers of protection.

“We have to put up layers in this world to protect ourselves and to not be overwhelmed,” he says. “But those layers are harmful and blocking if you can’t drop them when you have to.” Just as aromatherapy can get past those barriers and create change, so, too, can music. When in the massage room, getting past those layers of protection and touching the client’s core is when the best work can be done.

Kater’s appreciation for integrated medicine even inspired him to become a reiki master along the way. He says he’s been just as interested in the healing arts as he has been in music. “While music has always been an expression of my life, massage, diet, yoga, etc., have been more of my lifestyle.”

Now considered a leader in the therapeutic music genre, Kater says his music is not only to facilitate the experience of the massage client, but the therapist, too. “Like anything else, if I perform at a concert and I’m not really present with myself, then I’m just playing notes, and people are, at best, hearing a pretty song. But if I can get in the moment and come from an essential place inside myself, then people in the audience will have a deep experience as well.”

That’s especially true with bodywork, he says. The more he can help bring therapists back to center, and help them come from a place of wholeness, the more that will impact the people on whom they are working.

Trusting the Process

With close to 60 albums under his belt, thousands of concerts to his credit, and having worked with countless musical talents, Kater is at peace with the journey of his life. “My work today is extremely intuitive,” he says. “Over the last four to five years, I’ve really kind of dropped into the zone. When I’m recording, composing, or in concert, I’ve always told myself not to think, but to trust my creative process. These last few years, that’s become more of a natural thing. I’m playing, discovering, and enjoying all at the same time, and I am trusting my creative, intuitive process.” It’s also his best advice for massage therapists and anyone striving to stay successful in their work. “I need to be in the moment and I try to live in the moment.” He says that includes being present, embracing where he is, allowing people around him to be themselves, and not having any second thoughts about it. That, combined with a simpler lifestyle and philosophy, can breed success.

With a beautiful family that includes wife Gabrielle (a massage therapist by trade) and 4-year-old son Nathan, Grammy nominations and awards of every kind, the honor of performing for presidents and foreign heads of state, and even finding himself on the famed stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Kater is ever mindful of what got him to this place. He says it’s the need and instinct to continually return to the moment, to the self, for no other purpose than to just be there.

“Music has always been an expression of my life,” he explains. “It has always been really personal to me. I never went about making music a business until it became one.” Kater says he tries always to follow his heart and follow his instinct. “The funny thing is, that still works for me. I enjoy the fact that I can do music and that’s my livelihood. That’s a wonderful thing.”

 Karrie Osborn is contributing editor for Massage & Bodywork magazine. Contact her at karrie@abmp.com.