Erskine Hawkins has done it all. He’s been the music director for Chrisette Michele and Zendaya. He’s toured with Eminem and Rihanna, and he was the first African-American to complete the University of North Texas’ Jazz Piano program.
Yet, when asked what genre he’d pick if he could only do one, Erskine is a church musician at heart. It’s the place where his music makes the most impact, and it was where it all started.
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Compared to many professional piano players, Erskine Hawkins began relatively late.
Erskine originally wanted to play drums, but he was “terrrrrrible” at it (his words, not ours). He waited for an opportunity to play drums at church, but the opportunity rarely came. Then, one day the church music minister persuaded him to play the keyboard behind the band that no one touched.
What you did yesterday matters, but it really doesn’t, so let’s move forward and find the next thing.Erskine Hawkins on a sermon he once heard
The music minister showed him how to play the keyboard a handful of notes at a time. And since it was a small church on an Air Force base, Erskine stepped up to play the keyboard. He was around twelve or thirteen when he started. It was rough at first, he admits, but this was the catalyst for his career.
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Ever since I was, like, in high school, I auditioned for stuff just to see if I could get it.Erskine Hawkins
Because he started playing seriously at a later age, Erskine knew he had some catch-up to do. And he put in the requisite hard work.
Luckily, Erskine’s high school had a piano program. The school’s band director saw that he was passionate about the instrument and encouraged him to practice an hour and a half every morning. Erskine also had piano class every other day and he played church piano on the weekends. He learned classical piano at school, played jazz with the jazz band, and played gospel at church. Young Erskine was marinating in all things piano!
But things didn’t always go smoothly At one point, Erskine auditioned for a regional jazz band and ranked fifth out of five candidates. This was “very depressing” and “humbling,” but he didn’t stop playing. Erskine hustled throughout high school and got into the University of North Texas, where he became the first African-American to graduate from their esteemed jazz program.
For a while, Erskine Hawkins planned on becoming a doctor. He spent some time in high school volunteering at an E.R., but he kept disappearing to the piano at the hospital chapel. The piano called to him.
After university, Erskine drove to New York City because he had learned that many music careers are launched there. He was adamant on leaving despite a snowstorm and his family telling him to wait, a moment he remembers vividly. “Something [was] telling me I need[ed] to go now.” He even remembers the exact date: January 11, 2011.
Erskine said yes to as many Craigslist keyboarding gigs as possible and played a gig the day he arrived at New York. Then, two weeks after coming to the city, he landed a job with Chrisette Michele.
Then, a few years later, Erskine was in L.A. auditioning to play with Zendaya when the music director for Eminem offered him a touring gig. He auditioned for Zendaya anyway (“Ever since I was, like, in high school, I auditioned for stuff just to see if I could get it”). Her manager (Zendaya’s dad) was willing to accommodate his schedule. Not long after becoming Zendaya’s keyboardist, Erskine became her music director.
Despite initial challenges and repeatedly calling his abilities “terrible,” Erskine never gave up on a career in music.
He recalls a sermon he once heard in which he was encouraged not to “build a monument to a moment.” “What you did yesterday matters,” Erskine says, “but it really doesn’t, so let’s move forward and find the next thing.” In other words, he never dwells on any moment in time, whether it be success or failure. There’s always something more to achieve tomorrow.
On favorite genres, “I try to authentically be every style,” Erskine says, but “if I can only play one genre . . . I think I’m more centered in church than any of the rest of it . . . Like, all this that I’m doing is really cool, but the only place where people’s lives are changed is church.”
Be good at your craft when you get your shot. You know, you might only get one of them.Erskine Hawkins
Since the pandemic last year, his touring schedule has calmed down somewhat. These days, he works a full-time job at his church (“I’ve got an office and the whole nine yards!”) with pastor Tony Evans. And when he comes home, he spends quality time with his son and daughter, who can’t fall asleep without him.
Erskine Hawkin’s career was built on ambition, putting himself out there, and good old-fashioned practice. If you’re interested in taking your music to the next level and landing some gigs, Erskine has some useful advice:
From the time he was in high school, Erskine was asking questions about a career in piano. This is easier today thanks to social media. And while not everyone will be willing to talk to you, it doesn’t hurt to ask. It’s likely at least one person will get back to you.
It was through asking questions that Erskine decided with so much conviction to move to New York. (When he talked to gigging musicians, most of them lived in a big city like New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville.)
Next, Erskine recommends all musicians aspiring for gigs to build a repertoire of the top 50 songs in your genre.
This can come in handy when you audition because people tend to ask for certain popular songs as examples of your ability.
I think I’m more centered in church than any of the rest of it . . . Like all this that I’m doing is really cool but the only place where. people’s lives are changed is church.ERskine Hawkins
Finally, there’s no substitute for practice. “Be good at your craft when you get your shot. You know, you might only get one.”
Erskine has achieved an admirable career, but it all started with him learning the piano two notes at a time in church as a pre-teen. He didn’t blossom overnight; rather, he put in a lot of hard work and put himself out there to get more work.
Today, Erskine Hawkins has come back full circle to where it started: playing music for his church community. That’s where he’s happiest, and that’s where he wants to be.
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