The Musician’s Mindset With Kevin Castro (Pianote Podcast #22)

Kevin Castro  /  Profiles / May 15

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Kevin Castro has officially joined the Pianote team! Kevin will be supporting the community and helping us with lessons. And what better way to introduce him than to invite him onto the Pianote Podcast!

In this episode of the podcast, Kevin and Lisa will discuss the musician’s mindset. Kevin went from barely knowing how to play piano to studying music at the university level in a remarkably short amount of time. Fast forward to today, Kevin has played with some big names, including JESSIA, Sarah McLachlan, and Alessia Cara.

Let’s hear his story. (Quotes may be edited for length and clarity).

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A Late (But Great!) Start

Like many musicians, Kevin initially started piano lessons at a young age. But he soon quit when he won second instead of first place at a competition (out of 30 contestants, so still pretty good!). He remembers the song he played was Backstreet Boys’ “Shape of My Heart,” but the second place prize discouraged Kevin from piano because his sister always took home first place.

Then, Kevin’s dad (who was a jazz pianist) brought home a baby grand piano one day, and this re-ignited Kevin’s interest in the keys. He began tinkering with YouTube tutorials, a very new resource at the time. Eventually, Kevin became interested in going to university for music. “Everyone was like, well, you’re crazy,” he says, recalling the reaction he got when he told people his plans. “You can’t just go if you don’t know how to play the instrument.”

So Kevin did more research. He decided to apply for a jazz school because while his theory knowledge was limited, he knew how to play by ear. Then he spent the three months after high school intensely studying music three hours a day, an hour and a half in the morning and then again at night. In this short amount of time, he went from baby books (like finding Middle C) to learning modes and jazz arrangements. “I ended up challenging myself,” he says. “I wanted to see how far I could get from Ground Zero to auditioning for post-secondary school-level piano.”

🎹 GET MORE PRO TIPS FROM KEVIN: Don’t miss Kevin’s inspiring lesson “5 Styles of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” And make sure you catch our earlier interview with Kevin, where he goes into more detail on landing gigs and teaches a short lesson on re-harmonizing.

Learning In And Out of the Classroom

Kevin successfully applied for an undergraduate program in music, but he was “easily the worst piano player…by far” in his class. He recalls a professor’s warning that, statistically, only two people will graduate with a performance degree, and just one person will graduate on time. 

I wanted to see how far I could get from Ground Zero to auditioning for post-secondary school-level piano.

Kevin Castro

The professor was correct. Only one person would graduate from that program on time, and that was Kevin. “It was a lot of just putting my head down,” he says. As the first person from his family to graduate from a Canadian university, it was “a huge milestone.”

Kevin originally planned to teach with his music degree, but he soon learned that it was possible to make a career playing music.

After a few cold calls, Kevin started landing piano bar gigs. He recalls someone asking him if he could play three hours of music. “I just said yep I’ll do it. And I just forced myself to learn. I think that first gig I ever did, I had to repeat a couple songs.” Despite that, he “made it work.” The piano bar became a place to implement what he learned in his university classrooms.

According to Kevin, “the more I focus on bettering myself as a musician, the less I’ve had to chase opportunities.” At first, he tried not to limit himself by genre, but eventually, people grew to love his Latin style playing. So Kevin became known (and got successful through) his Latin piano work. “I started to get tons of gigs and lots of work,” Kevin says. In fact, after this podcast, Kevin is flying to New York to play at the Tik Tok headquarters. He’s definitely come a long way from studying YouTube tutorials!

Kevin on Motivation 💬

“I think the biggest mistake people make when they want to practice and get better is they really rely on motivation. And what I’ve found is that motivation is the wrong way of looking at it. There are days when you won’t want to go to the gym because you’re just not motivated every day. But I would tell myself…let’s go to the gym, pick up one weight, and then I can go home. Because the thing is, once you show up, you’re gonna finish your work. And even if you do a light workout, that’s fine. You did the workout! And that’s the same thing with practicing. It’s the discipline to show up, even on the days you don’t want to. If you can just find that discipline within you to show up—even just play one song on the piano—a lot of times, that’s going to inspire you to keep going. Motivation comes after the commitment to showing up.”

The Importance of Being a “Good Hang”

When asked how he got to play with so many famous names, Kevin reiterates that he “wasn’t even close to being the best piano player” in his undergraduate class. But, he was “a really friendly guy to hang out with and people liked hanging out with me.” There are skilled musicians who show up, do the job, and then leave. But Kevin will stay after a show, have a drink, and chat with people. Which Kevin believes makes a difference.

Failing and failure are totally different things.

Kevin Castro

Having good rapport is especially important when you’re playing with other musicians. Vocalists “have to have that trust in me,” says Kevin. “At the end of the day, music—at least when you’re improvising—is a conversation. Being a good hang is just as important as being a good musician.”

🎹 Latin Essentials With Kevin Castro

Pianote Members can access Kevin’s six-part Latin jazz course. For a taste of the course before you join Pianote, check out “How to Play the Most Popular Latin Montuno.”


You’re Never Too Old to Start

As Kevin’s story shows, you don’t need to start playing piano the same time you learn how to walk in order to be successful. The oldest student Kevin has taught was in their early 80s. So, Kevin’s first piece of advice to aspiring musicians is that you’re never too old to start.

The more I focus on bettering myself as a musician, the less I’ve had to chase opportunities.

Kevin Castro

Kevin’s next piece of advice: “failing and failure are totally different things.” He believes many piano students bite off more than they can chew and then get dejected. “It’s okay to take that step back and re-evaluate yourself,” he says. “I might fail at something. But the reason I’m not a ‘failure’ is because I keep trying, I keep getting back up. And if you keep doing that, there’s no way you can fail.”

Want to hear Kevin’s opinion on pineapples and pizza, whether he likes country music, and why he prefers playing for 20,000 people rather than five? Listen to this episode of the Pianote Podcast and follow us on Spotify.

It doesn’t matter if you grew up playing music. What matters is that you made a decision that this is what you’re gonna do now.

Lisa Witt in conversation with Kevin Castro

Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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